I’ve been on a Beatles kick lately. It’s beause I have recently acquired 90% of their albums–I had Sgt. Pepper’s since high school on CD, but not any of their others, and the tapes I had previous to that had long since been lost/disintegrated/become obsolete by the means I have to play them–and I’ve been working through their entire catalog of songs, many of which I hadn’t heard despite growing up listening to them with my dad, on my own, and with my best friend’s dad who is an archetypal Beatles Fanboi. I have somewhat unwillingly found myself picking up pieces of trivia about the band members themselves, their attitudes, their inspirations. I don’t care about that stuff (but that’s another post)–I just sometimes see it when I pull up a youtube video of a specific song and it’s in the description, or if I’m skimming their Wiki page to remind myself the year of release for a given song or album or something.
Anyway, one of my new favorite songs is “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and it’s one of the songs about which I accidentally saw some background.
The Wiki entry says something to the effect of “John dismissed it later, called it a throwaway song or a box of nothing in bright packaging.” One youtube video I watched (just to listen to it at work) lists theories of what inspired the song, and the theories sort of back up Lennon’s point–they are all so lame. The most memorable was ”Mick Jaggers’ girlfriend who was in a band.”
Both of those pieces of information (Lennon’s words and the fan theories) reinforce my belief that, as a consumer of art, you never want to know what actually inspired a piece or what it meant to the artist, and that as an artist you shouldn’t try to judge your own work. It doesn’t matter what it meant to the artist; what matters is what it means to the people who invest themselve in it.
Being dismissive of one’s own work when people love it reminds me a bit of Kaylee in theFireflyepisode “Safe House”: “If that’s what you think of this life, then what must you think of them that choose it?” I mean, if “nothing in bright packaging” was what Lennon thought of that song, and presumably some of his other songs, then what did he think of the people who loved them and found meaning in them? Did he dismiss them, too, find them easily fooled by the pretty words and prettier guitar licks?
I mean, I kind of get the whole “I don’t want to be worshipped” thing. In high school I had classmates who talked about me like I was someone special for being smart, but to me, it wasn’t something special. It’s what I was born, it’s what I had always been, and in my own eyes grades or test scores I got as a result of being smart enough to remember facts without studying was not something to be proud of, because it was easy for me. I didn’t want to be admired for what I couldn’t help being. So I can understand the perspective of an artist who sees their work as disposable, as not something to be admired or lauded because it came to them easy, and to see the people who look at it and think it meant something or is something worth admiring you for creating are just…fools. I can see that.
But the flip side is, when someone doesn’t know what depth (or lack thereof) created a piece of art…when they don’t have anything but that piece to look at…it might mean something to them. Its value to them is entirely separate from its value to the artist; the observer cannot see the effort (or lack thereof) that went into the piece. All they have is the piece, and what it makes them as observer think or feel or see.
In my opinion it’s arrogant for an artist to be dismissive of their own work once they have published it. Once it’s in the world, interacting with people other than yourself and those who know you well enough to guess where the work came from, it’s beyond your reach. Whatever meaning it had to you, it can still have for you…as an observer of the piece. But you can’t control what others find in your work, and you shouldn’t try. I appreciate the authors and directors who create ambiguous or obtuse works and just smile when people ask what it meant. What matters is not what it meant to them that created it…what matters is what it means to those who observe it.
I know for me this song has a helluva lot more meaning to it than nothing in a bright package. Sorry, John–that wasn’t for you to decide, my love.