As a songwriter no matter what your intent may be, the listener ultimately makes the call. They write their own movie, their own play, their own experience. For me the greatest songs allow the greatest room for interpretation. Of course, if you’re too vague it becomes impersonal, insincere, and that’s a fine line. When the balance is right, the experience is more than rewarding; it’s pure and healing.
The older we get, the more we become slaves to the uncertainties of life. All that stuff we thought we knew, we barely understand. Dylan summed it up beautifully in ‘My Back Pages’: “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
The ambiguity in great lyrics gives us, as listeners, freedom to discover. Our mood that day will most likely determine what we feel in a song, but sometimes even if we’ve heard it hundreds of times we’ll find something we never knew was there. Is the Fleetwood Mac song ‘Gypsy’ empowering, or a sad reflection on disappointment and loss? Does it matter if ‘There She Goes’ is about heroin or a girl? Remember that scene in ‘Meet The Parents’ (2000) when Robert DeNiro and Ben Stiller discuss ‘Puff The Magic Dragon’? Stiller says it’s about smoking weed, DeNiro responds, “Puff’s just the name of the boy’s magical dragon.”
I was driving back from a gig the other night and I had the urge to listen to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born In The USA’. Many describe it as a misunderstood political protest song and when Republican President Ronald Reagan used it in his campaign for reelection, Springsteen, a lifelong Democrat, stopped playing it live. You only need to look at those unforgettable opening lines, ‘Born in a dead man’s town / The first kick I took was when I hit the ground’, and you can hardly blame him. The undeniable discontent and disillusionment running through the song’s veins is as pertinent now as ever. The world around us is full of despair, chaos, disparity, where every dream we once held as truth becomes, in the words of Paul Simon, “driven to its knees”. And on days like these we’re the young American in ‘Born in the USA’ who goes out to fight, “the yellow man”, seduced by a dream that turned out to be a lie, returning home brother-less, unwanted, with “nowhere to run and nowhere to go”.
Yet one person’s disillusionment is another’s affirmation. While it’s easy to mock the Reagan campaign’s shortsightedness, we can’t ignore the elephant in the room. You only need to listen to that chorus: “Born in the USA, I was born in the USA…”
If it’s a protest song, it’s a patriotic one; as proud as it is ashamed. It may be Anti-America, but it isn’t anti-American. Forget irony a minute. If shouting “born in the USA” at the top of your lungs is not in some ways an uplifting celebration of national identity, Trump isn’t president. For many the song was simply about being an American, warts and all and glad as hell.
However lost our subject is, I’m always drawn to how the movie ends. Springsteen leaves us with the line, “I’m a cool rocking daddy in the USA”. It’s something far more complex than irony, it’s the purest of ambivalence. There’s hope. Maybe not enough to mend our brokenness, but at the very least wrap it in ice and reduce the swelling. Our dreams may be crushed, our lives fractured beyond repair, but there’s always something in our souls that keeps us rocking. What Morrissey refers to as the “light that never goes out”; and what the late Leonard Cohen called “the crack in everything… where the light gets in.” That fragile balance between the “long gone Daddy” and the “cool rocking Daddy” is both Springsteen’s America, and more than that, the ambivalence and ambiguity of what it means to be alive.
Great songs give listeners the courage to write their own endings. They could be happily ever after, they could be Romeo & Juliet. They keep us guessing. Keep us searching. Keep us human.
Find out more about Norwich band Morganway on their social media. Check out Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SoundCloud, and YouTube, as well as their official website. Their new EP, ‘Hurricane’, is available now from Bandcamp.