Monday, June 14, 2010

Mrs. Robinson

The S&G hits presented in The Graduate pre-existed the movie. Even this one. Simon was working on a song called "Mrs. Rosenberg" when Mike Nichols, the movie's director, asked them to provide the soundtrack.

And the song, while sharing a character with the movie, has little to do with what we see onscreen. The song starts with dialogue that seems to come from a doctor in a mental hospital. It has been suggested that the some is an epilogue of sorts; after the disturbing events of the film, Mrs. Robinson checks into a clinic or sanitarium for treatment or simply escape.

Then there is talk in the song of religion, politics, and baseball... none of which is part of the film. The filmic Mrs. Robinson would not come within a hundred yards of a "cupcake." So, for the purposes of discussing this song, we are going to basically ignore the film.

While some versions start with the first verse, the album version starts with the chorus. Which, as mentioned, offers religious solace to the main character, who evidently has gone through some trauma. The references to Jesus hearken back to Wednesday Morning, S&G's first album under that name, while the "hey," "whoa," and "coo-coo-ca-choo" utterances recall their even earlier work, as Tom and Jerry. (It has been suggested that "coo-coo-ca-choo" refers to the "I Am the Walrus" nonsense lyric "goo-goo-ga-joob," which The Beatles had released the previous year. Perhaps this is Simon's way of kiddingly taunting Mrs. Robinson, "nyah-nyah" style, with the nonsense of "kids these days.")

The song's overarching tension, then, is (as is the films's) between the Ozzie and Harriet superficiality of the 1950s and the more free-wheeling spirit of the 1960s. Obviously, the truth is more complicated; the 1950s had their share of societal and familial dysfunction and rebellion. But the kids of the 1960s seem to want to stop pretending, at least, that these things weren't real.

Now comes the verse that seems to come from the lips of a mental-hospital director-- soothing and euphemistic. This is not a madhouse, no, it's a place you'd "stroll around" and "feel at home," almost a resort! And yet, they have "files" on their, er, guests.

The following verse continues this idea of a veil of homeyness hiding some sort of less-than-flattering reality, with the word "hide" or "hiding" used three times. While the "pantry," with its "cupcakes," seems quaint, the fact is that "no one ever goes" there anyway; the deception is pointless. Just as the community knows about the indiscreet Roger from the previous song, "everybody knows" what all the tip-toeing is about.

The word "affair," following by the winking of the bent guitar note, is the only real connection between the song and the film. And, frankly, it wasn't the "Robinsons'"-- plural-- affair, in that Mr. Robinson was oblivious. Unless he had someone on the side too, which the movie does not explore... but we wouldn't be much surprised.

And, frankly, how does one hide the affair "from the kids" when one of the kids is whom the affair is with? Further, who is singing the song in the first place? People closer in age to Benjamin, certainly, than Mrs. Robinson. The kids already know, too.

So, medicine and religion are not helpful. Maybe it's society's fault. Maybe it's the tone the leaders set for the nation. Well, looking in that direction is not going to help much, either. In observing "the candidates' debate," it becomes clear that this is another no-win situation: "Ev'ry way you look at it, you lose."

And so we come back to the heroes, like DiMaggio, of that bygone era, the 1950s. Regardless of its racism, sexism, and other roiling issues that erupted into the 1960s, many citizens the United States are firmly fixed on that decade as having been some sort of pristine, perfect America that we are getting further from and need to get back to, as a nation. Meanwhile, many others are willing to take that era and, well, leave it to Beaver.

It hardly matters. Mrs. Robinson knows-- "Joltin' Joe has... gone away." Try as we might to get back to the perfection of the past-- which only truly existed in our childhood minds-- we cannot. We cannot have the 1950s again, any more than we can become teenagers again. The only direction we can grow is up.

The song has no answers. It looks hopefully toward, then disappointedly away from, science, politics, and popular culture. Its discussion of religion is never fully developed, although Garfunkel's lovely descant behind the mentions of Jesus hint that it might be the best hope among the available options.

The 1950s were long past, although those who grew up during them were still largely running the show. The following decade, with its willingness to question authority and its principles, rankled the earlier generation. This split has only grown deeper in today's political and social situation, the rift between the backward-lookers and the forward-lookers.

Dylan might have said it more plainly-- "The times, they are a'changin'"-- but Simon's take at least acknowledges that those who would put the breaks on progress deserve some glances from "sympathetic eyes." After all, they don't make 'em like Joltin' Joe anymore.

IMPACT: This song is one of a handful on which S&G's reputation truly rests. It was a huge hit, one of the few instances in which the popularity of a movie and a song enhanced each other. Up through 2002 (the most recent figures I could easily find), it was one of the most-played songs on the radio, with over 6 million airplays (While several other songs have as many, only five have 7 million or more).

Simon won Best Pop Vocal at the Grammys for this song, which also won Record of the Year (an award for a performer and producer, while Song of the Year goes to the songwriter and Album of the Year is for an entire album). The song was nominated for Song of the Year, but did not win. However, it is now in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Simon also shared in the Grammys given to those responsible for the movie's score.

Simon sang this song in a lovely, solo acoustic version on Joe DiMaggio Day at Yankee Stadium... another icon that has left and gone away.

As for "Mrs. Robinson," she was replaced by the "MILF," and now the "cougar." But she's still very much around.

Next song: A Hazy Shade of Winter


  1. Agreed,this is a terrible fit for the movie. Makes no sense whatsoever---only the 2nd verse could be vaguely connected.

    It seems like the "Jesus loves you" is meant to be irreverent. Obviously Paul has no religious beliefs, and it doesn't seem as though he's taking God or Jesus seriously in the song. It was originally written of course with "Mrs. Roosevelt," which makes it fit a little better as a toast or tribute, but with Mrs. Robinson it's just odd.

  2. This is definitely one of those songs for which you need a bit of the background story.

    But when did he say "Roosevelt"? As in Eleanor? I remember it being "Rosenberg." I don't know about it referring to (Julius and) Ethel Rosenberg. She did not go to a mental institution, after all. Maybe he just meant the typical New York middle-class housewife.

    Further, why someone would assure someone named Rosenberg about Jesus' love is mystifying. So maybe the Jesus part came in when the Rosenberg part left...?

  3. Mrs. Robinson/Mrs. Roosevelt has something to hide. Her secret does not fit neatly into the 'high standards' of the conventional society. So, society must fix her one way or the other. Maybe they can change her by converting her religiously. Or, they can put her forever away in a state hospital.

  4. Anon-- This is one song for which we have a whole movie's worth of information about a character.
    If someone transgresses a community standard, as you point out, we say they must be either "bad" or "mad."
    If they are bad, they have to be punished (not if they are rich enough, of course)-- or made good. If they are mad (crazy), they must be made healthy. So yes, we have both references to religion and sanitariums here.
    But no, she can't be allowed back into her social circle for some time, if ever.
    I would say that as far as adultery goes, that on the one hand most societies condemn it, going all the way back to the Bible. It's not "high standards" [SPOILER] to say "don't cheat on your spouse." Those are just... standard standards.
    If anything, high society-- especially of the time-- can be more accepting of it (see the "key party" scene in the movie "The Ice Storm").