Monday, December 26, 2011

The Boy in the Bubble

What is a knife? To a surgeon at the operating table, it's a tool for saving a life. To an attorney prosecuting an alleged killer, it's a weapon for taking a life.

The ability for technology to be used for either good or ill is the basis of this song, but even deeper is the idea that technology is ahead of us and accelerating, while our moral development is evolving at a much slower pace.

The song opens on a "a slow day," somewhere warm, possibly tropical. The place is either at war or on alert, as there are "soldiers by the side of the road." Suddenly, an explosion shocks this commercial street. This terrorist-style attack was perpetrated through two means. One was technology-- "a bomb... wired through the radio." The other, sociology-- no one expected a bomb in a "baby carriage."

"These are the days of miracle and wonder," our speaker assures us. Look at all of the technological marvels we possess: the "long-distance [telephone] call," the "slo[w]-mo[tion] camera," the amazing telescopes that allow us to see "a distant constellation" up close.

And yet... it is a "long-distance" call, and a "distant" constellation, and a "dying" one at that. Does the technology that allows us to communicate at a distance... keep us at a distance? Are we farther apart now, because we can be? And did we want to be that way all along?

The idea that the light reaching us from a star takes so long to arrive that the star that emitted it may itself be long dead is a relatively new one. And cameras that "look to us all," I believe, was a reference to video surveillance and security cameras. Only now, with YouTube, we truly do "look to us all," as we shine the omnipresent cameras on ourselves.

The chorus concludes that these advances are ultimately for the betterment of mankind, so whomever he is reassuring (the listener, too) should not "cry."

In the next verse, we have a description of what appears to be a sandstorm, worsening an existing drought: "a dry wind... swept across the desert... dead sand/ falling." The famine and thirst it has engendered is devastating whole families and, it seems even to be reaching into the womb to snuff out the yet unborn: "it curled into the circle of birth."

But what is "automatic earth"? Is it a synthetic substance like asphalt or concrete that hardens into a new surface "automatically"? Is it some dirt-like substitute, or even foreign topsoil, that was brought in to stimulate local agriculture and produce crops "automatically"? Whatever it is, it is not helping the situation. A more horrible thought is that, in paving over the existing "earth," this supposed benefit actually caused the environmental disaster now unfurling.

In the bridge, the first three references are not exactly about new technology. For those who don't know basketball terminology, a "turnaround jump shot" starts with the player having his (or her) back to the basket. He receives the ball, spins to face the basket, jumps, and shoots-- a very difficult maneuver executed in a mere second. The speaker seems to say that technology is the same; we receive the science of the past, then wheel around to hurl it at the future, taking but a second's time to aim it.

Next, we have the "jumpstart," the use of electrical cables to help use the power of one person's car battery to start another's car. If "everybody" jumpstarts-- if everyone's energy, or ideas, are borrowed, where did the first charge come from? Also, the "everybody jumpstart" sounds like everyone jumping from having been startled; we can all be startled by the same thing all at once only if we are all apprised of the same news all at once, as we were by CNN and now Twitter.

Third, we have the notion that "every generation throws a hero up the pop charts," meaning charts that measure the sales of popular music. Simon himself has been up and down the charts several times, and has no illusions that this unusual album of South African music-- controversial even before its release-- will be his next hit. If not, well, he has had his chance in his "generation" already, hasn't he?

Then we are back to surprising new technologies: "Think of the Boy in the Bubble/ And the baby with the baboon heart." This first medical reference was to a case in which a boy was born with an extremely weak immune system. His parents enveloped his sterilized room in equally sterile plastic, forming a "bubble" which he was not allowed to leave; the case was dramatized in a popular television movie called "The Boy In the Bubble," and later used as a "Seinfeld" subplot.

The other is another true case of a baboon-to-human heart transplant, recently referred to in an episode of Glee (Sue, running for office against Kurt's father, accuses him, a heart-surgery survivor, of having a baboon heart.)

The last amazing technology referred to is cellular telephone and communications technology, or possibly CDs, reaching even into undeveloped areas: "lasers in the jungle/ staccato signals of constant information."

The idea of such space-age technology in a land of "jungles," "desert[s]," and tropical "beating sun" (for instance, Africa), is shocking and sobering. Are they ready for this? Is anyone? Or will we just use our knowledge to blow each other up?

And who is responsible for all this? A government that is as at least theoretically answerable to the people... an army upholding code of honor... religious leaders with ostensible moral standing? Not even close-- just "a loose affiliation of millionaires/ And billionaires," whose only higher power is the Almighty Dollar.

"Don't cry, baby, don't cry." New technology can be frightening. In-home electricity, gunpowder, and even torches were probably all terrifying to those who first saw them. Yet, we lived through those advances. Now, we live in homes surrounded by dishwashers, compact fluorescent bulbs, Paxil and iPads... and have to be worried about identity theft.

There are always those who will use a knife, or a laser, to kill rather than to heal. But we can't halt progress because of that. We have to trust that we will be all right in general, just as we always have... and that in the days of "miracle and wonder," our hearts' ability to tell us what we should do may finally catch up with our brains' ability to tell us what we can.

Musical note:
This album's music is based in the many forms found in South Africa. Some native instruments, and local uses of standard instruments, weave together to form a musical tapestry unheard in most other lands, especially under the boycott of South Africa's discriminatory policy of apartheid.

One of the guitarists on this track is Adrian Belew, a cutting-edge musician with several fascinating and quirky albums of his own. Here, he plays a guitar synthesizer, as he also does on two later tracks.

The accordion-- as it happens, the first sound heard on the album-- is played by one Forere Motloheloa, who is credited as co-writer of the song.

The bass is played by Bakithi Kumalo, who appears on five tracks and is responsible for the famous bass solo on "Call Me Al." He still records and tours with Simon today. A Vusi Khumalo plays drums on this track and the next, but I am unsure of their exact relation.

The song is also marked by an excellent music video comprised of a moving collage, similar to ones around that time by Peter Gabriel ("Big Time") and the Talking Heads ("And She Was").

IMPACT (album):
Paul Simon did not "invent" world music. Latin sounds, for instance, had been part of American music thanks to Xavier Cugat, Desi Arnaz, and Richie Valens, and Caribbean music had been performed by Harry Belafonte and Bob Marley.

But the Graceland album was the work that necessitated it eventually having its own Grammy category and inspired many musicians to expand their musical horizons. David Byrne, for instance would use many international melodies and rhythms in his 1989 album Rei Momo.

Graceland won the Grammy for Album of the Year, and hit #3 on the US album charts. It went to #1 in Australia, Canada, The Netherlands, France, Switzerland, and The UK, reaching the top five in Germany and Italy... and even breaking the top 50 in Japan. It went platinum 5 times over and sold more than 14 million copies.

The album shows up on many lists of "the greatest albums of all time," "most influential albums of all time," etc.

For Simon, it professionally meant that he was still an extremely potent force in popular music. And personally, it was a major step in finding the roots of the music that made him want to be a musician to begin with, when he was just a kid with a radio.

Next song: Graceland


  1. Does anyone (else) see a connection between the lyrics to the above Paul Simon Song and the Arthur C Clarke short story "The Star"? Specifically, "... the way we look to a distant constellation that's dying in a corner of the sky ..."

  2. I am sorry; while I consider myself somewhat of a science-fiction fan, I have not read any Clarke, mostly sticking with Asimov, Bradbury, Wells, Verne, and others. Can you say more about the story?

    1. Strange that I can answer a six-year-old question, but I see that you're still reading responses, so here is the summary:

      In the future, a human scientific expedition visits a planet orbiting a dwarf star. They find the planet had been inhabited by an advanced and accomplished civilization that apparently died off when the star went nova. The narrator, who is the expedition's astrophysicist and is also a Jesuit priest, does the calculation and realizes that the star that went nova had to be the star at Bethlehem. He has a crisis of faith as he realizes that a civilization had to die for his religion to have been born.

    2. wvc-- Thank you! I can see why the other commenter was reminded of the Clarke story. I don't know if Simon knows that story, either, though.
      But constellations do die, and they may even be gone by the time their light reaches our telescopes, which also sounds like it could be the basis for a sci-fi story-- we finally get a signal from an alien race only to realize they were gone ages ago.

  3. Can anyone tell me what instrument produces that wonderful bass sound in the beginning of this production? I can't place sounds like a wind instrument, not a percussion one.

  4. It starts with an accordion, then a drum, then a the bass is performed by a guitar. The liner notes credit Baghiti Khumalo with "bass" so it could be his bass... but it also credits Adrian Belew, an experimental musician, with "synthesizer guitar," so he may have created a new sound just for this song. He's the kinda guy who can do that.

  5. Interesting analysis of a super great song. I didn't realize until recently that Graceland was influenced by one of my favorite artists, a South African singer called Johnny Clegg (that's what I get for not reading the liner notes). It makes me wonder if listening to this album as a child led to me being interested in Johnny Clegg later.

  6. Being a fan of both Clegg and the "Graceland" album makes perfect sense to me! I think the album has more in common with Clegg's sparkling sound than, say, that of other African artists like Fela Kuti.