A Case of the Creeps

Many people are drawn to creepy things. I don’t mean the horrific, not bugs and brains and guts. I mean a gentle unease, an anxious anticipation, a sense that things are not quite right. I mean clowns, and graveyards, and long hallways with flickering lights and no people. There is an art to creating creepy things, and much art is creepy.

Take the song “A-ha!” by Imogen Heap. It is a son that seems designed to impart a creepy sensation. On its YouTube video, one user comments:capture-png1

Some are more brash:


We can give it a listen to find out for ourselves[i].

So, what makes this song creepy? What makes any song creepy? At first listen, it may seem like a product of the music (what could be called the instrumental aspect of the song). The fast-paced tempo and the disjointed melodies seem intended to create a sense of creepiness. But this may not be the only thing at play; it may be that this cannot be the only thing at play. Colin Radford states that “a piece of music is simply a (usually rhythmic) sequence of sounds, selected and organized by the composer…. that is all.” (Radford 71) He argues “that listening to sad (or angry, or creepy) music makes you sad simply in the way in which a change in one’s hormonal levels can make one agitated or sad.”, and that “the hormonal change is not itself sad” as to be sad, you must “find something to be sad about, an “object.”” (70). Radford argues that music cannot create emotion on its own, for music is purely abstract. Emotion must be connected to the world, and for that an object is necessary.

The lyrics of “A-ha” may prove to be this object. That is, they may allow us to connect the abstract feelings of creepiness to the world such that it can become true emotion. While they may sound like nonsense at first, the lyrics may be key to understanding how the song can create the creepiness feeling. Yet to answer the question about how the lyrics of “A-ha!” make the song creepy, it is necessary to understand creepiness in the first place.

The working psychological hypothesis entails that being “creeped out” is “an evolved adaptive emotional response to ambiguity about the presence of threat that enables us to maintain vigilance during times of uncertainty” (Mcandrew & Koehnke, 2016). The two key phrases here are that for a situation to be creepy, there needs to be both “uncertainty” and an ambiguous “presence of threat”. To create a sense of creepiness, the lyrics of “A-ha!” must do both these things, open a sense of uncertainty, and induce anxiety about an ambiguous threat into it.

Let’s start at the beginning: “Eat, sleep, and breathe that you’re full of the stuff”. Notice that eating, sleeping, and breathing are necessities for life. “The stuff” in this lyric then could easily be life itself. But it also could not be. The lyrics do not say “Eat, sleep, and breathe that you’re full of life”. They purposely introduce ambiguity and uncertainty. “Stuff” could be almost anything. The language is trying to avoid referring to anything, so it uses the word “stuff”. It is reasonable to assume that this language introduces uncertainty by what it tries to avoid stating directly, when it denies its ability to refer.

By denying this drive towards reference, we see the language in “A-ha!” drawing attention to itself. We see this in the next phrase “Wheat-meat-dairy-free, tee total, So happy clappy”. The most distinctive parts of this sentence are not what the words mean, but the rhymes and alliteration. “Free, tee total” and “happy clappy” are arguably the two most distinctive segments of this phrase if we view it from this standpoint. It is important to note that we still can, and perhaps instinctively do, try to gain meaning from the sentence. Yet the meaning is almost certainly less apparent than the language itself. We see the attempted denial of reference, the subsequent introduction of uncertainty, and the focus on language itself throughout the song “A-ha!”.

We can now draw our attention to the lyric “Busy bee wave, wave ‘save the planet’ flag. But sneaky in suburbia”. A curious word here is “but” which indicates that the two clauses are related to each other. The second phrase should contradict or provide a counterpoint to the second. At the very least, one should refer to the other. Yet finding a connection proves difficult. If you look hard enough, you could propose that “Busy bee wave, wave ‘save the planet’ flag” is an incrimination of movements to protect the environment, on the grounds that they intrude upon leisure and life (hence the “busy bee wave”). The second clause could be an escape in the form of being “sneaky in suburbia”, with suburbia in this case as the opposing term to “save the planet”. But this seems like a reach. It perhaps more tenable to consider that the phrases are not related to each other, or that they are only related in an incidental way. The “but” has the same purpose as “stuff” from earlier. It attempts to disrupt the language’s ability to refer, and introduces uncertainty in the process.

Finally, we can note a phrase towards the end of the song. Here we see: “And put the deepest Swiss bank trust in you” instead of the seemingly more obvious “And put the deepest trust in you”.  Here the two words “swiss bank” perform an important function, calling to mind different ideas of what “trust” means. It is now ambiguous as to whether “trust” refers to personal confidence in somebody, or a bundle of money held by a bank. “Swiss Bank” interrupts the phrase’s reference chain, again creating a sense of ambiguity.

Yet this cannot be the whole picture. If all the lyrics of “A-ha!” do is deny their ability to refer, the song would have a lot of uncertainty, but not a lot of anxiety. There would be ambiguity, but no threat. “A-Ha!” probably wouldn’t be all that creepy. Yet it is important to note that language can’t just deny its ability to refer. All words carry a basket of connotations. All words mean something. All language must refer. The language of “A-ha!” may purposely impede its ability to refer, but it still refers nonetheless.

It becomes apparent that “A-ha!” cannot mean nothing, even if it tries to. So, what does “A-ha!” mean? What are the references that it draws? We have already shown that the lyrics of the song create a sense of uncertainty. Perhaps by dumping a basket of connotations upon the listener, many of which create a sense of anxiety, “A-ha!” can project a sense of creepiness into the uncertainty it has created.

Consider the phrase “Golden boy boots”. The reader in this case reads “golden boy”, We think of young male entrepreneurs and politicians, your Zuckerbergs, Obamas, and Rubios. We are distilled with ideas of success and accomplishment. Then we hear “boots”, which is a bit of an odd word to hear after golden boy. It introduces the idea of necessity; the golden boy needs boots. There is a level of utilitarian necessity in the word “boots”, work boots come to mind.  Additionally, the word “boots” has connotations relating to fashion, that of style boots and uggs. It could be that the “boots” destabilizes the implied self-sufficiency and masculinity of the “golden boy”. We see more indication of this attempt at a building with a subsequent destabilization in the following phrase, “pocket pedestal”. A pedestal raises something or someone up, bringing it into a position of respect and attention. But a “pocket pedestal” implies a smallness and a ubiquity. Not only that, but a pocket pedestal destabilizes the idea of a pedestal in the first place. Not everything can be admired and respected. In respect to the individual, it may not be too much of a stretch to say that the idea of a pocket pedestal undermines the often-repeated platitude “believe in yourself”. So, the overall picture is one of undermined assurance, introducing anxiety in the place of confidence.

We see another instance of references that seem designed to produce feelings of anxiety in the lyric “You should try it, you should know. Go on while no one’s looking.” Here Heap is speaking directly to the listener. The message is coercive. “You should try it” creates a pressure to do something, something which is probably “bad” or not allowed, for it is important to “go on while no one’s looking”. “You should know” conveys the idea that the listener is missing out.

Now we can turn our attention to the titular lines, which perhaps do the most to create a sense of anxiety in “A-ha!”. “A-ha! Caught you now! Caught you red handed in the biscuit tin! Cost you to keep me quiet” and “A-ha! Candid camera! Hook, line and sinker.” These lines can be read as a kind of spotlight on the unsuspecting listener, the A-ha! of being found doing something slightly naughty—of being “caught red handed in the biscuit tin”— and of being watched—hence the “Candid Camera.” There is even the idea of blackmail (which I would think is fairly anxiety inducing) with the “Cost you to keep me quiet.”

To create creepiness, it is not enough for “A-ha!” to just deny its ability to refer to the world. But interestingly, it is not enough for “A-ha!” to just refer either. The lyrics must perform two functions. They must inhibit their own ability to refer, yet refer nonetheless. And these references must be directed, such that they produce connotations relevant to the emotion of creepiness. Taken together, these allow “A-ha!” to introduce an anxious ambiguity about the presence of a threat. They create creepiness.

[i] Full lyric transcript: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/imogenheap/aha.html

Works Cited:

Mcandrew, F. T., & Koehnke, S. S. (2016, March 16). On the nature of creepiness. New Ideas in Psychology, 43, 10-15. doi:10.1016/j.newideapsych.2016.03.003

Radford, C. (1989). Emotions and Music: A Reply to the Cognitivists. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 47(1), 69. doi:10.2307/431994

1491: A Mirror and A Hope

If you went to an American elementary school, chances are good that you have heard the story of the first Thanksgiving. For those who are unaware, the story goes like this. The “Pilgrims”, a small group of Puritans facing religious persecution in Britain, bravely set sail for the New World on a ship called the Mayflower. A down to earth, religious, and moral community, they staked out a settlement in Plymouth Massachusetts in 1620. All does not go well for the Pilgrims, at least in the beginning. Sadly, more than half die in during the first winter. But then, in a great act of eternal provenance, an Indian named Squanto appears with his tribe. Despite a shaky start, the two groups of people learn to cooperate, and the Indians teach the Pilgrims how to live off the land. That year the Pilgrims reap a bountiful harvest and hold a great feast of Thanksgiving with their new Indian friends. And there ends the Thanksgiving narrative, a story of reconciliation with nature and with fellow man.

The book 1491 by Christopher Mann tells another story of America. It is the story of advanced Indian[i] civilizations actively shaping their environments, of great architectural projects and political intrigues, of grand cities and ingenious technologies, all before the encounter. Mann states “Western Scholars have written histories of the world since at least the twelfth century”, sometimes “tipping their hats to non-western accomplishments in the sciences and the arts” (Mann 26).  His goal: to give America a history of its own. His story seems completely different than the Thanksgiving narrative above. It is, or at least it tries to be, a “scientific history”. Characterized by its archaeological and anthropological evidence, the New York Times Book review writes of 1491 as “in the best scientific tradition, carefully sifting through evidence, never jumping to hasty conclusions”[ii]. It is easy to assume that the 1491 is objective in is its history, while that is unlikely for the Thanksgiving story. Yet the Thanksgiving narrative and 1491 prove to be surprisingly similar.

It all starts with the title, 1491. This may seem like an odd place to begin. 1491 is not 1620 after all. But the two dates perform a similar function in framing their respective stories. In 1491, the title sets parameters on the text. Mann directs his focus not on a post-1491 tragic narrative[iii], but on the growth of Indian societies before this date. Robin Stryker, writing on the use of time in narrative, argues that “Many of the temporally and specially bounded causal explanations constructed by historical-corporativists rely heavily on the notion of time as context”[iv] (Stryker 3). In respect to historical narrative, this indicates that the date 1491 helps shape the story the book chooses to tell. The narrative depends on temporal boundaries to establish its context. Thus, while 1491 includes evidence from the post-1491 era, and acknowledges the tragedy of the Indians fall in the beginning of the book, its primary focus is on the pre-Columbian world, one of prosperity and civilization.

The world of 1491 is full of achievement, achievement that very often draws parallels to that of Europe. There is Cahokia, “the greatest city north of the Rio Grande” “comparable in size to London, while on a landmass with Paris, Cordoba, or Rome” and whose citizens “invented every aspect of urban life for themselves” (Mann, 259). They built “grandiose construction projects”, a gigantic structure called Monks Mound, a “Slab of Clay about 900 feet long” that required significant breakthroughs in the engineering clay to construct soundly (260).  As readers, we think of the great structures of the Old World for comparison.

1491 speaks of great political intrigues and battles, which also draw equivalencies to those in the Old World. The Maya civilization is a clear example. In Mann’s characterization, warring states and rivalries constantly vie for supremacy through intense dynastic rivalries. Between the two great city states of Mutal and Kann, there was an intense series of wars, a “strife that lasted 150 years, spread across the Maya heartland, and resulted in the pillage of a dozen city states” (245). It does not seem too much of a reach to draw parallels between this Maya struggle and the great Imperial Rivalries of Rome and Carthage, or Athens and Sparta. Mann does just this, proposing that the Maya lived in a world where “A sophisticated and widely shared culture flourished among perpetual division and conflict”, that “resembles many in the Old World-Classical Greece or Renaissance Italy” (271). Again, we see the comparative aspect of the novel at work. The New World becomes a mirror of the old.

These are far from the only examples of Mann’s parallelism between pre-Columbian America and the Old World. His characterization of an Inka secession crisis, where Inka King Thurpa Inka “selected one son but then changed his mind on his death bed and selected another…leading to a melee” (76) is not an unfamiliar story to the reader well acquainted with European history. Nor is it surprising that “among his first official acts was killing two of his own brothers to avoid future family problems” (76).

But none of these examples draw so explicit parallels as Mann’s description of the Iroquois Confederacy. Speaking on individual rights, Mann states “an overwhelming number [of proponents for individual rights] have been inspired by the American example—or as it should be perhaps be called, the Native American example” (330). It seems the Iroquois society was based upon “the consent of the governed” and other liberal ideals, and that “compared to despotic societies that were the norm…..Haudenosaunee was a libertarian’s dream” (332).  In the same stream, he argues that “It [Iroquois society] was also a feminist dream” citing the fact that clans were “largely governed internally by female clan heads” and that “Indian insistence on personal liberty was accompanied by an equal insistence on social equality” (334). But he does not stop there. Mann goes on to suggest that “the Haudenosaunee exemplified the formidable tradition of limited government and personal autonomy shared by many cultures north of the Rio Grande” and that “the framers of the constitution….were pervaded by the Indian ideals and images of liberty” (333). So, Mann not only makes Indian and European-American societies look similar, but is directly linking them through a liberal political philosophy. He closes with a question to his non-Indian audience, “Imagine somehow meeting a member of the Haudenosaunee from 1491. Is it too much to speculate the beneath the swirling tattoos, asymmetrically trimmed hair, and bedizened robes, you would recognize someone much closer to yourself, at least in certain respects, than your own ancestors” (337)?

Mann clearly draws parallels between the societies of pre-Columbian America’s and those of Old World, framing history in such a way as to emphasize similarities, and not differences. But this way of telling the pre-Columbian narrative is not innately correct. In fact, it could be argued—and a great many Native American philosophers do—that this method of telling is profoundly incorrect. Marilyn Notah Verney, in American Indian Thought[v], brings up the notion that “We [Indigenous People] get lost in the everydayness of Euro-American culture (Others) and its philosophical framework” (Waters, 137). It seems that this idea is incompatible with an author such as Mann—who writes about Indian societies in a profoundly Euro-American framework—who implies, and even openly argues that there exist great cultural and philosophical similarities between these two societies. Whatever the case, it is essential to consider the parallels brought up in 1491 are subjective, a narrative choice which has an intended effect on the reader.

This effect becomes clear. 1491 implies a universality concerning humanity, a certain togetherness. The reader (more so if they are from the books Western audience) begins to see Pre-Columbian society as something similar, something relatable. Mann frequently proposes the idea that we not only can, but should stand to implement the ideas of Indian societies: “Native Americans ran the continent as they saw fit. Modern Nations must do the same” (326). Given the attempts to connect Western European ideals to those of the American Indians, a conclusion comes naturally. No group is inherently malevolent, not Western society, and not the pre-Columbian Indians. Different societies can learn from each other.

In effect, Mann is shifting the argument. Much as in the Thanksgiving story, the narrative is no longer European versus Indian. Instead, Mann clears room for what he believes to be the real issue, the relationship between man and nature. He sees pre-Colombian history as a lesson for the future. Not just a political lesson, but an environmental one. And like in the Thanksgiving Story, the settlers from Europe have something to learn about living off the land from the Indians.

Again, we return to the Mayans, who according to Mann, were environmental administrators. Living in a region with naturally toxic groundwater, they paved over their “geochemically hostile” landscape, creating a network of “artificially habitable terrestrial islands” (272). The Mayan people were far from the only society in the America to do manipulate their environments. Cahokia and its people diverted the Cahokia Creek both for the purposes of irrigation and to increase the ease with which lumber could be transported. The people of the Amazon embarked on a long-term transformation of the amazon rainforest, until a large portion of the trees bore edible fruits. It seems correct to say “Native Americans’ interactions with their environments were as diverse as Native Americans themselves” and that “Indians were superbly active land managers—they did not live lightly on the land” (248).  Mann praises this idea of environmental management, pronouncing that modern nations should follow the Pre-Columbian civilizations, and “not set our sights on rebuilding an environment from the past but concentrate on shaping a world to live in for the future” (326). He is proposing that contemporary Amer-European society modifies its viewpoints, to achieve a reconciliation of identity and idea that could end up being its salvation.

So we find that the First Thanksgiving and 1491, while very different stories, are profoundly similar in narrative structure. In Metahistory, Hayden White identifies different models of historical narrative.[vi] In this case the most apt narrative style to describe both is that of a comedy. That is, Mann is telling the story of political intrigue and environmental management, of the building of great architecture, great cities, and complex philosophies. But more importantly, he is telling that story in a positive way. 1491 is a story glorifying pre-Columbian Indian society, and by likening it to the Old World, it is in effect glorifying both. Therefore, 1491 is a story in which everyone is portrayed in a similarly positive light. Thus, “Hope is held out for the temporary triumph of man over his world by the prospect of occasional reconciliations of the forces at play in the social and natural worlds” (White 9). There is the potential for reconciliation between the western world and the pre-Columbian one, between humankind and nature. Additionally, 1491 takes seriously the forces which “oppose the effort of human redemption”, while allowing the possibility for a “victory of man over the world of experience” (10). It tells of the difficulties of managing the environment, but gives explicit openings through which it can be managed in the future. It is not set in place that humankind will triumph, and Mann acknowledges these difficulties, but in the end the message of the book is positive and optimistic.

The interesting thing is, even with its time frame set, 1491 didn’t have to be a comedy. Many of the societies in the book collapse long before the encounter, not in small part due to the mismanagement of their environments. Both the Maya and the Cahokian cultures collapsed long before Columbus, for this very reason. Mann understands this, and does not believe that these collapses should be glossed over: “Grant the Maya the dignity of assigning them responsibility of their failures as well as their successes” he states (Mann 279). He could certainly draw the conclusion, with the same base of facts, that these attempts to manipulate the environment were travesties, that they are symptomatic of the failures of humankind, and that “man is ultimately a captive of the world rather than its master” (White 9). Nobody would be on the moral side, and the book would become far different.[vii] But Mann consistently sees these failures of as insignificant blips in the upward march of pre-Columbian Indian society. “Native Americans have been managing their environment for thousands of years”, he states (Mann 314). He presents the demise of Cahokia and the Maya as rare mistakes, and argues that “by and large they (the Indians) modified their environments in stable, supple and resilient ways” (314). It is not that this is a wrong way of writing the narrative of pre-Colombian societies, but that there is no objectively right way of writing about it, because it will always be just that, a narrative.

Despite being labeled as such, 1491 cannot be, nor should it necessarily try to be, a scientific history. By understanding 1491 as narrative—and a comedic one at that—the book becomes far more interesting. Understanding 1491, understanding history truly becomes a task of understanding how a story is told, and why it is told in that way. History is no longer just a chronological memorization of facts and names. Narrative gives history coherency; it certainly makes 1491 a stimulating read. In the end, it gives a renewed meaning to why so many of us learned the story of the first Thanksgiving all those years ago.

[i] Mann justifies the use of the word Indian, stating that “Every native person that I have met, I think without exception, has used “Indian” rather than “Native American”.

[ii] Baker, Kevin. “‘1491’: Vanished Americans – The New York Times.” The New York Times. October 9, 2009. Accessed November 13, 2016.

[iii] Eg: conquistadors and expanding white settlers drive back the disease weakened Indian tribes from their ancestral homelands. The Indians fight back valiantly but are defeated by a combination of trickery, numbers, and technology. One by one, all the great Indian nations submit, their cultures and people marginalized.

[iv] Stryker, R. “Beyond History Versus Theory: Strategic Narrative and Sociological Explanation.” Sociological Methods & Research 24, no. 3 (1996): 304-52. doi:10.1177/0049124196024003003

[v] Waters, Anne. American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004.

[vi] White, Hayden V. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.

[vii] Under Hayden White’s distinctions, this would be indicative of a satirical narrative

Meaningless Matters: The Form of Musical Lyrics

Noah Cowit

For a while I hated 80’s pop. Or at least I thought I did. I thought I hated about “Call Me” and “Come on Eileen”, “Tainted Love” and “I Ran.” I thought I hated big synthesizers, repetitive melodies, and articulated lyrics. At the very least I saw these things as empty, a useless joke. Something to scoff at, not to listen to.

I was certainly not the only one.

80’s pop, and pop music in general, may be one of the most critically disregarded genres of music. There is none other so routinely criticized in popular intellectualism. Of course there is the occasional contrarian fluff piece, like the Huffington Post’s so called “Defense of Pop Music”[i], which boldly states that “Pop music is nowhere near as bad as people make it out to be.” Despite, or perhaps because of, these feeble defenses, I would’ve been content to hate 80’s pop forever. Except for one thing. It’s structure, it’s lyrics, were fantastic. It was form without truth, a glorious superficiality.

Maybe for this reason, it grew on me. 80’s pop began to become a guilty pleasure. It slowly ate through my playlists, becoming 10, then 20, then 30% of what I listened to. Trying to justify 80’s pop to myself, I searched for some significance in the lyrics. I can tell you that it becomes pretty obvious, pretty quickly, that looking for hidden truths in “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” is an exercise in futility. A friend of mine perhaps put it best when they said, “Music should have meaning, even if it is just about love and relationships; the music you listen to is about nothing.”

But that does not settle the matter. It should not settle the matter. It cannot just be accepted without a fight that meaning is all that matters, that form and style have no value. 80’s pop is hardly unique in this. People like meaningless lyrics. People like meaningless language. Yet they are bothered by a lack of meaning, and not by a lack of form.

So, this leaves us with one option. To develop a defense for meaninglessness, or find that it is impossible to listen to 80’s pop, or read detective novels, or the comics in a newspaper, without creeping feelings of guilt and insecurity. This is a defense of 80’s pop, and not only that, it is a defense of all language, all art, that does not carry an inherent meaning; that which is primarily form.

Interestingly enough, the route to doing this is through the song “Tom’s Diner”, by Suzanne Vega.[ii]

This may seem an odd choice at first. Although made in the 80’s, “Tom’s Diner” is not a pop song. For one, it is sung A Capella. No drums, no synthesizers, not even an acoustic guitar. It does not blast into being like most pop music, it smoothly flows. There is no repetitive chorus. In fact, there is no line repetition whatsoever. The events it describes are simple, the setting ordinary. And most importantly, “Tom’s Diner” arguably has hidden meanings, hidden “truths”. But this, of course, is absolutely necessary. You cannot elevate form unless it can be shown that it has some potential to outdo meaning. It cannot be done in a song with none.

Perhaps the best way of interpreting what meaning and form contribute to “Tom’s Diner” is by comparing what can be gained from both. We can try to separate the two, describing the song with meaning at the expense of form, and then form at the expense of meaning. Then we may be able to tell how they each contribute differently to our understanding of the song. We will start with meaning.

Tom’s Diner is a song about a lonely person in a diner. Some evidence that they’re lonely is because they look away when two of the characters in the diner show a level of familiarity with each other, kissing in greeting. This could also be attributed to social awkwardness or perhaps a general problem with intimacy. However, later contextual evidence points to the idea of loneliness over these later two premises. Additionally, the character feels isolated from the world, and from other people in general. Examples of this include when the character doesn’t know of the person they read about in an obituary. There is a level of blocked intimacy when the character finds themselves unable to make eye contact with a woman outside, because the glare from the glass blocks her view of the inside. So the woman outside can also be considered to be isolated. Also, there is a level of sexual tension, as the character outside is moving her skirt up on her leg, to straighten her underclothes, but despite her efforts the rain is making her hair damp. This could also be considered commentary on idealized perfection. Finally, there seems to be a romantic aspect to the loneliness the character may be experiencing, as another person in mentioned who seems to have a level of familiarity with the person at the diner.

Hopefully that didn’t completely ruin the song for you.

It could be questioned at this point why that read like the essay of a middle schooler. The answer is simple. If meaning is all that matters, everything of value in Tom’s Diner should be able to be gained from the paragraph above. Creative form shouldn’t be needed to supplement meaning, so long as the knowledge given is correct and clear. But there is something obviously wrong with this argument. Or if not wrong, at least not right. If it hadn’t explicitly said it, a person could honestly wonder if what is being described is a song, or just some weird passage about a person in a diner. Clearly something is missing.

Maybe it’s that the paragraph doesn’t take into account how seamlessly the words line up in “Toms Diner”, how even a slight syncopation grabs the attention like a vice. Maybe it’s that it doesn’t have quotes to show us how the language is so simple, and yet so effective. Maybe it’s that it doesn’t tell us that song is written in first person, that is “I am sitting-in the morning-at the diner-on the corner” and how the result is intensely visceral and personal. Maybe it’s that it doesn’t mention despite this first person narration, when the women is “outside looking in”, it is not “I think she sees her own reflection”, but “cause she sees-her own reflection” and how it isn’t “no she does not see me” but “no she does not-really see me”. Or maybe it’s all of these things. Maybe it’s that the story of “Tom’s Diner” is one that could be described in a million different ways, but that for some reason, this way, with this particular arrangement of words, is one that works.

Wasn’t that better? Doesn’t it seem that by concentrating on form instead of meaning-by focusing on the language-not the knowledge-we can gain a better sense of what “Tom’s Diner” really is? This may be because form alone has the potential to affect the reader, or the watcher, or the listener, in a way that meaning simply can’t. It is all about effect. If form is effective, if it makes the audience feel something, then it works. Form can exist in a palatable form without meaning, but meaning cannot do the same without form. This may be because form alone has the potential to create feeling, while meaning alone just has the potential to create more meaning. It is about emotion and subjectivity, about the potential of words to shape us.

More than that, it is about the potential of words to shape how we view the world.

The study of words is central to the understanding of form. Words are often incorrectly considered perfect descriptors. That is, the word “chair” is not just a representation of the thing we call the chair, the word chair is the chair. Or at least the thought connected to the word is the chair. But is it really? Are the word and the thing truly one and the same? In “Tom’s Diner”, would there really be no difference if the word wet was replaced with moist? Or better yet, saturated. The words all refer to the same thing, why couldn’t they just be swapped? Possibly it’s because words aren’t just descriptions, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Words are packages of connotations, “actively shaping the things they purport to describe.”[iii] Wet, moist, and saturated all bring different feelings into the mind, feelings that are shaped by our prior experiences with language. We need to study form, or risk being thoughtlessly swept up in these connotations. Words matter, especially if we think they don’t. Meaning cannot exist on its own in language; form will always create meaning of its own. It is then necessary to study form to fully understand a piece of writing.[iv]

Now, “Tom’s Diner” uses particularly broad and vague language. Words like “counter”, “man”, “coffee”, and “window” make up the majority of the song. The connotations these words are general and impersonal. They give the song a sense of transparency and clarity that could be mistaken for a lack of form. But this is simply untrue. Choosing to be broad with language creates an effect on the listener, just as the use of specific ornamentation does. In this case, it creates a sense of emptiness, leaving a vacuum where “horoscope”, “stockings”, and “cathedral” can take on a greater prominence. It is an active choice to use general language, not an unbiased default. Form is truly present everywhere.[v]

Yet even this does not do form justice. Sure, it shows why form is valuable to study, but it doesn’t give validation to our innate desire for it. It does nothing to show us why we enjoy form on its own. Meaning professes to tell us what are deepest desires are, how we think, how best to live a life. Its goal is to show us who we truly are as human beings. It makes sense that we would be drawn to meaning. Form can tell us a lot about a text, but what can it tell us about ourselves?

Perhaps the answer to this question can be found in “Toms Diner”.  Again, “Tom’s Diner” is about a person in the diner. But it’s about more than that. Ironically, it’s about a person who has a problem with form. The narrator, who is “turning to the horoscope and looking for the funnies”, but with an air of detached triviality. Who doesn’t talk to anyone for the entire period of the song, and in fact seems to avoid doing so. It’s about the instance with the women outside who looks and “does not-really see…cause she sees-her own reflection” Overall, there is a sense that the narrator in the diner can no longer appreciate form. And what is the result of this? The narrator seems profoundly isolated and deeply lonely. They seem unable to make basic connections, for want of deeper ones. They are stuck in a prison of import, where meaning is the only thing that matters.

An appreciation of the study of form is necessary to break out of this prison, by acknowledging that human beings are inherently social animals. We do not always talk about substantial matters. In fact, most of the time we talk about nothing. Yet we always talk with form. If a person who speaks with only form is shallow and superficial, then the person who speaks with only meaning is incomprehensible and insane. Yet for some reason, we act as if we are completely serious whenever we write, or we read, or we listen to music. We ignore the lighter social aspect of our nature, half of what makes us human.[vi] We ignore the part of us that is the not logical, but emotional, that is not knowledgeable, but creative. On some level we know that meaning isn’t everything. That is why we like form; that is why it is so important to music, cinema, and literature. We are naturally drawn to things that bleed form, the subjective and the superficial, because that is part of who we are. Through fantastic form a song, a movie, or any piece of writing can become greater than the sum of its parts. It can become something truly human. It can become art.

Both form and meaning have a purpose. Meaning can make us feel complete. It is part of our sense of being, the way we interpret the world. But sometimes looking at a piece of art for its form can tell us something more revealing than looking at it for its meaning. It can tell us that words matter for their own sake, that they change the way we look at the world. By imparting in us that form is naturally a part of who we are, it can make us feel more in touch with all aspects of our own humanity.

Form can make us feel free. Free from the stifling pressure that everything has to mean something, free from the idea that meaning is all that we are. We should embrace form. We should revere it. And at the very least, the next time you watch a superhero movie, or read a romance novel, or listen to a fantastic 80’s pop song, remember the unnamed women from “Toms Diner” and do as she did.

Look, and see your own reflection.



[i] Harris, Austin S. “In Defense of Pop Music.” The Huffington Post. Accessed October 14, 2016.

[ii] Full Lyrics Sheet can be found at: https://play.google.com/music/preview/Tckcwalufy5dyxanbw75s5iae7y?lyrics=1&utm_source=google&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=lyrics&pcampaignid=kp-lyrics&u=0#

[iii] Thorne, Christian. “Lecture: Theories of Language and Literature” September 2016

[iv] Nietzsche, Friedrich. On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense. S.l.: Aristeus Books, 2012. Nietzsche establishes in the idea that there is a separation between the word and the object described. This is the idea that words are metaphors themselves, and that they carry innate cultural connotations that are not vested in reality.

[v] Lanham, Richard A. The Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976. Lanham established the idea that form is most evident where it seems like there is none; that seeming transparency is sometimes the craftiest use of form.

[vi] In Motives, Lanham established the idea of the rhetorical (social) man as “half of man”. He compares the style of literature to social life, and the meaning of literature to meaningful life. Lanham considers the balance between meaning and meaninglessness the fundamental dichotomy of humankind, and tasks literature to be a projection of this balance.