I recently came across an article titled “That Song Doesn’t Mean What You Think.” Being someone who constantly mishears song lyrics – thus making it impossible to accurately understand the meaning of any given song – I took a look.
The article features ten songs, and if there’s a trend among them, it’s that people tend to brighten and simplify songs that are in fact written about dark and complex matters. Some of the artists included in the list have griped about this. But they should know better – an artist effectively cedes control over their work once they offer it up to the public. All they can do is steer a listener (or reader, or viewer) toward a particular meaning. For better or worse, consumers of art become co-authors, using their imaginations to fill in the gaps and arrive at meanings unique to themselves.
But that’s not what I’m really here to talk about. Because there was one song on that list that stood out to me for operating in the opposite way. Instead of twisting complex and dark into simple and bright, the public found depth and melancholy in a song that had decidedly humble, straightforward origins.
The song is Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion.” Maybe you know it. It’s a reggae-inflected tune built upon a series of infectious melodies. The refrain in the chorus is as follows:
Oh, the mother and child reunion
is only a motion away.
Taking their cue from the rest of the song’s lyrics – which, admittedly, steer listeners fairly forcefully in this direction – most listeners assumed the song was about a strained mother-and-child relationship, about a gulf that had formed between mom and kid that might be bridged if only one or the other of them would reach out to do so.
But what was Paul Simon actually singing about? A chicken and egg dish that he once ate at a Chinese restaurant.
“I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown,” Simon explained in an interview, and “there was a dish called ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ It’s chicken and eggs. And I said, ‘Oh, I love that title. I gotta use that one.’”
Paul Simon is and was, of course, well aware of what happens to a work of art once it’s sent out into the world. He knew his fans wouldn’t be able to intuit from the song’s lyrics alone that he’d found his inspiration for it in a Chinese restaurant. And by adding moody phrases like “false hope” and “strange and mournful day” – and not mentioning anything about chickens, eggs, or Chinese restaurants – Simon gave listeners a strong shove a different way.
But the real lesson to be taken away from this anecdote isn’t one about purposefully vague lyrics, about the gaps that songwriters leave in songs for listeners to fill (and that those listeners often fill in surprising ways). The real lesson here is about inspiration, and about how it can creep up on you in the most seemingly modest settings and most seemingly common situations.
Paul Simon was out to eat. He looked at a Chinese food menu and – bam – one dish in particular caught his eye. According to the fount of all knowledge (i.e., Wikipedia), the curiously named dish got Simon thinking about a pet dog that had been run over and killed: “It was the first death Simon personally experienced, and he began to wonder how he would react if the same happened to his wife at the time.”
Obviously, not everyone’s imagination would take such a gloomy turn. But you don’t need to go dark to produce a great piece of art. What you do need to do is keep your eyes open and your imagination alert – otherwise you might just miss the next great idea, sitting right under your nose.
. . .
Listen to Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” here.
Read about the other nine “misunderstood” songs here.