Saturday, March 17, 2007

world leader pretend

On March 12, one of my all-time favorite bands, R.E.M., was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, The Ronettes, Patti Smith, and Van Halen. It was an awesome ceremony in which R.E.M. were introduced by Eddie Vedder and played a four-song set that included collaborations with both Vedder and Patti Smith, and you can watch it streaming online here.

In a recent Rolling Stone piece in which the members of R.E.M. comment on their discography, Michael Stipe says that "the big moment" on their 1988 major-label debut, Green, is the song "World Leader Pretend":
It's a tribute to Leonard Cohen, using military terms to describe a battle within. I was so proud of the lyrics and my vocal take that I refused to sing it a second time. I did it once. That was it.

You can tell that Stipe was proud of the song back in 1988 as well, since until 1998 it was the only R.E.M. song that ever had its lyrics printed on the album's sleeve or booklet. "World Leader Pretend" has always been my favorite song off of Green, too — not only because it's a beautiful song with great guitar and piano lines, a string arrangement, and countrified pedal steel, but because it's one of those rare songs that make me, a not-particularly-close listener of lyrics, pay attention to the words coming out of the singer's mouth:
I sit at my table and wage war on myself
It seems like it’s all, it’s all for nothing
I know the barricades, and
I know the mortar in the wall breaks
I recognize the weapons, I used them well

This is my mistake. Let me make it good
I raised the wall, and I will be the one to knock it down

I’ve a rich understanding of my finest defenses
I proclaim that claims are left unstated,
I demand a rematch
I decree a stalemate
I divine my deeper motives
I recognize the weapons
I’ve practiced them well. I fitted them myself

It’s amazing what devices you can sympathize
This is my mistake. Let me make it good
I raised the walls, and I will be the one to knock it down

Reach out for me and hold me tight. Hold that memory
Let my machine talk to me. Let my machine talk to me

This is my world
And I am the world leader pretend
This is my life
And this is my time
I have been given the freedom
To do as I see fit
It’s high time I’ve razed the walls
That I’ve constructed

It’s amazing what devices you can sympathize
This is my mistake. Let me make it good
I raised the walls, and I will be the one to knock it down

You fill in the mortar. You fill in the harmony
You fill in the mortar. I raised the walls
And I’m the only one
I will be the one to knock it down.

I won't pretend to know what Stipe's getting at, exactly, with lines like "It's amazing what devices you can sympathize"; what I love is his wordplay. First of all there's the line "This is my mistake; let me make it good." There's a great ambiguity here: does he mean "Let me make my mistake well" or "Let me fix my mistake"? I'd like to think that Stipe realized it could be interpreted both ways at once, and I love the idea of "making a mistake well."

Another thing that's always struck me is Stipe's employment of one of English's most delicious homophone pairs, raise and raze. Though pronounced the same, they mean exactly the opposite of one another. From the context (not to mention the lyrics printed in the album's booklet) it's clear when the wall is being "raised" and when it's being "razed," but it's fun to substitute the opposite meaning in each instance and see how it affects the lyric's meaning.

The last thing I want to talk about is the section that begins "I proclaim that claims are left unstated." (A nice line in itself, no?) Stipe begins this line and the next two with three different verbs — proclaim, demand, decree — that the linguist J.L. Austin called "performatives." (Forgive me for getting all linguistics-major-y here, but bear with me.) A performative verb is one that accomplishes something simply by the speaker uttering it: by saying "I proclaim..." you are proclaiming something; by saying "I demand..." you are demanding it. Contrast these with what happens in the fourth line of the section, "I divine my deeper motives." Divine is an ordinary, non-performative verb; by saying "I divine..." you are not accomplishing anything. You are just stating what you do, or have done. By using three performative verbs in a row, Stipe has tricked the listener into hearing his narrative voice as an authority. (Who uses performative verbs like proclaim, demand, decree? Officials, politicians, people signing treaties and cutting ribbons.) But when he gets to "I divine..." he has pulled the old switcheroo. It turns out that this narrator is not an authority figure after all; he is just a normal human being (with "deeper motives," even!) trying to get in touch with his feelings by making proclamations, demands, decrees. The joke's on you, dear listener — Stipe's not being performative at all; he's just being introspective.

And some people say pop music is shallow...

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