Monday, December 17, 2007

The Meaning of Words

I said a while back that if I were ever going to have a man crush, it would be Rob Thomas. In many of his songs, he weaves complex emotion with melody. Something I aspire to in writing. But I digress.

In this video, Rob Thomas explains the origin of the song "3 AM." As much as I knew I shouldn't listen, I did anyway. It's like a wreck on the highway, you just can't look away.



Words and their meaning.... What did the author intend to say? It's less of an issue in prose, but in poetry and songs, it's a potent question. And seductive.

Rob's lyrics meant something different to me than what he meant. I can't put my finger on it exactly, but it had something to do with two people not connecting. About the woman in the relationship spiraling down.

I have to admit that when I hear the "true" meaning behind a poem, it can intrude. But if you're like me, it's very hard to look away.

What do you think? How important is the author's intention? Do you want to know, or would you rather keep your own, private reading sacred?

27 comments:

Vesper said...

i always stick with my interpretation, because i think art is meant for each individual to make their own meaning from it, but i do love hearing what the artist had in mind.

Bemused said...

Having been burnt by explanations of song lyrics, I much prefer my personal interpretation. Any form of art, including writing, is open to interpretation, and that is the beauty of the medium, its ability to reach many people in various ways.

SzélsőFa said...

I like when a poem is accompanied by some music - it really makes the experience more complete.

When reading a poem makes me feel something (new or old) inside, I'm glad. Poems can open new horizons and visions. May make the reader see his own world at a different angle, and/or may open a totally new view and thougt for him.

Bottom line: I tend to care about what the poem means for me.

BUT:
There are poems when I (think I can) feel what s/he must have felt when writing that particular poem. And I like that insight into the poet's soul.

AngelaFerreira said...

My favourite actor I would love to have something with is Jack Nicholson. Oh he is hot, older, crazy, witty and extremelly hillarious...
x

Scott said...

I like to know because I am so literal minded. I've come to realize that perhaps the reader is never meant to know, and that further, such a deep penetrating look is unwelcomed. Most of the time, don't bother asking.

I could be wrong.

My wife, by the way, loves Rob Thomas. My wife cries at a certain phrase in one of his songs, by I won't say which. Not everyone can hear it. I've noticed that he puts everything into his music.

It might seem silly to say, but congrats on your close shave at Bernita's

Jaye Wells said...

I like to know the author's meaning, but also choose which interpretation resonates most with me.

Hoodie said...

I'm always interested to know an author's intent, but particularly with music, am quite content with my own interpretation.

There are songs that I loved as a naive teenager that when I hear them now am shocked at the obvious meaning I hadn't grasped then.

They were better when I didn't quite get it.

When it comes to novels, I always want to know what the author had in mind. It almost always enriches my own perception.

Bev said...

"What did the author intend to say?" Hundreds of English teachers make kids crazy every year trying to figure this one out!!

For me, its all about what it means in relation to my life ... the lyrics of a song have a lot of power, but only if it speaks to the listener.

Just my 2 cents worth

Sarah Hina said...

I prefer my own interpretation because anything I learn after that muddies that first, clear note.

It's true for art, too. One of my favorite Picasso paintings is "The Dream." It's a lovely, internalized portrait of elevated feeling. Or it was. Then someone pointed out to me that the top half of her head is a (*cough*) penis. And yes, it sure is. Picasso was an imp that way.

But, oh...how I wish I didn't know. Because now that's all I see.

Interesting post, Jason.

Angela said...

Man, is he one sexy guy. I'm always interested in the author's intention with words. It doesn't seem to interfere with my own - only broaden whatever interpretation I had given it. Speaking of awesome lyrics, have you heard "Put Your Lights On" from Santanta's Supernatural with Everlast? OH MY GOD. Here's a piece:

"There's a darkness deep in my soul
I still got a purpose to serve
So let your light shine,
into my home
God don't let me lose my nerve
Lose my nerve." and another piece:

"Because there's a monster living under my bed
Whispering in my ear
There's an angel with her hand on my head
She says I've got nothing to fear."

Eric Schrody's voice fluctuates from deep and dark to high and light at different points in the song.

I listen to that song a lot these days and let it sweep me up in all the feelings that are so hard to cope with sometimes. I let it vibrate my soul.

So I think a lot also depends on what's happening in our lives and our interpretation is affected by that a lot.

Ello said...

I like him too. Rarr!

I definitely want to know an author's intentions because I am just too darn curious. And I would rather be wrong and know than right and now know. Weird, huh?

Kaycie said...

The writer crafts a song, a poem, a story, and then sends it out into the world in some fashion. What it meant to the writer is not sent along with it. The meaning is in the mind of the reader or the listener. I think especially in listening or reading older works, layers of meaning are added over time that were never the intention of the writer. My favorite example of this is Mozart. Writing in a minor key did not necessarily communicate a specific emotion in Mozart's time, but the minor key now has connotations of sadness, grief, and bleakness to modern audiences.

Julie said...

If all art is ultimately an abstraction, then so is writing.

I'm with Stephen King (On Writing)- on this one.

If I say 'chair' - how far is what I have in my mind removed from what someone else thinks they see, even if I describe or add an explanation - ie, how much closer do you get by knowing all of the writers intent?

Church Lady said...

I like hearing it first, without knowing the backstory. I want to form my own interpretation. This is why I like to read books before seeing the movie adaptation because I want to make my own movie.
But I do like to know the author's intent after I've absorbed it.

This is a beautiful song. I don't think Aine would mind if you had a man-crush. ;-)

The Quoibler said...

I always feel that once my words leave my mouth or fingertips, their purpose is to strike a chord with someone else.

And that doesn't have to mean the listener needs to see things the same way I do.

Isn't it beautiful that we can all freely interpret art so it's meaningful to us personally, regardless of the author or creator's intent?

Or perhaps I'm just grasping for straws here...? :)

Angelique

jason evans said...

To All,

Isn't it fascinating that there are as many preferences, balances, and interests as there are people. I'm not sure I would have predicted the full range of opinions reflected here. It actually makes me feel better. This tension, in some form, is universal.

jason evans said...

Vesper, I think that is the truest purpose of art. Strange that so many of us want to/yet don't want to know what was on the artist's mind.

Bemused, burnt, yes. I know what you mean. I too prefer my personal interpretation, which is really the point of the experience. I'd prefer not to imagine Rob Thomas 13 years old in that song.

Szelsofa, you raise an important point. Sometimes art is about connection. The drive to discover that someone out there felt the same thing we did. Maybe that's the question we're testing.

Angela, I really dig Jack, but not for a man crush. ;)

Scott, good point. Sometimes the writer is indeed hiding. I've been guilty of that in a few poems. I'm sharing an emotion, but not what's behind it. **Thanks for the well wishes from Bernita's contest!

Jaye, that's what I'd really like to do, but for some reason, the two competing meanings don't sit well with me. There's some kind of psychoanalysis lurking in that.

Hoodie, They were better when I didn't get it. I'm with you on that one. I feel that way about lots of songs from the 70's. As I kid, I didn't grasp all of the adult themes buried, or not so buried, in them.

Bev, okay, the mention of English teachers pushes me in the my-own-interpretation camp. ;) A novel is another animal, though, as Hoodie points out. Those really should communicate a certain message.

Sarah, what a great example! Just as the painting is forever changed, when I hear 3 A.M., I hear Rob's troubled and ill mother. I wonder if some of this is driven by distance from the artist. The further removed they are, the more we want our own interpretation. The closer the relationship, the more we expect to hear the intent, because then the art takes on more indicia of communication.

jason evans said...

Angela, I'm going to check both of those out! Hopefully, I can snag a version on YouTube. Thanks for sharing them. If those artists can put it out there like Rob, I'm there.

Ello, being wrong...yes, I understand what you're saying. Maybe that's a stronger drive with science/law/mathmatical types. Do you ever feel the tension between logic and art? Well, maybe tensions is not the right word. How about distinct mindsets? I've gone a decent way toward blending them, and so far I'm happy with the result.

Kaycie, does knowing that the minor key did not have a strong melancholy connotation make you want to peek into Mozart's head all the more? Art and music are intensely personal and impersonal at the same time. What a strange interplay.

Julie, that's a huge point in fiction, especially in the realm of over-description. You just made me realize that I'm a bit schizophrenic on this one. In ficiton, I intentionally leave my descriptions as brush strokes here and there. I want the reader to create his or her own vivid version of a world I'm only suggesting.

Church Lady, do you circle back to the author's intention once you've formed your own interpretation? Do you have a urge to test it?

Angelique, not grasping at straws at all. I think that art is generally 90% that individual experience. The odd thing is that 10% which makes us wonder what the "truth" is.

Wayne said...

I'm almost always happy with what I read in the writing.

Piercing The Veil said...

For me the true essence of art is two way: first that of the Artist...he takes pleasure in expressing himself in a concrete form....

second that of the observers...listeners...readers...they take pleasure in interpreting that concrete art piece in the way they see it...some may hope that they get as close as that of the artist's...some have their own ..(i am of the former)

BUT ...

...sometimes an Artist himself would be amused that others would see his work or thoughts the way he never meant to be ...well conscioulsy ...but perhaps subconsciously it was one of his own too

Kaycie said...

Jason, I think Mozart might be the one person I would choose to meet if I could go back in time. I don't think he was the childish conduit of God that so many biographers and a playwright have made him out to be. I think he was probably quite fascinating.

If I had to guess, I would say that the characteristics of his personality that were seen as childish were merely a lack of inhibition. It seems to me that one regarded as a genius and allowed to jump into the arms of queens at the tender age of six probably did not carry many inhibitions with him. That would explain a lot about his temperment and sense of humor, I think.

jason evans said...

Wayne, a very good approach.

Piercing the Veil, I like how you distilled the issue. Some may hope that they get as close as that of the artist's...some have their own. Yes, some are unaffected by the author's intent, while some want to test, want to see if they understood the message correctly. I tend to be in the testing group myself.

Kaycie, I agree. I can't see how someone of that creative horsepower could be such a fool. Like a rock star today, he probably felt are certain entitlement. Just look at what early fame did to Michael Jackson.

ybonesy said...

I just tried to leave this comment using the new fancy WP sign-in, but apparently it didn't work, so I'll use my "nickname."

I have a man-crush on him, too. And I loved hearing about where 3a came from. That made the song even more poignant to me.

In general, I like being a voyeur, so I would prefer knowing to not knowing. But it's not essential. And it doesn't change what I had originally. It just gives me one other interpretation in addition to my own.

Oh, I also wanted to say I thought this was a most effective way to get to the question of author intention. Thanks.

Vesper said...

Interesting questions, Jason. I thought about them and my answer is rather split - my interpretation prevails but often I'm also very curious; so I might be tempted to find out more about the artist even though I'd be almost sure of the future disappointment. Sometimes the person and what we see of their art, no matter what form it takes, could be completely different. Great food for thought...

Terri said...

I suppose I like know what the actual meaning behind the words is. Often I think the songwriters might prefer us to take our own meaning away from their songs, though. It makes it more personal. I think that's why I'm mad about Rob Thomas: There is so much in his music that seems to speak to me, or with which I can identify.
And I think I may have said this to you before, but I'll happily say it again: You do write the way he sings.

Ice said...

Jason,
I think meaning, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
rel

jason evans said...

Ybonesy, I wonder if the folks who "want to get it right" are looking for more of a sense of communication in art. In a strange way, feeling the same way as the creator is like being heard in return.

Terri, to be honest, I like people to take away their own meanings from what I write, especially poetry. I know it's a stronger experience for them. And I really appreciate you telling me again that you feel emotion in my writing!! That's such a huge compliment, and things like that are easy to lose grip of, since it can seem too good to be true.

Rem, a simple, powerful truth.