Several years ago, I heard a major Nashville hit-maker speak about the “power of perspective.” He said that sometimes the difference between a good song and a great song is the perspective of the person singing it. For example, the lyric “Amy had nowhere to go” is different from “my girl had nowhere to go” and “I had nowhere to go.” First person, third person, limited view, omniscience–these things matter. While some songs benefit from a greater scope (more characters, larger narratives), some have more impact with the first person view (small and intimate). Whenever this hit-maker got stuck on a song, he’d change the perspective; that simple shift could make the difference, and turn a solid song great.
But what he really discussed was changing first to third (“I” to “they”), or vice versa. He didn’t talk about “you.”
And all this got me thinking about Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Jay Farrar, grandfathers, and The Invisible Second Person.
Song of the Week: Uncle Tupelo: “Looking For a Way Out“
(Side note: YouTube video complete with cartoonish “grizzled alcoholic” imagery!)
In “Looking For a Way Out,” Farrar sings to an Everyman “you.” He tells “you” what’s up, which is this: “you” are suffocated by the trappings of small town life, and “you” daydream about leaving while “you” become further entrenched with bad decisions and decades of self-destructive habits. To wit:
Mister, tell me what fifty years in this town has done for you
Except to earn your name and place on a barstool
You spend your whole life in this county
You’ve never been out of state
You say you’re gonna make it out before it’s too late
So, the song is essentially a young guy telling an old guy what’s up. This would come across as presumptuous, or dogmatic–as writing in the Second Person often does–if Farrar wasn’t projecting his own fears on the other man. As the song develops, it’s clear the singer’s talking to himself, and scared of transforming into the “Mister” on a barstool. It’s his doubt, loneliness, and isolation being enumerated, not “yours.” Tweedy’s haggard harmony gives this song its second voice: the nagging doubt of the narrator against the wizened maxims of the old man. The singer and the Mister sing together in one inauspicious refrain.
Farrar uses “you” to make his own confession. Ultimately, he points the finger to turn it on himself. It’s a clever device, well-executed, and a refreshingly honest.
Done well, the second person can reveal something powerful about the narrator we didn’t expect. Done poorly, the second person sounds like a grizzled grandfather, pointing a finger and lecturing you on “how it is, was, and forever will be.” And nobody wants to be lectured.
This contrast is visible in “Looking For a Way Out,” and much of Farrar’s later work with Son Volt. Though it’s widely hailed as one of alt-countries finest albums, and a onetime favorite companion of mine, I rarely listen to Son Volt’s Trace. Now, I just hear the ever-abundant “you.” So many songs on Trace are written from the second person perspective (which is rare), yet few have the confessional subtext of “Looking For a Way Out.” They’re lovely, smart, imminently listenable songs that focus out rather than looking in. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing–although, in bulk, it can become tedious–but it is an odd thing. Most songwriters focus inward, and let us learn about ourselves by using them as a case study. Farrar’s natural instinct is to talk about us, which (maybe, sometimes) might tell us something about him.
Ultimately, my favorite songs are the ones that unite Us, rather than talking at Me about You.