Are you one of the many people who struggle to understand metaphor; especially the meaning behind words or phrases used in movies, books, poetry or songs? Don’t feel bad if you are because it’s really tricky trying to analyse and make social comment on things you could be totally wrong about. Maybe this is why people dislike doing book and song reviews?
Reading, listening to and associating across different areas is a way to grow your mind, your experience and your understanding of the world. We probably all accept that reading the classics is valuable (see my book review on A Thomas Jefferson Education) and helps people solve their own problems by reading how others solved theirs.
How about listening to and reading classic songs? Songs are so very rich in emotion and teaching. I often find myself wondering what led the song writer to put particular words together….especially when the meaning is so obscure. Songs and music are also great lead-into-something-else activities: boppy songs for housework, sad songs for when you need to cry, romantic songs for candle-lit dinners.
As a way to help myself think deeply about what I am reading, and to do book reviews, I warm up by thinking about the metaphorical meaning hidden within song lyrics. Let’s look at analysing and reading some of the metaphor in one of my favourite songs:
The day the music died, by Don McLean.
A tribute to Buddy Holly and a lament to the loss of danceable rock and roll music following Holly’s death, American Pie is essentially a Folk Song turned popular music.
Folk music represents the movement of the people – their collective struggle and citizenship pride (American Pie’s reference, in a voice that came from you and me, refers directly to the Folk movement). Tracing a period in time from the mid 1950’s through to the early 1970’s American Pie makes political and musical comment on things that were shaping American life and history and that shaped Don McLean’s life.
The era in which McLean wrote American Pie (early 1970’s) was characterised with the Vietnam war, corruption, and rather public death and national grief thanks to the introduction of telecasting technology in most homes.
Folk songs of that time capture the conflict and changing values at an international level. Globalisation and its reach were clear in the lyrics of the major folk singers of the time (Joplin and Dylan are both referred to in the American Pie). In contrast, McLean’s title directed itself to national pride and all things pure and American (Miss America Pie). However, his lyrics are an acerbic taste of ongoing change and forward movement into the unknown darkness of globalization that would end.
McLean’s lyrics tell a linear story “of America during the idealized 1950s and the bleaker 1960s,” and how McLean was affected. His words are chosen as time anchors of popular culture, music and news to derive meaning and create interpretation (Gocsik 2004). Metaphorically, McLean uses lines from popular songs, speeches and political occurrences to create a successful melody of National errors. Further, McLean locates his own developmental milestones into the lyrics to personalize and folk the song up.
As a song of history and a social comment on a changing America and world, the song works brilliantly in my opinion. However, in the words of Delaurenti, “I reserve the right to be utterly wrong.”
The following select lines (in bold italics) and their analyses have been accepted as correct given their repeated use. However, it is noted that Don McLean has made little comment on the analysis of the song, past confirming its muse was the death of Buddy Holly and assignation of President Kennedy and that it is a funeral oration for the end of an era of political and civil turbulence.
With every paper I’d deliver: McLean’s job besides being a full-time singer-songwriter was paper-boy.
The day the music died, and, the three men I admire most The Father Son and Holy Ghost: The plane crash that killed Buddy Holly also took Richie Valens (“La Bamba”) and The Big Bopper (“Chantilly Lace”). Since all three were so prominent at the time, February 3, 1959 became known as “The Day The Music Died”.
Bye bye Miss American Pie: Miss American Pie is a metaphor for rock and roll music. It is also unconfirmed that McLean dated a Miss America candidate during the pageant and that he is making comment on their relationship breakup due to social differences.
This’ll be the day that I die: One of Holly’s hits was “That’ll be the Day”; McLean’s chorus states, “That’ll be the day that I die”
Now do you believe in rock ‘n roll: A hit in 1965, “Do you Believe in Magic?” has the lines: “Do you believe in magic/it’s like trying to tell a stranger ’bout rock and roll.”
For a full analysis and social commentary on the song references see Kulawiec, 2000.
Delaurenti, C Writing. Accessed on 4.10.10
Don McLean Online. The Official Website of Don McLean and American Pie. Accessed 4.10.10
Fredrick, R. (2009) Notes on Songwriting. RobinFrederick.com Accessed 4.10.10
Gocsik, K. (2004) Writing the Music Paper. Institute for Writing and Rhetoric. Accessed on 4.10.10
Kulawiec, R (2000) American Pie by Don McLean. The Fifties Web – Your Retro 50s, 60s and 70s Source. Accessed on 4.10.10
UltimateSongwriting.com. Lyric Writing – How to Write Better Lyrics. Accessed on 4.10.10