I used to joke with my mother about the cruelty of nature in that she did not pass down to me her extraordinarily gorgeous singing voice, which is a shame because I could really belt it out if I had pipes like hers. Well, I actually do belt it out sometimes, but typically this is when no living human is within range of the sounds coming from my throat. OK, it’s probably not as bad as I make it out to be (unless it really is), but it’s definitely cringeworthy. And that’s a double shame because there’s something about singing to touch the human soul, and when the right voice comes along, it’s just like magic.
As a non-musician, non-mathemetician and non-psychiatrist–that is to say knowing little or less about things such as pitch, mathematics and brain chemistry–I’d say there is probably some related explanation for the way music and voice so profoundly affects humans. In my ignorance I can only express there are some voices, songs or music that go to a place deep in my being, sometimes making my heart swell, and perhaps coloring my aura with some serotonin-like substance. Some music can make me weep, or it can provide comfort as I sing along in that it expels a lot of negative energy. It could, too, be positive energy, and those powerhouse sessions release feel-good emotions to keep from exploding out of sheer joy.
Timing plays a part as well: having emerged from a series of personal setbacks and moving back towards what most people refer to as “normalcy,” I feel as if I am coming alive again, which truly is a fabulous sensation. In this state many ordinary events or occurrences in any given day can feel exhilarating, or I record mental notations about lots of small things I was way too stressed out before to think about. Song lyrics and how they are sung have been a constant lately, and it’s been gratifying and wonderful to feel myself drifting back toward my natural bent as I pay attention to words and what they mean in general or to me in particular.
For some time now I’ve been pulling out a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers CD I’ve had for years that acted, when I did play it, as background music. I don’t know what made me choose it that first time in this recent chunk of life, why it wasn’t some other particular CD. I’d certainly been devoted to other bands or singers far more than Petty, and in fact never really knew much about him. Suddenly knowing all I didn’t know was a small jolt in my electricity, and I couldn’t stop listening to the CD. I played it so much that I deliberately started listening for something deeper, wondering if there was something there that had previously penetrated my being and lay dormant, waiting for freedom once more.
I realized Tom Petty sings about relationships of all kinds, which every one of us have. His song narrators or subjects are laid-back, somewhat humble though with a tendency to feel sure of what really matters. They struggle with disappointment, but are strong, or at least determined to be, which, if a person is lucky, is half the battle. Perhaps they become who they are because they are willing to take risks, despite the dangers. Their awareness that life is filled with minefields doesn’t stop them from walking through them, and they seem to know that to get to the other side they have to take on a few scars. However, these people are anything but passively accepting: there is nothing that says they can’t try to escape the worst of the shrapnel, and sometimes they manage to do.
Any child who has ever chosen this person over that one to tell them a story possesses a profound understanding that it matters: anyone can say the words; it’s the life flow and awareness of how things operate (even under the law of “it just is”) that they recognize in someone with the methods that reach deep inside and plant the narrative that settles in and grows. The roots of Tom Petty’s telling reach deep inside, turning up the soil in order to re-work our understanding of the events he relates. Every word he sings, every background phrase or discourse marker and musical sound is a step across the minefield, tripping across metallic uproots that nevertheless bring us, along with his protagonists, closer to freedom on the other side.
“American Girl” opens with lyrics that express disappointment and its flip side: the promise of what lay in the future.
Well she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinking that
There was a little more to life
After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to
Yeah and if she had to die tryin’
She had one little promise she was gonna keep
The idea of promise, mentioned on both ends of this stanza, expresses both what the girl remembers in her past, which isn’t necessarily negative, and what more she hopes for. Prepared to do all it takes to see what else life holds in this big world she wants to explore, the girl is bound and determined to keep the dream alive through the night. Nighttime itself is reflective of long periods of endurance through which people long for the safety of dawn; in ancient Persian tradition people gathered together on the longest yet most auspicious night of the year to await the birth of Mithra, signifier of light and truth.
The contradictory nature of this event is reflected in the girl’s circumstances: her life may have been good, but she desires more. Promises made to her could have been kept and so represent the past, but they also point towards the future. In order to live, she is willing to die. She determines to see through the night in order to experience the day.
These events that seem to be at odds with each other also mirror the world around her, not merely her internal landscape. During a cold night she stands on the balcony, the highway traffic evoking associations with waves crashing on a beach. It is telling that two so oppositional environments might be compared: a highway, man-made, and a beach, formed by nature’s own corridor through geography. In such a description it is possible to imagine that the two may not be so different; after all, are they not both pathways to somewhere else? The sound they both make resonates to her experience and she copes with a rising memory, that of someone she apparently once knew.
And for one desperate moment there
He crept back in her memory
God it’s so painful
Something that’s so close
And still so far out of reach
It is perhaps not difficult, especially in our current societal conditions that easily demonize men, to take the easy way out and assume this is the memory of someone the girl once knew and who treated her poorly. While this certainly is a possibility, it also could be that the two loved each other and he died, or that she had an attachment to a boy unaware of her feelings. Any of these prospects match the agony of being so close to something or someone who is nevertheless in another orbit, and it is in this moment that Petty best captures the awfulness of how this might feel. The teeth-clenching cry of despair escapes as his speaker shifts from omniscient but neutral teller of events to the one wholly involved in the circumstances unfolding as the song progresses, and the reach inside is one that could release despair in one short, blunt vocal reverberation that signifies her movement in one direction or another.
But what of that one desperate moment? Is it desperation owing to her memory of him, a memory that pulls her back away from her dream to move forward and see more? Or is it because her reach to him is unachievable? Within life’s contrasts, it might be there is a pull and a push within her, desire and fear, that keeps her standing on a balcony, a location that provides a sweeping view of the world laid out in front of her, but one that doesn’t actually go anywhere. Will she decide to take that great chance forward?
As the song’s bridge winds around our senses and the song fades, the American girl standing on a balcony ponders her choices, and decides what to do.
While “American Girl” is an old and familiar song, others such as “The Waiting” were less so to me, and I had to listen a few times before I understood the lyrics, although the tune swept me straight away–along with vocals that caught me in the grip of an enthusiasm borne of waiting a long while for a great reward. One line I heard from the beginning–perhaps the one that made me love this song as much as I do–matched perfectly something I experience at times: the energy coursing through me, driving me to really live life, as opposed to merely existing within it, an energy gifted to me by the match with someone else’s, a person who, whether they be parent, child, lover, friend or sibling, a reward that comes once in a great while. But so very huge when it does. And Tom Petty’s driving vocals at this line completely match the strength of joy I feel when I experience that mood:
But never as good as I feel right now
Baby, you’re the only one that’s ever known how
To make me wanna live like I wanna live now
The chorus is like encouragement to get us through the more mundane parts of life, someone getting our backs (“I’ll be your breathing heart/I’ll be your crying fool”) during the waiting until another magical moment might come. This is the enchantment I spoke of earlier, and Tom Petty gifts it to us beautifully.
Perhaps the idea of a road trip or driving is one of the more standard postmodern techniques to symbolize the progression of life, although “Runnin’ Down a Dream” breaks down that stereotype with jaunts down side streets to break up the monotony. Here the narrator speeds down a road bathed by sunshine as the radio blares out the song “Little Runaway.” On the road “goin’ wherever it leads” indicates a wanderlust, lack of any–or at least an immediate–deadline and willingness to tentatively aim for one route but end up going another. Somewhere, down some road, there is something awesome.
The sense of exhilaration doesn’t seem to leave the driver easily, as some days pass while he is on the road–the sun beating down on at least one day, followed by three more of pouring rain, which still doesn’t dampen his spirits: “I felt so good, like anything was possible.”
This willingness to take it as it comes continues through different weather, days and nights, and even the sensation that the dream he is chasing “would never come to me.” Still he keeps on, sometimes going faster to catch what may be ahead, lest it make its departure before he can arrive: “There’s something good waitin’ down this road.” It reflects the sense of urgency sometimes felt at times of change or transition, when a person seems to want to fly through time to get to something they don’t know, but that must be simply wonderful.
Aside from the driving motif, telling is that Petty’s narrator is alone–indicative of self-reliance and willingness to go somewhere new without the comforting presence of another, and comfort with his own judgment. Accompanying him is an energetic guitar and ooohh oooohhs, lending an energy that drives someone to consider a mystery ahead in life as a positive future rather than frightening one.
Combined together, it could be intriguing to learn whether the waiting endured by the American girl leads her down a road of adventure. We may never find out, but the journey with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers would be an ongoing mystery in which we already know more of something good awaits us.