Over Thanksgiving, my oldest was at home. She is studying choreography in school, and this semester she is working on a final movement project. She showed me the piece she’s been developing, explaining that this is kind of a rough draft for a much longer and more involved idea she wants to work on for her senior year. She didn’t give me a lot of explanation beyond that and wanted me to watch and then talk with her afterwards.
I watched the work, and vaguely came up with the thought that the dance (this piece is pretty modern, as opposed to jazz, ballet, or even contemporary) must be about inner and outer struggles. I shared this with her and she brightened, saying that she was glad I recognized the basic concept of the inner and outer forces. Then we talked more about what she hoped to convey. The story she shared with me was wildly different from my thoughts. I was a little dismayed because it all seemed pretty vague, and I shared this with her. Heather explained that she’s come to the realization that the actual meanings of the dances aren’t what matter. She’s not concerned about whether someone recognizes the full story she’s sharing. She just wants to convey the appropriate feeling. This confused me, because I always thought the whole point of choreography was to tell a story. If the audience doesn’t “get” the story, what is the real point then?
I thought about this piece she’s in for an upcoming show. It’s called “Scanners”, and I have to say – it is very violent and animalistic. When I see it (I’ve seen her in it twice now), I have to try to forget that Heather is my daughter and just take in the piece for what it is. I’m actually amused at the thought that her grandparents are going to see her perform it, because the movements are territorial and savage. I can see that when I’m watching. I can hear it through the breathing on stage. The music doesn’t even convey those feelings – it’s all in the dance itself. But I don’t know the story of the dance. Not even a little. I just know that when I see it, it reminds me of how insensitive we’ve grown towards one another. I always say we’re losing our humanity. This dance conveys that feeling. I thought about that as Heather continued to explain choreography to me.
Then she said something that made everything clear.
In art, it isn’t about getting the meaning right. When we see a painting and it creates an emotion, or when we hear a song and it makes us feel something – it doesn’t matter what the artist originally intended, or what story they wanted to share. It’s about what the viewer feels. This is why artists don’t readily share what a painting is really about (some might, but most do not). It’s left to interpretation. Why? Because even though the artist used the work as a way to tell a story – our heart responds to a song or a dance work because of what WE think it means. Why would an artist want to precondition you to feel something rather than allow you to experience that emotion organically on your own? That would have the potential to change the entire encounter, because the perception would not be self-owned or pure.
As Heather and I discussed this, of course my mind leapt to Duran Duran. How many times over the years has Simon said that he doesn’t like to explain his lyrics? Granted, much of that may be out of a concern for his own privacy, but I have also read and heard Simon say many times that he wants the listener to be able to have their own meanings for the songs.
I can remember talking with someone about “Finest Hour”. I explained what the song meant to me. At one time it was my favorite song on Astronaut. This person said that the “real” story was that the song was about the US, specifically about the president at the time (George W. Bush). After hearing that, I never quite enjoyed the song in the same way, and I almost wish I didn’t know what the lyrics meant. It changed my perception entirely.
Another example I can give is even more recent. A few weeks back, the band celebrated the anniversary of Medazzaland, and Simon discussed the meaning of the song, “Who Do You Think You Are?”, saying that it was about his relationship with Warren. I knew several people that openly said they wished Simon never said anything about that, because it made them hear the song differently. Still others admonished Simon for writing about his relationship with Warren at all.
In both cases, listeners heard the song, and came away with their own perceptions and meanings, whether those were positive or even negative. It completely changes the way we hear a song or the way it makes us feel when we’re told the true meanings of the lyrics. I can’t say for certain if this is why Simon doesn’t like to share the exact meanings of the lyrics he’s written, but I think I understand the possible reasons even more so now than before.
There is no right or wrong “answer” for what a painting, picture, dance work, song, or even a book or poem might mean. We are meant to come away with our own feelings and meanings based on our own life experiences and perceptions. That’s a tough pill to swallow for those who operate in terms of black and white and want to know what Simon was thinking. For the many who, like me, fall into the grey area – this is bliss. The songs can mean whatever we need them to mean. It’s a gift from the artist to the rest of us.