For the past week, I’ve had “America” by Simon & Garfunkel going through my head. Even though it’s one of my favorite songs, it’s too sad for me to listen on repeat play, so I’ve never memorized it. As a result, I’ve been going around singing it to myself, but I’ve kept getting hung up at the same part.
It’s the best line of the song:
"Kathy, I'm lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping.
The reason my brain keeps sticking on it is because the meter’s off. It repeats the same tune and general rhythm from two other parts of the song:
Let us be lovers, we'll marry our fortunes together
Toss me a cigarette, I think there's one in my raincoat
But there’s a syllable missing, which my brain keeps trying to fill up by changing it to “although I knew she was sleeping,” or “even though”, etc. This could be a perfect example of overthinking a piece of art until you’ve drained it of everything that made it sublime, but in this case, it gave me an even greater appreciation for it.
I’m used to songs that take liberties with emphasis or pronunciation to force them into a specific meter or rhyme. But Paul Simon just doesn’t do that. If anything, he’ll sacrifice meaning for the sound and rhythm of the words.
For instance: Graceland is one of the best albums ever recorded, and listening to it was actually the first time I really understood that you could choose words in a song based on how they sounded instead of what they meant.1If this seems like a shallow epiphany, realize that I was only around 14 years old at the time. Until then, my understanding of songwriting was that it was like poetry: you figure out what you want to say, and then come up with synonyms to make it fit the rhythm and meter.2Yes, I had a shallow understanding of poetry as well.
Implicit in the whole idea of Graceland is the idea that words are chosen for how they sound at least as much as for what they mean. Several of the songs have lyrics sung by South African musicians in their native languages3Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s parts of “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes” are in Zulu, according to Wikipedia, which force an English-speaking audience to hear it as music performed with words instead of words set to music. Several of the best English-language lyrics are evocative, but still seem to be emphasizing sound over quick-and-easy comprehension:
The way the camera follows us in slow-mo
My traveling companions are ghosts and empty sockets I'm looking at ghosts and empties
She was physically forgotten But then she slipped into my pocket with my car keys
The lyrics can be abstract because he could just say “ooh ooh ooh” and everybody would know exactly what he was talking about.
“You Can Call Me Al” isn’t my favorite song on Graceland, but it is the one that feels most to me like Simon just showing off what he can do as a lyricist. I think ostensibly it’s a comical take on a man having a mid-life crisis, but it’s full of abstract, evocative nonsense that I don’t think is supposed to mean anything. It’s just there because it’s inherently funny and musical when Paul Simon says stuff like
He ducked back down the alley with some roly-poly little bat-faced girl
By the end of the song, the abstract nonsense builds to something approaching a profound epiphany:
He looks around, around He sees angels in the architecture Spinning in infinity
I read it as Paul Simon using clever structure to make a comedic and catchy pop song about what could be a weighty topic. Kind of like “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” which I interpret as a warning not to over-think a breakup. That song alternates between overly wordy and poetic language with fairly complex rhythm, and then a bunch of silly, simple rhymes like “slip out the back, Jack.”
Two reasons for that long diversion about Graceland: 1) I just wanted to talk about how much I like Graceland; and 2) Being reminded of how clever Paul Simon is about song structure and the sound of words made me better appreciate how the song “America” works:
It’s structured like a folk song, where mostly identical sections repeat, instead of alternating verse and chorus. The sections, as I understand it:
- Moving forward with a purpose. These parts are the ones I mentioned at the top, which are the most rhythmic and musical, with a predictable meter. “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together.”
- Introspection. These parts feel like the narrator letting his mind wander, remembering mundane details, and they’re less rhythmic, more like free verse. “Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces.” “So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine.”
- Building to a crescendo. “It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw.” “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike.” Simply put: I’ve been searching for something, and all these other people are searching, too.
- “I’ve gone to look for America.” This is repeated with more or less the exact same structure over and over again, with one exception: the softer, sadder, “And the moon rose over an open field.” There’s a feeling of darkness and emptiness, and because it’s got the same rhythm and melody as the declaration to look for America, a sense that he’s lost his purpose. “Have I already found it, and this emptiness is all there is?”
I’m used to songs that skip words or stretch words out to force them to fit a meter, and I’m used to giving it a pass — even when it’s in the title — because I like the song.
But the phrase “Kathy, I’m lost” breaks the repeated meter, because that’s the point. The “missing syllable” is missing because that idea of disillusionment is supposed to just hang there.
- 1If this seems like a shallow epiphany, realize that I was only around 14 years old at the time.
- 2Yes, I had a shallow understanding of poetry as well.
- 3Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s parts of “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes” are in Zulu, according to Wikipedia