Why aren't our personal interpretations of songs good enough?
The most fought over question I've come across in my sixteen months of song explaining is this: Whose interpretation matters more--mine or the writer's? And it's a good question. Chronicles of Narnia and Cambridge English professor C.S. Lewis writes in An Experiment in Criticism that people wonder, "Why . . . should I turn from a real and present experience--what the poem means to me, what happens to me when I read it--to inquiries about the poet's intention or reconstructions, always uncertain, of what it may have meant to his contemporaries?"
If we replace "poetry" with "song," we have the basic question that people ask me on my blog and the main reason most take offense that I've tried to explain song meanings. They have a deeply personal experience with a song and are hurt that someone would seem to invalidate it by questioning whether their meaning actually exists.
And, when I think of it from their perspective, I understand their worries. It feels like something is being stolen--something very important that they've created.
But it's not as simple as that, and I am going to give you three reasons why you should risk losing your meaning and still look for the author's intent anyway:
- Like Lewis says, "the poem in my head which I make from my mistranslations . . . or misunderstandings . . . may possibly not be so good as the work [the poet] actually made." We may find that what the songwriter intended is actually better than what we have imagined, and so we may learn something new or understand beauty a little bit better if we let go of our interpretations for a minute.
- Lewis also says, "Secondly, why not have both?" Listeners sometimes create a false dichotomy when they think only one interpretation of a song can exist. And the funny thing is that this is the thing they were fighting in the first place!
- I want to end with a personal reason: We should embrace author-based meanings because when we listen to a song and interpret with ourselves as the soul interpreter, we can only interpret it with things we already know. We are less able to receive epiphanies or truths that we don't already know about. When we listen for what someone else means, we open ourselves to more experiences and can grow as people instead of being satisfied with only who we are already.
Let me know what your reasons for finding deeper meanings in music are, and let's keep discussing what these songs mean.