Monday, September 5, 2011

The real meaning behind Toto's 'Africa'

    Pop songs are meant to be popular. In every era of music, you could say that there was a formula to making a song that would be a 'hit'. The record companies knew this, and that's why you hear so many similar sounding songs from any given year. If a new style or new 'sound' is becoming popular, replacing the one from last year, there is a mad rush to capitalize on the fad for as long as it lasts, until the next fad comes along. I say this because it seems like this is where non-sensical lyrics come into play most often. They focus on creating the song as quickly as possible, and what's most important for radio play is how the song sounds as a product, not necessarily the words and meaning behind them. In some eras, these fads were started by artists who through their originality changed the taste of the music consuming population. In other eras the fad was a well thought-out plan, a business model for creating 'artists' rather than waiting for someone to come along. One the most notable examples of this latter era would be the late 90's to early 2000's. Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, LFO, etc. This era of music was ushered in by a producer, Lou Pearlman, rather than the artist. In an ironic twist, Lou Pearlman got into the music business thanks in part to his first cousin, Art Garfunkel. Garfunkel (along with Paul Simon) belonged to an era of singer/songwriters that grew organically thanks to the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, etc.
    I say this about pop music not because I believe that Toto's words are meaningless, nor are they of the class of singer/songwriters from the 60's. I'm trying to illustrate that within certain times a lot of popular songs sound similar, and the effect of that is that songs will begin to run together. Songs don't necessarily become hits because of their lyrics, but rather because of their 'feel'. Most of the time, we will decide if we like a song by it's feel in the first 30 seconds. If it passes the feel test, we may listen to the lyrics, or we may not. I've recently been exposed to a lot of songs I thought I knew, but I didn't actually know. I remembered the feeling and groove, but not the lyrics. When I really think about it, I don't think I ever knew the lyrics. I just absorbed the catchy hook.
    'Africa' was released on Toto's 4th album, eponymouly named "Toto IV". It reached number 1 on the Billboard charts in February of 1983, while I was still in utero. I vaguely remember hearing it when I was a child. At the neighborhood pool, the only radio station that offended no one (but also didn't please anyone either) was the adult contemporary station. This was one of the songs that they played. So now, when I hear 'Africa', then get past the awesomeness of it's groove and the unforgettably catchy hook, I listen to the words in the verse for the first time. Do you know the words? Or do you, like me, only remember 'Hurry boy, it's waiting there for you', and 'I bless the rains in Africa'?
    According to David Paich (keyboards and vocals) the song is about "a white boy trying to write a song on Africa, but since he's never been there, he can only tell what he's seen on TV or remembers in the past". I have a different take. I believe it's a very subtle song about making love with someone for the first time. Doing it. Getting it on. Bumping uglies. 

Just for reference, here's the song:

The video could be another post entirely on its own.

But we're looking for the meaning behind the words here, so here we go.

First verse:

I hear the drums echoing tonight
But she hears only whispers of some quiet conversation
She's coming in 12:30 flight
The moonlit wings reflect the stars that guide me toward salvation
I stopped an old man along the way,
Hoping to find some old forgotten words or ancient melodies
He turned to me as if to say
Hurry boy, it's waiting there for you

    This has nothing to do with Africa (the continent). Look at the lyrics again ... see?
    This sounds exactly like the lead-up to a romantic rendevous. To make things easier, for the purposes of this post, the male character in the story of the song, also the narrator, will be known as 'he' or 'him'. The object of his desire, the female, will be known as 'she' or 'her'.
    The 'drums echoing' are the primal, insistent, instinctual beat of his libido; the male equivalent of a biological clock that started ticking long long ago, in the jungles and on the plains of Africa before we were the species that we are today. We can tell that this will be the first (hopefully, in his eyes) sexual encounter between the two. His plan is to seduce her, tonight. He has invited her over, but has not yet told her of his intentions. He has talked to her without exposing his beating drums of desire, which is why all she hears is the echo of some quiet conversation, the conversation they had before she agreed to come over. On her 12:30 flight.
    Before I continue, I have to raise the point that if a wing, or anything else, is moonlit, there is no way for it to reflect stars. The moon is the brightest object in the night sky and by it's very nature obscures or renders obsolete the light from stars, especially when one is talking of reflection. We must agree here that this simply means that it is night. Let us continue.
    Before she gets there, he has to run an errand. He walks down the street towards the corner store, guided by the arched streetlights hanging over the gutters like wings (!) to pick up a six-pack of Bartles & Jaymes, his salvation. Inebriation will  absolve some of the sins which he hopes to commit tonight, if all goes to plan. On the way back from the store, he is excited. He is ready to converse with anyone who might come across his path, including an old man waiting for the bus. The old man appreciates his exuberance, it makes him feel a little nostalgic for his younger days when he was excitedly anticipating the arrival of some young female. He (the narrator) asks this old man if he has any words of wisdom, any tidbits that will help him in his upcoming conquest. The old man laughs mirthfully as he shakes his head. The best advice that he can give is to hurry back. Though the young man is assuming he alone is hearing the echoes of the ancient drum beat, the old man knows that she's been waiting for him to make his move, and probably has been for longer than he knows.

    So now we come to the chorus. If you did not know the title of the song, the only thing that remotely resembles a reference to Africa so far is the sound of the marimbas at the beginning. The chorus will give us Africa in name, but the first two lines resemble the sentiments of a traditional love song.


It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa 
It's gonna take some time to do the things we never had

    This is the most important part to deducing the intent of the lyrics. There is only one other reference to the continent of Africa other than naming it here. Until the third line of this chorus, there has been nothing to reference a place, and we can tell even from the first line of the song that he is using a metaphorical device. We don't assume that he's hearing the echoes of actual drums, he's referencing an idea. So, what is the metaphor he is trying to express when he proclaims that he blesses 'the rains down in Africa'? What is Africa?

    The Vagina.

     Yes, you heard me right. The Vagina. The immortal originator of all that we are. Where life began for everyone. The hot, sticky jungle that gave life to you and I that goes back all the way to the hot, sticky jungles of Africa, where we became a species. Africa is the motherland, the bounty, the life-giver. "The Dark Heart of Africa" when said aloud stirs semi-erotic images in the brain and erotic ones in the loins. She is the receiver and the reason for the beating of drums. Can it mean anything else? Are we to assume that we're suddenly talking about a piece of land when it's obstensibly been about a man and his feelings for a woman up to this point? I think not. I also think that 'gonna take some time to do the things we never had' is pretty clear, when you look at it this way.

Second verse:

The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless longing for some solitary company
I know that I must do what's right
Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
I seek to cure what's deep inside
Frightened of this thing that I've become

    Here in the second verse we have the other reference to Africa, Kilimanjaro and Serengeti. We'll get to those in just a minute.

    It's here that he is becoming more consumed with desire. Earlier it was likened to the echo of drums, but now he is expressing it in a more primitive way, comparing it to dogs crying out. He's longing for the company of one other, the need for that one taking him further down the evolutionary ladder, to a time before he was man. He knows that he needs this to happen tonight. It is in the other reference to Africa that we must make our second biggest metaphorical leap. He has described a mountain rising out of a barren desert, and compared it to Olympus, the home of the gods, the kingdom of Zeus. If Africa, the Mother-God is the vagina, here we are shown the phallic mountain of Zeus the philandering Father-God. An enormous erection of stone towering over the dark wetness of Darkest Africa. His romantic quest is almost fulfilled, and yet he is now doubting himself right before the moment of truth. Is this what he actually wants, the stark physical act? Is he not the man that he thought he was, striving for the great love of body and soul; is he another wretch weakening resistance with alcohol? Yet again, I think not.

Chorus repeat:

It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa 
It's gonna take some time to do the things we never had

    It is here that we find the meaning to the first two lines of the chorus. He is not the wretch who will take the body without the soul. Although his entire night has been leading up the penultimate moment, the climax, the coup de grace, the old-fashioned romantic notions bring us (and he) back to why he has been planning this night. There is no one that could take her away from him. He will push back against the multitudes that may come to her. He doesn't just want to feel the sweet rush of rain from Africa, he blesses it. He blesses the giving of that place, her place, and he wants her to know what it means to him.

    Hence this song.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Crying Out Of Both Eyes (country song)

When I met you
I didn't know myself through
I didn't know the meaning of love.

But you felt good to me
I was too blind to see
You weren't my angel sent from above.

We went out every night
Had too much to drink
We kissed, and maybe more,
In the dark
It all felt so right
You holdin me tight
I never thought that we would ever part
But reality came
When you took my name
Now everything's broken
Including my heart

Our first big fight
Was on a summer night
And you broke the handle
When you slammed the front door

The next times were worse
You hit me with your purse
And broke all our glasses
On the kitchen floor

Well one of those shards
Hit me in the eye
And one hit me deep in the heart


The tears they came pourin
From the pain in my right eye
It teared up all night
And in the mornin' after that fight
I decided it was time for goodbye.

And now I'm crying out of both eyes
You can't say that I didn't try
And I just want you to know
That the last thing you could throw
Away, was my heart
I'm crying out of both eyes

(repeat chorus)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Head Over Feet

There are a lot of reasons why I love this. Firstly, it's a great song (in my opinion). It's an expertly crafted pop song, but the lyrics in their specificity give it a greater meaning.
To craft a great pop song (lyrically), I feel like an artist could either speak in generalities that can be interpreted in many different ways to gain a broader appeal, or speak intimately and on a small scale (first one that comes to mind is Bob Dylan). Writing about the small things in relationships between people is difficult; it demands a very intense focus on experiences that you are supposed to lose yourself in with another and breaks them down and examines them. This focus is my favorite part of novels, and can often be the main focus or purpose of a novel; to slow down the rush of feelings that accompany intense moments and preserve them in a fashion that shines light on our human experience. 36 seconds into the song, she sings "You ask how my day was". Before this line, it was a general account of a man pursuing a woman, but that one line zooms in on a part of the pursuing that is important to one person, in this case the author of the song, which would be the one singing it. It takes an abstract idea and brings it closer to what all of us experience in one way or another. There are general things that I find attractive in a prospective mate, but it's those small things that really make the relationship blossom or break the relationship from blossoming. Something as small as smiling when I walk through the door and asking how my day was can save a relationship when times are tough. This theme of taking a general idea about relationships and then focusing in on a small part of what makes it special and what makes it work goes on throughout this song. At 1:55, "You held your breath, and the door for me" is another example. So to move on now from just looking at the crafting of the song, let's move to the video. First of all, it's all one take. This is rare for a music video. There are artists (and directors) that try to create this, but also allow for the shots that make it possible for post-editing to create the illusion of a one-take shot if it wasn't possible for it to happen because of a number of factors... extras, inconsistent delivery to the camera, any number of reasons. So seeing that it's one take, you think of how many takes it took to get the one that was decided upon as being the best. This might take away from a music video for some, but for me it adds to it. 
The music video is an inherently dishonest experience. I think by now everyone knows that the audio track that is heard on top of a music video is just that... on top of the video. It was recorded before the filming of an experience to go along with the song; the video is an after-market piece of advertising to help sell the song, thanks to MTV. That's not a bad thing, just the way that it is, and I think some fabulous pieces of art (yes, art) have come out of the niche of adding moving pictures to music. But when we see Alanis moving her lips and tongue on the screen, it's not the same thing as her singing in the studio recording this song. This video and her performance does a great job of highlighting this psuedo-experience. She is completely inconsistent in what she lip-syncs to and what she doesn't. She begins with a delivery that matches the delivery of the audio, and then lets it go. They're not trying to fool us into thinking that the video is the experience of the singing of the song.
This does two important things: It allows us to disassociate from the video to listen solely to the song, and it allows us to disassociate from the song and focus on the video. This may be the most important part of a successful video. It makes us want to watch it multiple times because the song and the video have two different aims. I almost want to compare it to a live concert. There is the music, but there's also everything else going on around you. There's a dichotomy that's happening in the brain, and being limited as we are, we can only focus on so much at one time. How many concerts have you been to that you wish you could go back and experience so that you could either pay attention to only the music or only the concomitant happenings? This video allows us (because it's preserved) to go back time and time again to narrow our focus to different segments of the experience.
What may be the most important factor is Alanis Morisette herself. She starts by looking into the camera with no fear. What I mean by that is that she stares as if she's looking in to YOUR eyes, not a piece of glass. She's giving herself up for inspection. I think this is the most important part of a person who is successful in performing. This could be Alanis Morisette, Freddie Mercury, the guy that does karaoke at your local bar. You feel like you're allowed into another person's life, and it's such a powerful experience, because most of us don't let ouselves go unless we're completely, completely sure and have some measure of control over the audience. Think of yourself when you meet someone for the first time. You won't necessarily give all of yourself to that person, you want to keep up the image of yourself that you want to portray. It's not until later that you feel comfortable enough to let yourself go enough to let them know who you really are (if you think that they're worth it). Maybe that's why we have such a celebrity culture... We idolize those people that are able to give themselves to us unconditionally. Maybe that's why Jesus is such an enduring personality. He gave all of himself without expecting anything in return (and now I'll just steer clearly away from Jesus). There are so many moments of her performance in this video (not the song) that she shows (what I perceive as real) her own psyche. I see in different parts of her face and her delivery almost all of the parts of girls that I've been in a relationship with. I have a few examples that I want to highlight.
Right away, at 00:23, there's her slow sleepy eyes as she says "You treat me like I'm a princess" immediately follwed by a genuine smile. At 00:40, she stops singing along with the song, which helps seperate this from most other music videos. She looks away and down to the side. You could extrapolate and say it's related to the lyrics of the song, this part, because this is the first time in the lyrics that she's admitting that she may have already been won over. I've admitted this to people I've been interested in before, and it's something that's hard to say while looking someone in the eye. You want to look away so that if you are rejected, the full force of the denial doesn't hit you directly in the heart. She also starts to shake her head along with the shaking of her right leg. Is this her natural reaction to letting go of part of her ego, telling someone how much they mean to her? Or is it just impatience and possibly boredom in singing the lyrics to the song however many times it took to get this performance in one take?
At 1:20, the second chorus, she stops singing along again, but this time doesn't look immediately away. This time she looks directly into our eyes. If you've told someone once that you were invested, and weren't turned down, the second time you may be a little more bold. You give a little more of yourself, but maybe not all. And now she has no relation to the camera at all at 1:29. This can be like any number of girls I've been in relationships with, and there's a secondary reason that makes this point in the video so compelling. I'm not going to try to cover the first point, but the second reason is that she's not perfect. This is the point where you can see and start to notice that her hair isn't perfect. There are strands that don't quite make it into her ponytail. Maybe after you notice that you notice how little makeup she's wearing. You can see the small slight perfectly imperfect bumps on her face that make her not have a perfect complexion, but make her that much more human. I don't expect perfection from everyone I meet in life, but I find myself expecting it in my entertainment. If a girl in a video or a movie is not perfetly gorgeous all the time, I notice it and I find myself wondering why she's not perfect, because it seems as if that's the standard that we have set. At 2:03, we have the harmonica solo. I'm not totally sold on this part of it, but everything else in this video makes me okay with it not being totally great. I think it's another example of this director highlighting the difference between recording a song and making a video, because it's obvious that she's not actually doing the harmonica solo. This may be a time filler so she doens't just stare into the camera for 20 or so seconds, but I would have preferred her just staring into the camera for that time.
At 2:35 is the reason that made me fall in love with this video. She comes out of the harmonica solo, and is just singing for us. The line is "You're my best friend, best friend with benefits". It's a damn cute line. What makes me fall in love with it is that I smiled at that line the same way that she did. I think this is why I love this video so much. If we can have similar smiles to a line like that, then she's enjoying herself as much as I am. I said earlier that part of why I loved this video was the light that it shined on the difference between the recording of a song and the making of the video for promotional purposes. This sharing of an expression between myself and the artist makes me feel less like a consumer and more like a partner in crime. It makes me feel like she is enjoying the song, and enjoying performing it for the benefit of the camera, and the camera operator, and the director, and is yet another example of her giving up part of herself; the honest enjoyment in an experience that makes certain performers so compelling.
3:23 is just another example of the difference between the video and the song, where she's talking to whomever is behind the camera, instead of to us, the prospective audience, with no relation to the song that is still going. It's a beautiful sign of strength in the director and in the artist herself. This entire video has been concious of itself, but it's here that it expressly expresses itself as only a representation of reality, not reality itself.
From 3:45 to 4:22; Alanis, you have pretty eyes.