When I was in High School, I did pretty well in AP English, but it wasn’t entirely deserved. Much of the class involved reading something and writing an interpretation. Every time our teacher (the extraordinary Doc Taylor) would tell us the correct interpretation of something, I would be stunned. The poem in question didn’t seem to bear any relation to the explanation given. It seemed like no matter what the actual words were, the meaning was something abstract, like “the plight of man versus nature.”
So I convinced myself that I just wasn’t good at interpreting literature and I started making stuff up. It worked pretty well. Maybe literature has whatever meaning it has to the particular reader. Maybe Doc was just being an easy grader. Maybe I’m a good bullshitter. Whatever it was, I came to believe that when it came to interpreting art, any well argumented position was convincing. This even worked at Stanford, where one of my freshman year term papers came back with the comment, “I entirely disagree with your interpretation, but it is well argued. A-.”
Interpretation of modern music, in particular, sometimes goes too far. There’s a line by line interpretation of “Miss American Pie” that I’ve read a couple of times. Yes, we all know it’s about the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and that other dude. But “Chevy to the levy”? That doesn’t mean anything — it’s just a fucking rhyme.
This is all a setup for my own bullshit interpretation of a song. This year, I listened to every single one of my mp3’s (or at least the first 20 seconds of each). Along the way, I discovered a recent Weird Al song that I hadn’t ever heard. It’s a song called “Bob” that’s a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the absurdity of Bob Dylan’s lyrics. It’s all gibberish palindromes. But now I’ll argue that in fact it’s a metaphor for the self-absorption of Americans.
Below are the lyrics with my interpretations inlined. Notice how I completely ignore the fact that every line is a palindrome. It’s almost as though I only realized that half way through writing this.
I, man, am regal — a German am I
This is a commentary on how Americans view their own cultural background. We are culturally homogenous unless we have an opportunity to use our ancestry to make ourselves look better.
Never odd or even
If I had a hi-fi
Commentary on “Keeping up the Joneses” and the arms race for material goods. You won’t be an oddball as long as you have the latest gadgets.
Madam, I’m Adam
Too hot to hoot
No lemons, no melon
Too bad I hid a boot
America’s original sin (taking land from Native Americans) was caused by our own haughtiness. And historically, we diverted attention from this. America (Adam) claimed ignorance of lemons and melons to divert attention from the apple we stole (land) and the boot we hid (specifically, Livingston and Monroe’s attempts to sneak Florida into the Louisiana Purchase.)
Lisa Bonet ate no basil
Warsaw was raw
Was it a car or a cat I saw?
We jump to the excessive 80’s here with the purposely ridiculous suggestion that during the Cold War, our notion of cold-war-time sacrifice was as ridiculous as giving up a particular herb. “Warsaw” is a double-entendre for both the Cold War and how we saw the war. What is both a car and a cat? A Jaguar. While there was a supposed war, we were all buying fancy cars — JagWARs.
Rise to vote, sir
Do geese see God?
A commentary on placing the freedom to vote over the responsibility of actually being an informed voter. We’re all told that voting is important, but we are a flock of geese hoping for a message from above.
Do nine men interpret? Nine men, I nod
The “Nine Men” are the Beatles, whose weirdness culminated with Revolution #9. This is a commentary on our ability to outsource our culture (bringing the Beatles to America) and then ruin it (clearly a reference to Ringo’s solo work).
Rats live on no evil star
Won’t lovers revolt now?
Race fast, safe car
This is all referring to Clinton-era scandal.
Evil star: Kenneth Star
Rat: Linda Tripp, who ratted out Monica Lewinsky
Won’t lovers revolt now?: Hillary’s lack of emotion over the incident
Race: 2000 Election, which was largely about returning “honor” to the office
Safe car: GW Bush. A safe, easily manipulated candidate
Pa’s a sap
Ma is as selfless as I am
May a moody baby doom a yam?
Our destruction of our own environment. Pa’s a sap means that our trees and our environment are the heritage that made us successful. Ma (mother earth) is only as concerned for us as we are for her. Finally, we are reminded of the ease with which a simple lack of caring (a moody baby) can doom the environment.
Ah Satan sees Natasha
No devil lived on
This returns to the Cold War with a look at its eventual end. Russia (Natasha) was personified to us as the devil but once they were no longer a threat to us, they were forgotten.
Not a banana baton
This is referring to the Tylenol scare of 1982 when cyanide was found in a bottle of Tylenol. At the time, it was suggested that fickle Americans would never trust Tylenol as a brand again. The banana baton is simply a reference to Nuprin, a yellow Ibuprofin-based drug used by many athletes for muscle pain.
No x in Nixon
O, stone, be not so
It’s really saying “no ex in Nixon.” In other words, we cannot leave our mistakes behind. Nothing is set in stone.
O Geronimo, no minor ego
Another reference to our treatment of Native Americans and how we dealt with our atrocities by turning a great warrior into a comic book and popular culture character.
Naomi, I moan
A Toyota’s a Toyota
A dog, a panic in a pagoda
Reconciling national pride with wanting high quality affordable foreign goods. Naomi was a character in the bible who later renamed herself Mara, which means “bitter.” We regret the trade deficit and want to buy American, but when it comes down to signing at the dealership, it’s just a Toyota.
Oh, no! Don Ho!
Nurse, I spy gypsies — run!
Now I see bees I won
I think this is actually just gibberish.
We panic in a pew
Hippies versus the religious right. A simple foodstuff (tofu) is so foreign to middle America that they seek shelter in religion.
Oozy rat in a sanitary zoo
The “sanitary zoo” is Washington, DC. The “oozy rats” are our leaders.
God! A red nugget! A fat egg under a dog!
This is about artificial and engineered foods. Chicken nuggets don’t resemble or taste like chicken. Soon companies will be cloning pets, as if a dog could lay an egg.
Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog
We end with a recent example of American absurdity — the low carb craze and its quick abandonment. As quickly as we fell in love with pigging out on meats and fats, we abandoned them and went back to being lasagna hogs.