The New Critics, those literary scholars dedicated to the art of close reading who dominated American criticism in the middle decades of the twentieth century, were especially unhappy with the practice of connecting works of literature to—and thus analyzing them through—the lives and identities of their authors. They called this tendency the biographical fallacy, and made rooting it out of literary criticism one of their chief methodological goals (pretty successfully, at least for a time). While I try not to be an absolutist about the usefulness of any analytical tools, I would certainly say that many classroom experiences—perhaps especially with those authors, such as Sylvia Plath, for whom it feels impossible not to bring biography into the mix, in her case both because the biography is juicy and because the texts (confessional poems and a very autobiographical novel) feel so overtly connected to the author’s identity—have illustrated that biography can indeed shut down interpretation, can make it seem as if once we learn the biographical details we must read a text in one and only one way.
When it comes to analyzing popular music, I think the temptations of biography are even greater, not least because we tend to know more (at least on average) about our musical artists. And with one particular kind of album, the sub-genre that I’d call the breakup album, the temptation becomes impossible to resist; these are the albums that are made by an artist going through a divorce (legal or otherwise), and that chronicle the stages and emotions and effects of that experience. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors (1977) is certainly the uber-breakup album, since all four bandmates were breaking up (with each other!) during the writing and recording process, and of course I have a soft spot for Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love (1987), but I don’t know that any album in this category has ever been rawer or more intimate than John Hiatt’s blues-inspired Crossing Muddy Waters (2000). After all, while much of the album seems directly inspired by the ongoing breakup of Hiatt’s second marriage—including the sparse and devastating duo of “What Do We Do Now” and “Take It Down”—, the title track (linked below) gets even deeper and rawer still, turning the suicide of Hiatt’s first wife into one of the more beautiful and heart-breaking metaphors in American music (or art). By the time we come to the cautiously hopeful final track, “Before I Go,” with its chorus of “I will try, I will stumble / But I will fly, he told me so / Proud and high, or low and humble / Many miles before I go,” it feels as if we’re in exactly the same place as Hiatt.
And yet, I think the New Critics can still be instructive here. Muddy Waters is, of course, not only Hiatt’s metaphorical turn of phrase; it’s also the name of one of (if not the) most significant blues musicians of all time, and thus one of the founding and crucial voices in one of the only genuinely American art forms. In creating this most bluesy of his then fifteen (now nineteen) studio albums, in moving a long-time musical career into the world of the blues, Hiatt was clearly and consciously crossing into the territory of Waters and his colleagues; and at the album’s midway point, with the great “Lift Up Every Stone,” he lays claim to his piece of that rich and complex territory. Every line and detail of the song (also linked below) is ambiguous and yet grounded in its unnamed but clearly Southern “county” and community; it seems to me that the story is of the rape of a local African American girl by the scion of a powerful white family, of the revenge taken by the song’s speaker (the girl’s brother), and of the price that he will pay as a result (possibly a lynching), but ultimately the precise details matter less than the heavy sense of place, of social and familial and emotional worlds and relationships, that Hiatt evokes. A sole focus on the album’s biographical connections would make this song the most tangential and superfluous—but I would argue instead that it’s at the heart of Hiatt’s project here.
Perhaps the best lesson of Hiatt’s album, and the best rejoinder (or maybe addendum) to the New Critics, is that the great works of art can do and be many things. Plath’s The Bell-Jar (1963) represents a deeply self-aware engagement with her own youthful identity and life, and yet it also provides one of the most striking and important depictions of American society at the moment of transition between the 1950s and the 1960s, and of gender and sexuality and marriage and popular culture and psychology in that transformative period. And Hiatt’s album lays bare his soul while crossing into a nation’s. More tomorrow, on the woman whose inspiring house could help us all examine our own.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) “Crossing Muddy Waters”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2PYKmvx-Lms
2) “Lift Up Every Stone”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3AF67XCLp8
3) OPEN: Any songs that seem especially American to you? Especially biographically revealing?
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