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Hyperion January 20, 2006

The Hyperion Chronicles
“I AM that innocent!”

Editor’s Note: [Today is the first column in our new section on Song Lyric analysis. It’s supposed to go in Literary Hype, but due to Hateration, the site is not yet ready for grand reopening. So, for now it goes in Hyperion Chronicles. Enjoy]



#376 Hit me with the Truth, Hypey


I suppose it seems a silly endeavor to minutely examine the lyrics of pop songs. After all, what deeper meaning could they possibly have? Pop songs aren’t a big deal, right? Throw a “baby baby” in there every once in awhile, talk about falling in or out of love, and you’re done.

Maybe. I’m not going to wave my hall-monitor sash about wildly defending the philosophical depth that is pop songdom.

But nor do I think that dismissing the songs completely is a wise move, either. For one, they’ve become a cultural meme. We no longer have a set of songs that everybody knows. Stephen Collins Foster isn’t around to give us the modern versions of Camp Town Races, My Old Kentucky Home and Oh! Susanna. We’ve lost that heritage.

If it exists at all anymore, it exists in pop songs. We may not all like mainstream pop, but we’ve all heard it. Whether it be driving in the car, at work, or simply in an elevator; the songs are pervasive and almost impossible to ignore, lest you go get a shack in the woods. (My theory is that Ted Kaczynski might have actually just been sick of pop.)

Pop songs are our common thread. We hear them more than we hear just about anything else (with the possible exception of TV theme music, and hey: I’m all for examining that too). Therefore, it makes sense to look a little deeper into some of these lyrics, to examine what the writer might have meant, and what the words have come to mean in the fullness of time. (Like turning Sting from a Stalker to a Romantic, for example.)

I have songs ready to go, which will be posted in the coming days, but I’m willing to look at virtually any song that might be culturally relevant. Feel free to drop me a line and make a suggestion. Then tell your friends and be astounded that the music you thought you were ignoring could have such an impact on your life.

The first song I wanted to look at today is “I Want it That Way,” by the Backstreet Boys. Before we begin, let’s examine the lyrics:

"I Want It That Way"

Yeah

You are my fire
The one desire
Believe when I say
I want it that way

But we are two worlds apart
Can't reach to your heart
When you say
That I want it that way

[Chorus:]
Tell me why
Ain't nothin' but a heartache
Tell me why
Ain't nothin' but a mistake
Tell me why
I never wanna hear you say
I want it that way

Am I your fire
Your one desire
Yes I know it's too late
But I want it that way

[Chorus]

Now I can see that we're falling apart
From the way that it used to be, yeah
No matter the distance
I want you to know
That deep down inside of me...

You are my fire
The one desire
You are
You are, you are, you are

Don't wanna hear you say
Ain't nothin' but a heartache
Ain't nothin' but a mistake
(Don't wanna hear you say)
I never wanna hear you say
I want it that way

Tell me why
Ain't nothin' but a heartache
Tell me why
Ain't nothin but a mistake
Tell me why
I never wanna hear you say
(Don't wanna hear you say it)
I want it that way
I want it that way


The song starts off

You are my fire
The one desire
Believe when I say
I want it that way

At this point, I am interpreting this that he loves her, and wants things to stay at status quo. However, trouble lurks just around the corner.

But we are two worlds apart
Can't reach to your heart
When you say
That I want it that way

Now we’re starting to get muddled. Is the singer (let’s call him BS Boy, short for Backstreet Boy) meaning that the girl wants them two worlds apart, and he can't reach her when she’s like that?

Or

Does BS Boy mean that She is saying that He wants it that way? And what way would that be? I lean towards the first interpretation, but you can see we’re already drifting here.

And now we enter the twilight zone.

Tell me why
Ain't nothin' but a heartache
Tell me why
Ain't nothin' but a mistake
Tell me why
I never wanna hear you say
I want it that way’’

Huh? Is BS Boy saying that he wants Her to tell Him why it “Ain’t nothing but a heartache” and so on? Then at the end he says, “I never want to hear you say I want it that way.” Is BS boy referring to the previous verse, when she was saying she wanted them apart? Or is he saying He never wants Her to say that He wants it that way?

Or (and now we get really confusing), is he saying that he never wants her to say the things he just said, and that’s the way he wants it?

And let’s not even get into the fact that in the chorus two different sets of voices can be heard singing “Tell me why” and the rest of the lyrics. Does this mean they have two different meanings? Two different intents? Maybe there are even competing factions during the song. Maybe BS Boys 1, 3 and 5 mean one thing, while BS Boys 2 and 4 mean something totally different!

Did you follow any of that? Do you see how, by use of punctuation, this first verse and chorus can mean at least three—and possibly up to six—different things?

And teenage girls were listening to this? Hey, I like teenage girls as much as the next man, but you have to admit they have never been known for their powerful language subtext and parsing skills. So how is it this song doesn’t make people’s head explode?

My head suddenly feels like it’s going to explode, so rather than continue to examine the rest of the song, I’ll let you ponder it and move on to another one, an artist I think I have a better handle on: Britney Spears.




First, I have to explain how I initially found out about Britney. I was at a mall in South Carolina when I heard music. I followed it to see Britney performing in front of a crowd of 6-12 year old girls, their parents, and various onlookers.

At the time no one had ever heard of this girl, but I told everyone who would listen that she was going to be huge. That’s because I saw something there. I saw this curious mixture of innocence and guile, of good clean fun, but with smoldering sexuality just below the surface. (In a way, it reminded me of Shirley Temple, which I wrote about in Hyperion Chronicles #25: Valentine's Day Massacre.)

Britney wasn’t wearing anything evocatively sexy, and the girls dancing and singing along to the music certainly weren’t thinking along those lines. And yet, there was something going on there. Maybe it was in the way that twenty-some (and thirty-some and forty-some) men were looking at the pop singer (at the time she was not even 16, or if so just barely). Very few people were openly leering, but there was just this…I don’t know how to describe it…vibe that came from a bunch of girls who aren’t yet supposed to be awakened sexually dancing around and swaying to the music.

I don’t know who was responsible for the plan. My friend Skippy the Wonder Lizard adamantly claims that Britney couldn’t have had thing one to do with it; rather, it was her handlers. I think she may have been advised, but ultimately it was her who fired each bullet and called the shots.

Who knows? Regardless, in the months and years ahead Britney Spears and Co. led America on a merry chase. Each song was progressively more sexual, but only slightly so (at least for awhile). Then there was the famous Rolling Stones Cover, which showed Britney on her bed in her bra.


When interviewed at the time Britney professed innocence at the whole clamor and said people made way too big a deal about things.

Soon after there was Britney publicly proclaiming her virginity. I can’t tell you what a big deal this was. After that came the agonizing. She wanted to stay a virgin until she was married, Britney would casually tell MTV VJs, but it was so hard!

With the way Britney’s life has gone recently, you might scoff at all of this, but you’d be wrong. History will never record just how much influence that woman had for about two and a half years. She simply moved culture one way and the next. I wrote an entire column on thirteen-year-olds dressing like prostitutes, and wondering who gets the blame. (At least some of it gets laid at this woman’s doorstep.)

In my opinion, nothing was more brilliant than the very first song that showcased Britney to the world. If you remember the video, it shows Britney and friends in little Catholic (or private) school outfits, complete with plaid jumpers. Except Britney has hers tied to up to her navel (the better to dance with, I guess). And sometimes she’s just in a sports bra; again for the dancing.

But forget about the video and the plethora of mixed messages sent therein. Look at the words!

Oh baby, baby
How was I supposed to know
That something wasn't right here
Oh baby, baby
I shouldn't have let you go
And now you're out of sight, yeah
Show me how want it to be
Tell me baby 'cause I need to know now, oh because

Chorus:
My loneliness is killing me
I must confess I still believe
When I'm not with you I lose my mind
Give me a sign
Hit me baby one more time

Oh baby, baby
The reason I breathe is you
Boy you got me blinded
Oh pretty baby
There's nothing that I wouldn't do
It's not the way I planned it
Show me how you want it to be
Tell me baby 'cause I need to know now, oh because

Chorus:
My loneliness is killing me
I must confess I still believe
When I'm not with you I lose my mind
Give me a sign
Hit me baby one more time

Oh baby, baby how was I supposed to know
Oh pretty baby, I shouldn't have let you go
I must confess, that my loneliness is killing me now
Don't you know I still believe
That you will be here
And give me a sign
Hit me baby one more time

Chorus:
My loneliness is killing me
I must confess I still believe
When I'm not with you I lose my mind
Give me a sign
Hit me baby one more time

The entire album is about Britney being in love with some boy, and doing anything for him. (She had not yet begun to assert her independence.) The first verse of “Hit Me Baby One More Time” is no different. The most telling line is “Show me how you want it to be,” highlighting how the man is supposed to be in charge. Many people misheard the lyrics and thought she was singing “Show me how you want to do me.” Was this intentional? Who knows? It doesn’t really matter though. The straightforward reading of the lyrics alone hints at the heart of Britney’s success.

But first, let’s get to that all-important chorus.

My loneliness is killing me
I must confess I still believe
When I'm not with you I lose my mind
Give me a sign
Hit me baby one more time

The most subversive line in pop music in at least 25 years is in this chorus, and it’s so obvious, so staring us right in the face that most people miss it. For those of you who are slow: “HIT me baby one more time.”

I remember when the song came out (I already knew of it) listening to people’s reactions. It was just impossible to believe that Britney would be advocating that a guy actually hit her, and people simply refused to believe it. After all, what sense do pop lyrics make anyway, right?

I only saw Britney asked about this once, by a little girl in the audience of some interview, and she responded that what she meant was for this guy to “hit me with the truth.” Britney’s demeanor made it sound like she thought it was obvious what the lyrics were talking about.

Uh, excuse me? No.

At this point I’m going to creep some of you out, but suck it up; you know I’m telling the truth. There is at the heart of sex a violence, a violence that most people don’t talk about. Even the most consensual sex in the world will often leave bruises, and we know of the fabled consequences of the first time a girl has sex: she bleeds.

More than that, though, sex and violence have always been entwined. Perhaps it’s a holdover from the days of yore when primitive man would subdue the woman he wanted and drag her back to the cave, and she would go willingly. (Behavior still exemplified by our animal brothers and sisters.)

There is this aspect to sex that most people don’t talk about, because it sounds like an advocacy of violence, which it’s not. Something primal in men makes them want to overcome women, to seduce and overpower them. And women respond to this. Most women do not want to dominate sexual relations, but want to resist and be overcome, all within the confines of a consensual relationship.

The reason most people don’t talk about this is obvious: it seems uncomfortably close to forced sex, and maybe even to explain or condone the actions of predators. I would hope my past work speaks for itself, and you know me well enough that I have the right to talk about this. I’m not talking about rape. I’m talking about…a man pushing a woman up against a wall, wild with desire, and ripping her blouse and skirt to get to her. Maybe not every woman would like this experience, but most women at least understand the animal power of it, if it happened with someone she was attracted to.

This is what Britney (or at least her people) tapped into. It started with her very beginnings. There was a younger girl/older man vibe going on at that first mini-concert I saw her in, and it never left. Maybe no one talked about it except in jokes, but the phenomenon that was Britney wasn’t not driven by those young girls, but by their older brothers and even fathers.

And when she sings “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” Britney is tapping into that. Maybe not even on a conscious level. But like I said, there is this entanglement of sex and violence that cannot be erased from genetic memory.

Am I saying that most guys get off on the idea that they could have sex with a girl and get to hit her first to subdue her? Of course not. You know me better than that. But at some level there is an attraction that is triggered, and that’s what the song, the singer, and the whole sensation was about.

And that is deep. And that is a big deal.

Hyperion
January 20, 2006

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