Interpretations

Yeah, I hope nobody’s been reading this and dying for me to post, because it’s not gonna be much more frequent than it’s been, sorry to say.

But it also won’t be never again. I just haven’t had the time to write (non-volleyball) lately, much less write about writing. But I’ve got a topic I’m burning about right now.

That topic, as is the title, is interpretations. Here’s one my very favourite songs in the whole wide world:

Classic. According to Wikipedia, songwriter Roland Orzabal said that he’d heard people say that they thought the song was about primal scream theory, but that it’s actually about political protest.

Hang on, hold the phone.

Who is Orzabal to decide what the song is and is not about?

This may come across controversial, I don’t know. But I don’t think artists get to decide the one and only “correct” meaning for their works. Art, in all forms, means different things to different people. How is one any more correct than another? Orzabal can say political protest is his intended meaning for the song, and the way he himself would interpret it, but the simple fact that he wrote the song doesn’t in my mind give him licence to say what a right and wrong interpretation are. How can there be a wrong interpretation? That’s kinda what ‘interpretation’ means, figuring something out. And that ‘something’ will always be specific to the person doing the figuring.

Another band I like is Seether (vastly different genre). On the interview for their One Cold Night acoustic concert DVD, interviewer Pierre Robert asked Seether’s principal (only?) songwriter Shaun Morgan about this, and I love Shaun’s answer. He says he hates to reveal what his songs are “really” about (he even seemed to give the verbal scare quotes when saying those words), because, yes, they mean different things to different people.

But he also had a secondary reason that just blew my mind.

“What if my answer sucks?”

Man, that takes some humility, to admit that’s even possible. He doesn’t want to risk ruining a song that could have great meaning to someone by telling them that he really wrote it about nothing, or something mundane or even disgusting.

My philosophy is that a song, a movie, a play, a painting, a poem, a book….they’re all things that exist. Someone acted as a conduit to be able to bring them to the masses (maybe this sounds incredibly snooty, but I often feel like I’m “discovering” my stories rather than actively creating them), but that doesn’t mean they know anything more about them than anyone else.

I’m aware there’s a flip side to this. The first movie I’m ever going to shoot, a short called The House Call, potentially lends itself to a virulently misandrist (anti-men) interpretation. And that’s not what I’m going for at all. But I think that’s a risk I have to take when putting it out there. Somebody might see the short and hate it, thinking I hate men. They’re wrong about me hating men and I’d be disappointed if that’s what they took from the short, but it can’t really go much further than that. It would be what the film meant to that person. And maybe I’d lose somebody. But hopefully it would never be more than a minority opinion.

So I hope authors, singers, playwrights, poets, screenwriters, painters, sculptors, etc everywhere create wonderful thought-provoking art. And then don’t ruin it by telling everyone what it’s “really” about.

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3 thoughts on “Interpretations

  1. I apologize in advance for the amount of time and space it will take for me to get to the point.

    A few words about one of my favorite bands: Sol Invictus. (“Unconquered Sun” in Latin.) One of the seminal artists of the not-very-well-known neofolk genre. They’re based in England but they’re no strangers to the European mainland. The central figure is Tony Wakeford, who works with a fluctuating roster of other musicians. Not to trivialize those folks’ involvement, but it really is Tony’s band; he calls the shots and he writes the vast majority of the material.

    Now, here’s something else about Mr. Wakeford. Sometime in the 1980s, when he was going through what he has called a “self-destructive” period (yeah, okay, drugs), he became a member of the British National Front, a far-right-wing political party with a heavy focus on keeping Great Britain a whites-only country. Wakeford found some of their less dickish ideals appealing, but after less than a year he came to his senses, realized he had joined forces with a bunch of pathetic assholes, left, and started Sol Invictus. In his last public statement on the matter, more than two decades after the fact, he stated in very plain English that joining the National Front was the worst decision he ever made.

    That should be enough for most people, and perhaps it would be if Tony Wakeford and Sol Invictus were household names. But Google the appropriate terms and you’ll find all sorts of rubbish about SI being a “white power” band and Wakeford being a Nazi…not just a right-wing extremist but a capital N Nazi. Other “Old Europe” neofolk artists such as Sonne Hagal, Fire + Ice, and Darkwood like to use runes and militaristic imagery, which can be willfully misinterpreted as further “proof” that the whole genre is a neo-Nazi cesspool. It kind of reminds me of how heavy metal was routinely equated with Satanism in the 1980s, but since neofolk is a much more niche genre and since racism is a much more legitimate concern, it’s worse.

    Not long ago, I did this thing where I compiled a list of album covers, attached a YouTube link and a few (VERY few, in some cases) words to each one, then sent it off to some friends as a way of recommending some music and proudly proclaiming my preference for physical albums over downloads. In the entry for Sonne Hagal’s “Jordansfrost” I reproduced a very blunt anti-Nazi statement from their MySpace page and lamented the fact that these guys had to go *out of their way* to make such a declaration simply because of the music they play and a small number of the people associated with it. (Probably doesn’t help that they’re from Germany.)

    And this finally* brings me to, at least, the general neighborhood of your point about artists being able to dictate what their art “means.” In some situations, I think it is appropriate for artists to tell people that their interpretations are just flat-out wrong. If one were so inclined, one could read the lyrics to the Sol Invictus song “Against the Modern World” and easily see a tirade against the evils of multiculturalism, but it wouldn’t change the fact that Tony Wakeford has been disavowing such malarkey for many years.

    This is, of course, an outlier situation. I rather doubt Roland Orzabal or Shaun Morgan or ten thousand other songwriters will ever have their work cast in this kind of light. My point (?) is, when character judgment of this severity is going on, I think the artist is fully entitled to step up and say, in no uncertain terms, what a song or a story or an image “means”…or, at least, what it does *not* mean.

    I guess it’s fair to say that my stance on this subject is a lot different from yours. I think of the artist as the foremost authority on their art, unless they willingly waive that privilege. Knowing only what you’ve said here about “The House Call,” I think it’s great that you’re willing to take that risk, but I sure hope there doesn’t come a point where you enter “Aly Edge” into Google and have “hates men” get filled in automatically.

    And it’s also fair to say that when I express concern that my response is going to be “tangential to the point of irrelevance,” I’m not kidding.

    *For every word I actually posted, I wrote and deleted three others. This is why it takes me so long to write things.

    • Thoughtful post, and I thank you for it. I wonder, if in the situation you describe, is it more people reacting to the artist than the art? I would also wonder what leads him to create art that lends itself to such frustratingly wrong interpretations so easily. No topic should ever be verboten, but I do think there comes a time when you’ve got to accept a certain level of criticism as par for the course. Mickey Rooney has expressed a measure of regret for his wildly racist portrayal of a character in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ but if he goes back to that well (Asian stereotyping) he’s ripe for further complaints. No matter how much he repudiates racism.

      And I’d love for google to auto-complete something about my name. It would mean enough people know my work for that to be a thing!

      • Oh yeah, I’m sure the “Tony Wakeford is a Nazi” people know almost nothing about him other than this one dark stain on his past. Most of them probably know he fronts a band called Sol Invictus but couldn’t name three Sol Invictus songs if their lives depended on it, and so their interpretations of the material aren’t even an issue. When I singled out “Against the Modern World” as an example, I was thinking more of the people who would be attracted to a message such as I described. Sadly, there are a few such fans (and artists) polluting the neofolk genre for the rest of us. (In 2002, Sol Invictus released a jazz-influenced album called “Thrones,” after which Wakeford received some angry inquiries as to why he was suddenly playing “negro music.”)

        I look forward to seeing what Google auto-complete may yet have in store for you.

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