OK I’m bored of this now…

This post originally formed part of the Slog Blog

TUESDAY, 22 NOVEMBER 2011

For a while now I’ve heard Paul Simon’s song “You Can Call Me Al” as a sort of eulogy to the mid-life crisis. Maybe it’s just me but I doubt it. Its jovial tune and cheerful delivery belies the slightly darker and more ponderous lines in a way that’s worth looking at. The first verse establishes the opposition quite neatly in its opening few lines:”A man walks down the street
He says why am I soft in the middle now
Why am I soft in the middle
The rest of my life is so hard”Listening to it for the first time, it is the pun on soft and hard which catches our ear. The lyric is designed to contrast the singer’s weak, flabby tissue with an otherwise unforgiving and relentless existence. However, it is the structure of these lines that also paints the picture Simon seeks to convey. By repeating ‘soft in the middle’, Simon lingers over the phrase, pausing in self-examination as if contemplating the spare tyre of middle age on both a physical and emotional level – only to then cut the reflection short with the jarring monosyllables of what the singer feels is his stark reality.Now, if this just sounds like a prize-winning entry for Private Eye’s ‘Pseud’s corner’, please do let me know but, rest assured, I will ask you to tell me why I’m wrong. More importantly, if you’ve ever listened to ‘The Sound of Silence’, you’ll know that this is a guy who isn’t taking his lyrics lightly. But, why the critical analysis of song lyrics?

Apart from the fact that I highly enjoy doing it (and maybe I’ll explain why in my next post), this song also contains two particular lines that caught and still do catch my ear. Using a similar structural composition, Simon sings:

“He says why am I short of attention
Got a short little span of attention”

Again, the repetition draws us to focus on a particular word, in this case ‘attention’. Paradoxically however, what we are being asked to examine is the singer’s own inability to reciprocate similar levels of concentration. Our ‘attention’ is taken for granted – we, the audience, want to hear what this voice in the wilderness is saying – but, the singer himself is seemingly indifferent to most, if not all of his surroundings. Moreover in fact, this is a wilderness that the singer has created for himself. Clearly surrounded by listeners (for what is a song without an audience), the singer laments an isolation that is constructed from an unwillingness to interact with his environment.

That’s not to say that Simon is simply wallowing in self-indulgent narcissism. In fact, this is a song in which the centrality of the singer is prioritized because, to its originator, everything else holds little meaning. For example:

“I need a photo-opportunity,
I want a shot at redemption!
Don’t want to end up a cartoon,
In a cartoon graveyard.”

Here, the juxtaposition of a ‘photo-opportunity’ and ‘redemption’ appears to equate the spiritual with a blatent form of self-promotion and initially the singer genuinely seems to will the two into co-existence. But then Simon introduces the cartoon. By suggesting his fate might be, should he not attain his photo opportunity, that of a comic and, largely frivolous piece of artifice, we are led to believe cartoons are the opposite end of a spiritual scale – one on which the photo shoot is a pinnacle of achievement and the cartoon is the nadir. And yet this is patently false. The photo shoot and cartoon are both prime examples of the constructed image; material artifacts created with little purpose other than aestheticism and/or entertainment. Consequently, Simon implicitly acknowledges that his attempt to wrestle significance into his desires is an act of metaphysical wilfulness. Trying to give life some sort of significance by means of the social conventions you yourself have deemed inadequate is like borrowing more money to pay off a debt – a self-defeating task.

The outside world then, replete with its material trappings, is by and large incapable of delivering fulfilment. As the song progresses we find more objects added to the symbols of earlier disappointment: a family and home that are not or perhaps no longer present, the vanishing role model, and a beerbelly that anchors us once more in a soft middle of failed attempts to drown sorrow. Repeatedly seeking in vain that which by the very nature of his endeavour he cannot hope to attain, the singer flits from object to object, and like the Rolling Stones before him, finds neither satisfaction nor grounding in any of them. In short, Simon’s “short little span of attention” is symptomatic of an awareness that has little to no stake in the surroundings conditioning his existence.

Now, if you have stuck with this essay disguised as a blog this far, well done. You may also be thinking why it took me so long to articulate the basic premise that the singer’s lack of attention in the song is basically rooted in not giving a damn. The reason is that ‘short attention spans’ and ‘not giving a shit’ are often bandied about as illustrations of a (*cringe*) “broken society”, where selfishness is valued over altruism and mass media alongside the omnipresent force of “the internets” have frazzled our brains to a crisp. Maybe that’s true. But what this song – and many other works on the subject of apathy with it – seems to illustrate to me is that not caring comes from a fundamental dissatisfaction with the world around you. Short spans of attention do not reflect or propagate social breakdown, they are symptomatic illustrators of it. And I don’t use the word fundamental lightly; I literally do mean ‘in relation to the fundaments of existence’.

For example, anger and revolution are not born out of apathy. They come from a genuine hope that out of even the most corrupt society, something better can be established. Apathy (and its corresponding short span of attention therefore) is a lamentable admission that here, in this world, there is no redemption. The corruption is so total that, like Milton’s Satan in hell, we reflect on any attempts to ameliorate our society with a grim and all-too cynical despair.

In Simon’s song however, we are eventually granted a reprieve. The song comes to a close on a note of ecstatic, if frugal, optimism as for the third time, we are told of a man who walks down the street. Whether it is the same man that appeared in verses one or two, we aren’t to know; just as the constant interplay of the singer’s first and third person narrative weaves the multiple perspectives of observation and emotion – i.e. Simon’s audience both sees a man walking down a street AND shares the feeling that ‘I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore’. What is clear though, is that by our third encounter, we have a man who “holds no currency”, no appropriate “language” even and is in fact experiencing this as “his first time around”. This complete novelty bestows upon the new man a sense of wonder and spiritual gratitude that cause him to see ‘angels in the architecture’ and rejoice with an ‘Amen! and Hallelujah!’ A possible reading then, and one I entertained, is that here is a man dissatisfied with materialism and who, in a bid for salvation, rids his life of its former trappings in favour of ‘the third world’. Simple, biblical and unfortunately, quite hackneyed. As a literal reading, in fact, I think it just about holds up. Yet the lyrics withstand (and indeed deserve) deeper analysis than what is so patently apparent.

The clearest way to a fuller understanding of this concluding verse is to examine what jars in it. Ending as it does with ‘angels’ and ‘infinity’, it is easy to dismiss or even forget the objects that go before, including:

“Cattle in the marketplace.
Scatterlings and orphanages.”

If this is a relocation to a society in which materialism is absent, a symbol of trade that has existed for millenia seems an odd way to mark it. Equally, observing the homeless and dispossessed only accentuates the fact that our penniless protagonist is once again at the bottom of a portable property food chain – except this time he simply has more company. As such, there would be no real reason to have gained any great attachment other than a passion for novelty which would soon wear as thin and fleeting as before. For these reasons, it is more convincing to argue for a relocation or readjustment of perspective over simple location. Thus, it is the ambiguity of the lines, “Maybe it’s the Third World. / Maybe it’s his first time around” that implies a dynamic metaphoricity to the verse as a whole. By introducing a qualifying possibility, Simon suggests his protagonist’s novelty of place is instead a new way of imagining and incorporating his surroundings. Refreshing his perspective, the singer is free to care about the things that previously excited little to no interest at all.

And the thing that triggers this renewed perspective? It’s been staring the audience in the face all along. As the soundtrack for a film called The Bodyguard, the song’s only really about one thing – caring for someone else:

If you’ll be my bodyguard,
I can be your long lost pal!

With the chorus gently plodding in and out of the verses’ narrative the two build to form a cohesive and hopeful redemption. The singer’s mid-life crisis and crippled attention span are saved by one thing and one thing only: a genuine reason to care about anything. And its in this which I suppose I would (somewhat reluctantly) like to anchor my point about “society”. We can’t ask people to care, without them having something to care about.

Dodgson.

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