Thursday, January 15, 2009

Short People

I am co-teaching a course right now on “Religion, Media, and Youth Culture. In class the other day, my co-instructor Dr. Stogner played several songs by Randy Newman and illustrated their complicated history of interpretation. He noted that, for instance, the songs "I'ts Money That I Love" and "Short People" were highly criticized due to the surface meanings of the songs. "I'ts Money That I Love" extols the virtues of money above all else – above religion, above compassion, above people. "Short People" suggests that "Short people got no reason to live." Being rather tall myself, I must confess that I am not personally offended by this song. (Although, since I live in a house full of short people, I suppose I could be offended on their behalf, but frankly I can't really muster up the energy to do it.)

What Dr. Stogner argued was that the outcry and even anger over these songs resulted from a fundamental misunderstanding of their true message. Is it possible that "I'ts Money That I Love", despite its glowing adoration of cash and bulging savings accounts, is really a harsh critique of a view of life that confines meaning and value to the acquiring of wealth? Is it possible that when Newman laments the existence of short people that he is really highlighting the intrinsic illogic of racism and bigotry? Yes, it’s possible and it’s an aspect of the distinction that scholars would draw between "text" and "subtext."

The wide cultural misinterpretation of these songs is, unfortunately, nothing new in popular culture. There is a long history of people misidentifying the meaning of pop cultural texts (songs, film, TV, etc.). There are many reasons for this. Sometimes it is because we don't know how to interpret a media text. Often we rely solely on the surface level and don't probe deep enough (as in the case with the Newman songs), though sometimes we don't even do a very good job of interpreting the surface. I'm reminded of Bruce Springsteen's song "Born in the USA," which became the unofficial slogan of the Reagan campaign team because of its strong patriotic message ("I'm born in the USA. Woo hoo!"). The problem was that Reagan's campaign manager never actually bothered to listen to the lyrics very closely, words like:

I got in a little hometown jam
And so they put a rifle in my hands
Sent me off to Vietnam
To go and kill the yellow man

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says "Son if it was up to me"
I go down to see the V.A. man
He said "Son don't you understand"

"Born in the USA" is not a patriotic song; it's a protest song. The message was missed because people didn't listen closely enough.

Such misinterpretations also happen because people don't pay enough attention to genre and methods of communication. Doing so is to realize that many types of media texts deliberately communicate on multiple levels and sometimes those levels, as in the case of satire, intentionally contradict each other. In other words, maybe we need to realize that popular culture might just be smarter than we have traditionally given it credit for.


At 11:29 PM, Blogger Joey said...


Nice blog! I check often for new posts, which are always worth my time.

This post reminds me of something that happened during a Sting concert that I attended many years ago. A quite famous TV evangelist had criticized The Police's song, "Murder By Numbers", declaring it to be thoroughly of the Devil, and Sting introduced his performance of the song with a dramatic quotation of the evangelist's harsh and disapproving words. Since the news of a sex scandal involving said evangelist had just erupted in the news, Sting took the opportunity to give the preacher the bird throughout the entirety of the song.

Real understanding is hard work, but it's definitely worth the effort!

At 1:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a interesting blog. I never really ever give much thought to what a song might be saying. I just liked the music! Seems like I may have to take a course in media and morality.

At 3:21 PM, Anonymous Jon Rokowski said...

Going off all of what you said and what we discussed in class, i figured i would share what I tend to do with music. When listening to music, it is sometimes impossible to know what the artist means and is trying to portray to the listeners. For example, there are so many songs that I listen to that talk about love... the problem is that I can't tell whether the artist is referring to loving God or a girl. As a Christian, I tend to hear things that if referring to God, are very challenging and worthwhile statements. Although I don't know the true meaning (as meant by the artist), I still get a lot out of it, simply because of the thoughts it sparked in my own mind. Unfortunately, this same thing can happen (just like the money song) and an artist who may have meant something positive gets accused of something very negative.

At 6:42 PM, Blogger Greg said...

Yes. It is part of the nature of music, which is a form of poetry, that it works on multiple levels. With music, as with poetry, this is deliberately so. Consequently, what the author intended it to mean is a vital question to ask and very important, but the author's intention is not necessarily the only viable meaning with poetry.


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