|Talking Heads sing of buildings, food, and other topics|
Boy, it's amazing the connections you can find in pop culture without even searching for them. You simply experience various works as they come into your life, either by choice or happenstance, and themes emerge and reveal themselves to you. Take a few steps back and -- whaddya know -- the individual tiles form a larger mosaic. Today, I had such a revelation while listening to some early Talking Heads songs from the late 1970s. The band's lead singer and chief songwriter, David Byrne, has gone through many phases and stages as a lyricist. One hallmark of his early work is a kind of stoic, matter-of-fact plainness. Another is his interest in unromantic, workaday topics and prosaic sentiments which rarely get expressed through music. While other groups were singing about love, politics, injustice, and grand passions, Talking Heads were (quite literally) performing songs about buildings and food. I can still remember the first time I heard "Don't Worry About the Government," a track from their debut album, Talking Heads: 77. It blew my mind as a teenager because it completely expanded my definition of what a song could be or what lyrics could be. Here, give it a listen:
|Somehow, I'm not buying it.|
|More Songs About Buildings and Food|
Musically, the song is very different from "Don't Worry." Instead of being buoyant and poppy, "The Big Country" is languid and laconic, with a country-ish twang to the guitars. But as with the earlier song, the lyrics here are very plainspoken and only barely rhyme. In the first verse, our narrator simply describes what he sees out the window of the plane:
I see the shapes,
I remember from maps.
I see the shoreline.
I see the whitecaps.
A baseball diamond, nice weather down there.
I see the school and the houses where the kids are.
Places to park by the fac'tries and buildings.
Restaurants and bars for later in the evening.
Then we come to the farmlands, and the undeveloped areas.
And I have learned how these things work together.
I see the parkway that passes through them all.
So far, so neutral. (Apart from the vague, almost mechanical "nice weather down there.") It seems that he is describing either a suburban or rural part of the American landscape, since there are "undeveloped areas" near the houses, factories, baseball diamond, etc. The community is tethered to society by means of the parkway. But then, there's a transitional line leading into the chorus:
And I have learned how to look at these things and I say,
This lets us know that our man on the plane has developed a worldview and is about to deliver it to us. We know what he's seeing, and soon we'll know what he thinks about it. That's when David Byrne drops the nuclear bomb on the listener:
I wouldn't live there if you paid me.
I couldn't live like that, no siree!
I couldn't do the things the way those people do.
I couldn't live there if you paid me to.
These bitter lines should jolt the listener. The scenery he'd been describing up to that point was quite ordinary, probably like the places where most of us live, but his reaction to it is utter contempt. It should be noted that Byrne sings these lines the way he sings the rest of the song, i.e. sounding bored and mildly peeved rather than truly angry. It seems probable that this man is traveling alone and only thinking these things rather than saying them aloud. With the second verse, Byrne further damns this place and the people in it with faint praise:
I guess it's healthy, I guess the air is clean.
I guess those people have fun with their neighbors and friends.
Look at that kitchen and all of that food.
Look at them eat it. I guess it tastes real good.
That repeated phrase "I guess" negates any real positivity one might construe from these words. It's what you say when you are reluctantly agreeing to something but are not truly convinced by it. He begrudgingly notes the area's lack of air pollution -- another clue that our narrator is likely a city dweller -- and admits that the residents (whom he pointedly refers to as "those people," separating them from himself) might be having "fun," but he wants no part of it. The two lines about the kitchen and the food demonstrate that some of what the man is "seeing" is merely in his mind. He would not be able to actually see these things from the vantage point of the plane. He goes back to making flat, factual observations about food distribution and how the undeveloped areas, the businesses, and the private homes form one big food chain:
They grow it in the farmlands
And they take it to the stores
They put it in the car trunk
And they bring it back home
And I say...
Then he repeats the brutal chorus. The final verse is perhaps the most cryptically revealing and, therefore, the most interesting. So far, all we know of this strange man is that he is observing a world which is literally (and in his mind, figuratively) beneath him. But now Byrne gives us some insight into the narrator's opinion of his own station in life:
I'm tired of looking out the windows of the airplane
I'm tired of traveling, I want to be somewhere.
It's not even worth talking
About those people down there.
|David Byrne, social critic?|
|Hudson & Landry|
I guess I'm writing about all this stuff because I've never been quite comfortable in "normal" society and do tend to isolate myself at times, as much as I attempt to avoid doing so. But sometimes I do look at regular, average people and can't help thinking, "I couldn't live like that."
But I'm trying to "live like that" anyway. Wish me luck.