There are rhetorical perils to basing an essay or story on a song that one loves dearly. First, you’re never going to reflect the brilliance or compassion or beauty or whatever it is that touches you. The best you can hope for is sharing a story of your own that the song has some resonance with. Second, you run a very high risk of diminishing the song in recounting it. Your oversized affection for it can come across as hagiography, prejudice that precludes acknowledging the song’s or the singer’s faults.
Still, writers are always tempted. The narrative of a song more often than not is the reason: We just want to tell the story, share the message that has meant so much to us. The music itself is important, but honestly I’ve been reading music reviews for decades and I’ve rarely ever been able to understand prosaic translations of any song’s style or sound. No, it’s the message, the story that hooks us writers.
I was riding in my car the other day listening to an old playlist and X’s “See How We Are” came on. I’ve always loved the song since I first heard it a few years after its release in 1987. From its compassionate recounting of the powerlessness of poor and working class Americans, beginning with
“There are men lost in jail/Crowded fifty to a room/There’s too many rats in this cage of a world,”
the song immediately lets you know its politics. I mean, a lot of songs do that, but this not only did it then, but, wow, it really hits the nail on the head for America in 2019.
Given that the catastrophic Clinton Crime Bill wouldn’t be passed until 1994, the chorus of “See How We Are” is practically prescient:
“See how we are/Gotta keep bars in between us/See how we are/We only sing about it once in every twenty years/See how we are/Oh, see how we are”
I’m not giving John Doe and Exene Cervenka credit for that kind of power. I’m just saying that sometimes a song can encapsulate a genuinely insightful point-of-view. In this case, the song’s framing around keeping “bars in between us” and, in the final chorus, “bars in all our windows” resonates incredibly with the over criminalization of African-Americans by our criminal justice system and our de-evolution as a citizenry into hate-filled political “camps” of the so-called “Right” and “Left.” That the rich segregate themselves into gated communities and the rest of us are constantly deluged with stories of rampant criminality among the poor and minorities gives the song’s principal metaphor even more impact across the three decades since its writing.
I’m not going to take this song apart line by line, but the second verse is also worth noting for its obvious assessment of rampant consumerism that rings more true today than it did then:
“Now there are seven kinds of Coke/500 kinds of cigarettes/This freedom of choice in the USA drives everybody crazy/But down in Acapulco/Well, they don’t give a damn/About kids selling Chiclets with no shoes on their feet”
As someone who has worked for a big corporate retail website, I have intimate awareness of what we call the “paradox of choice.” Retailers and manufacturers frequently overwhelm us with different variations of their products or services, which often creates a paralysis for us consumers: There are simply so many choices we’re overwhelmed and either don’t choose or delay it indefinitely. Walk through a barbecue sauce display on your grocery store shelves and see if you don’t freak out a little bit.
Someone may argue that choice is good. Of course, it is, assuming they are legitimately different choices based on consumer needs and not merely corporate greed designed to overwhelm and monopolize a particular market. Take a look at your supermarket shelves and gauge for yourself whether big brands and their multinational conglomerates are trying to help or just profit as much as they humanly can. Then head over to a food desert in a poor area of any American city and judge just how good their choices are.
The reference to “down in Acapulco/Well, they don’t give a damn/About kids selling Chiclets with no shoes on their feet,” almost immediately made me think about Eric Garner, the Staten Island man choked to death by police for allegedly selling single cigarettes out of packs without tax stamps. No, clearly the song isn’t referring to a similar instance of police brutality (and murder) at all; on my part, this is more of a resonant notion that occurred to me when listening to the song in 2019. It’s more of a metaphorical slant rhyme: Here in the U.S., police do give a damn about African-American men selling things on the streets. Here, in the U.S., they kill them. And, of course, American corporations and politicians don’t give two shits about poor kids and adults working for pennies in shitty conditions in impoverished countries like Mexico or Vietnam.
The last verse that really struck me as relevant was this:
“Now that highway’s coming through/So you all gotta move/This bottom rung ain’t no fun at all/‘Cause now fires and rock houses/And grape-flavored rat poison/Are the new trinity/For this so-called community”
Again, there aren’t precise or literal correlations to 2019 America, but that anguished cry “This bottom rung ain’t no fun at all” and the reference to a victimized underclass and the “so-called community” is language that could have been born of the Occupy Wall Street movement begun in 2011. Occupy identified the “one-percenters” as the real manipulators of our economic struggles, and as a result we are routinely reminded – particularly by Bernie Sanders, and now Elizabeth Warren – that a tiny group of billionaires own the same wealth as the bottom 90% of Americans. Yeah, this bottom rung ain’t no fun at all.” That should be a t-shirt or bumper sticker in the current presidential primaries.
As I said at the beginning, you can’t do a song justice in an essay or story. Your affection for it will never translate. In that, I’ve failed like every other writer who has ever tried. But songs have such a strong influence on us emotionally, comforting us when we need it, riling us up when we want to be outraged, and reminding us that the story of humanity does have some genuine beauty to it from the right perspective, with the right music. That’s something we need, and something great songwriters aspire to. Sometimes we non-musicians have to acknowledge that beauty with our limited gifts.
I swear when I heard this song again last week, there were tears in my eyes. There frequently are these days.
“See how we are/Gotta keep bars on all our windows/See how we are/We only sing about it once in every twenty years/See how we are/Oh, see how we are/See how we are/Yeah, see how we are/Oh, see how we are”