In an effort to distract myself from something stupid I did recently, I spent the bulk of today’s four-hour drive thinking about one word. Specifically, I thought about the word “isn’t” in the song “A Little Lost” by Arthur Russell. I’ll wait while you listen:
I probably fell first for the melody, the minimal arrangement, and the sort of dissonance between the positive, hopeful tone and the absence the narrator is dealing with. Songs about longing are usually sad (though Björk wrote a notable exception, and I’m sure there are others), but Russell looks past his apprehension about this incipient affair and seems to relish in the insecurity.
Of course I’m only speculating here: this song was first released on a posthumous compilation and Russell only lived to see the limited release of a few full-length albums and various singles, only one of which bore his name. It’s not even clear that he meant for this song to be released, much less analyzed by some navel-gazer in Tennessee. Since his death, of course, several compilations and a documentary have been released to acclaim, but there will always be an air of mystery to this man and his work.
It’s that mystery and ones like it that I’m devoting this entry to.* The verse in question can be heard around the 1:22 mark (punctuation and emphasis mine):
“It’s so unfinished
(our love affair) —
a voice in me
is telling me to
I hope your feelings isn’t diminished;
I hope you need someone in your life
(someone like me).”
The apparent grammatical error is subtle, perhaps even misheard. I’m not sure when I noticed it, but it’s become one of my favorite parts of what I consider to be a perfect song. Russell’s reasons may be simple: “isn’t” might just sound better than the correct “aren’t.” I like to imagine, though, that he chose to condense the plural, complex, and sometimes conflicting feelings of a new love into the singular and all-consuming.
This got me thinking about other mysteries in pop culture: Why did Richie Tenenbaum say he was going to kill himself tomorrow and then immediately slash his wrists? What did Tommy Lee Jones’ dream mean and did anyone ever catch Anton Chigurh? Where did “Someone Great” go? What is John Ashbury talking about? What did Bill Murray say to Scarlett Johansson? Why did J.D. Salinger not publish anything for the last forty-five years of his life? How did Ted cost $65 million to produce?
If artists want to be heard (or seen, or read, or whatever), should they be heard clearly?
Maybe the word “umbrella” is just satisfying to repeat. That would certainly make for a less solipsistic post. It’s a fine line, too — I couldn’t care less about why Jake Gyllenhaal can manipulate time, who the mother is, or what Meat Loaf won’t do. What makes a pop mystery compelling? I’m not really sure. I’m certainly not the first person to say that ambiguity in art allows for the injection of the self. We like a little mystery because we get to play detective and argue with our friends about what’s in Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase, for example. Some artists rely on that ambiguity (a few film directors famously won’t record audio commentary) and it’s easy to see why: they feel that their work should speak for itself.
It’s the complete lack of mystery, however, that infuriates me about the work of, say, Dennis Lehane** or M. Night Shyamalan. Not unlike almost every network procedural, their movies are sealed tight, revealing every character’s motivation and connecting every dot in a way that completely excludes the viewer. Don’t get me started on prequels: Midichlorians ruined the Force. Ridley Scott seems intent on ruining the Space Jockey. Why do some artists insist of imposing one single explanation on what could cause years of over-analysis?
Part of this, I think, is the Internet’s fault. Anyone who has ever cropped a profile photo or deleted a LiveJournal post knows about curating an online persona. This might be a stretch, but the connection I’m making is this: the delusion that a Facebook profile can somehow be an accurate (or even ideal or inscrutable) reflection of a whole human being makes us feel that every human action can be explained away. I’m not innocent here — I’ve shared album streams and raced to be the first to link to breaking news in order to further offer my digital self to 500 some-odd “friends.” I’ve scrolled through my
Wall Timeline, content that friendly passersby would know me within a few clicks.
Before this devolves into that conversation about colors you had in middle school, allow me to point out that Abbas Kiarostami did a much better job of pontificating on the complete and overwhelming unknowability of everyone and everything outside of the self. I suggest that you watch it soon so we can argue about what it all means.
**I’m referring to the various film adaptations of Lehane’s novels, which I can only assume follow their sources pretty faithfully.