08 January 2010

America: A Horse With No Name

Today i’m going back to the 70s, if only because i need an easy target—and my target this time is the song “A Horse With No Name”, released by the band America in 1972. This was America’s first single; it was also their most successful one. You may feel free to draw whatever conclusions about the band you like from those bits of data.

According to the Wikipedia page for this song (there’s a Wikipedia page for everything!), “at first the group thought it too corny and took some convincing to actually play it”. I wonder why?

Let’s find out.

On the first part of the journey

Apparently the narrator of the song is taking a journey somewhere. We don’t know where or why, but i’m willing to let that slide—starting a story in the middle of the plotline is such a well-accepted literary convention that it even has a Latin name (in medias res, for those of you keeping score at home). Hey! Maybe that means we’ll be treated to some high-end literature-type stuff in this song!

Or maybe not.

I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds
and rocks and things.
There was sand and hills and rings.

Okay, so there’s a lot of life surrounding you. This makes sense, since even in the arctic tundra there’s a pretty decent amount of biomass.

So, Misters America, what sort of life are you surrounded by?

Well, let’s see…there are a bunch of plants and birds.

Okay. Not very specific, but good to know. What else?

Um, there’s rocks.

Rocks? Excuse me, did i hear you correctly? I thought we were talking about the life you were surrounded by, yes?

Um, right. Okay, so maybe not rocks. But there was a whole bunch of life around—you know, lots of things.

Things? Wow. You know, maybe we should stop talking about life—just tell me about the landscape—that would fit in with the whole “rocks” idea, i guess.

Okay, i can do that! There was sand…um, and hills…and, uh, rings.

Rings? What in the world…? You know, let’s just give up on the whole description thing—i think that’s pretty much done. Maybe we should move on to what you did, okay?

(By the way, in all seriousness, the rhyming of rings with things here really bugs me. First of all, if you have to resort to using things as the basis for a rhyme, you’re just not trying hard enough. If you have to resort to rings as a description of a landscape to manage a rhyme with things—well, the reason you’re not trying hard enough is that you’re a hack lyricist.)

The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz

This would be as opposed to a fly with an oink?

and a sky with no clouds.
The heat was hot
and the ground was dry

The heat was hot?

This is even more amazing than the fly with a buzz.

This isn’t like saying “the water was wet”, which i can almost see as an acceptable literary device to drive the point home—this is like saying “the wetness was wet”. This isn’t purposeful redundancy, this is grasping desperately for rhymes.

Oh—and incidentally, i can grok meeting a fly with a buzz, but meeting a sky with no clouds? Randy Newman once described this song as being “about a kid who thinks he’s taken acid”.


but the air was full of sound.

Presumably from the flies with their buzzes, and the birds that presumably have their tweets.

Oh, and the things. With their, um…sounds.

I’ve been through the desert
on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain

Me, i actually like the rain. Deserts make my skin go all itchy and flaky. To each their own, though, i suppose.

In the desert,
you can remember your name

Now, even though i don’t like deserts, i have been in a handful of them—and in none of them was i subject to any sort of realization of my own name greater than i’ve had anywhere else.

That is, this is a completely pointless observation for the song to make.

But this means the horse has no name, but the narrator does—it doesn’t seem quite fair to the horse, does it?

But at least we’re given a reason you can remember your name in the desert. Ready for it? Here it is:

’cause there ain’t no one
for to give you no pain.

Um, okay. Right.

The only way i can make sense of this is that it’s some sort of statement on the horror of negative experiences in life, a claim that the only reason we’re able to have any sort of memory, the only reason we’re in fact able to claim any sort of individuality in our own existence, is because we can occasionally escape the pain that is ordinary human experience.

Well, either that or the authors of this lyrics were desperate for a rhyme for “name” and this was the best they could come up with, so they tried to make it sound deep or something.

I figure the latter is more likely.

Oh—and the grammar of “there ain’t no one for to give you no pain”? Obviously, this song was written by someone from Appalachia or the Deep South, areas where such grammatical constructions are part of the native argot, and as such when they’re sung they reflect some of the gritty realities of poverty and social tension found in those regions.

So…True fact: This song was actually by Dewey Bunnell (one of the members of the band). Another true fact: Dewey Bunnell was born in England to an American father and a British mother. Yet another true fact: Mr. Bunnell even went to high school in England, not in some part of the Southern or Appalachian regions of the United States.

If you think all of these facts through, then you’ll likely come to the same conclusion about that line as i have, which is, in a word: Poser.

(And remember kids, “poser” is only one letter removed from “loser”.)

La la la lalala la lala la la la.
la la la lalala la lala la la la.

I’ll readily admit that the harmonies are pretty sweet in this section of the song—but when the most coherent part of your song’s lyrics involve twenty-four repetitions of the syllable “la”, well, you just might be in a bit of trouble, you know?

After two days in the desert sun
my skin began to turn red.

Once again, i’ve been in the desert, and on a cloudless day this would likely actually take about an hour, maybe even as little as five minutes at midday.

Just another clue that Misters America appear to be singing about stuff they have no idea about.

After three days in the desert fun
I was looking at a river bed.

So you’ve got a killer sunburn, and you’re thinking the desert is fun?!

Dude, there are easier ways to satisfy your masochistic urges, okay?

And the story it told of a river that flowed
made me sad to think it was dead.

Actually, if you’re looking at a dry river bed in the middle of the desert, you’re most likely looking at an arroyo (a.k.a. a wadi). Arroyos are nowhere close to dead—they’re an important part of desert ecosystems. But then again, you’re unable to describe your surroundings clearly, so maybe we should cut you a little break here.

We then hear the chorus again, which is followed by an actual plot development:

After nine days, I let the horse run free
’cause the desert had turned to sea.

Right—’cause, you know, horses are never able to function next to the water. No use at all. Ever. Nope, they can’t do a single thing near water.

There were plants and birds
and rocks and things.
There was sand and hills and rings.

Yeah, i guess it’s an attempt to say that the desert and the sea aren’t as different as we think they are, but come on—what’s up with rings in the sea?

The ocean is a desert
with its life underground
and a perfect disguise above.

No, it’s not. First of all, the ocean is wet, the desert is dry. Second, the ocean has fish, and fish are vanishingly rare in the desert. Third, this lyric is just a silly attempt to seem deep by spouting nonsense.

Under the cities
lies a heart made of ground
but the humans will give no love.

And this is the big payoff—an environmentalist message tacked onto the end of the song.

But you know what? I don’t care. This is a dumb song, and so now any sort of good Misters America had hoped to do with this lyric gets to be stupid by association. Nice job, dudes.

Finally, on a different subject: Lyrics, Weakly will be taking next week off, since i’ll be three-quarters of the way across the continent at a conference on the teaching of linguistics. To keep your attention, though, when the blog returns on 22 January i’ll be taking us through what I consider the most horrific love song anyone ever sang to his wife. Ever.

So you have something to look forward to.

1 comment:

  1. You know they don't expect you to actually listen to the lyrics, right? It's all about the sound. If you listen to the lyrics you might think. And if you think, well, it just isn't pretty. So stop thinking! Now!