Monday, March 19, 2012

The Obvious Child

The speaker begins by trying to explain, perhaps to himself, where he is in life, now that he is getting on. He says he used to an easy life... or maybe he's just not assertive anymore and takes it easy. He doesn't want to be babied... but he doesn't expect an anxiety-free life, which he sees as the trade-off. He's got a lot to work though yet.

Now, the easier way to read the next passage would be to have it: "Some people say a lie’s a lie’s a lie/ But I say why/ Why deny the obvious, Child?" meaning, "Some people say all lies are equal, but I say, 'Come on, Dude, it's obvious that some are far worse than others.'"

But that's not what it says. The liner notes, Simon's website, and the Lyrics book all agree: The line is "Why deny the obvious child?"-- i.e., the child who is obvious.

So we have one side of the argument being: "All lies are equal," and the speaker taking up the contrary position, which is that we should not... deny the existence of a certain child. And just who is this "child" who is, or should be, seen by all? The Baby Jesus? I can't think of a more famous child...

Or perhaps it is not a "child" at all. Perhaps the word "child" is a metaphor for "result." If you think that all lies are equal, then the result of that logic means that, say, the lie of a president is morally equivalent to the lie "I've had a great time!" tossed backward while exiting a dull party.

Next, Simon has some fun with us: "And in remembering a road sign/ I am remembering a girl when I was young." Oh dear, what sign could that be? A disappointing one, like "STOP"? A welcome one, like "YIELD"? Perhaps an eyebrow-raising one, like "ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK" or even "DANGEROUS CURVES AHEAD." (Feel free to join in, in the comments!)

They did agree on the hopefulness and heightened emotion of youth: "We said, “These songs are true/ These days are ours/ These tears are free.” (Shades of Springsteen's line: "We learned more from a three-minute record/ Than we ever learned in school.")

The next enigmatic line was actually interpreted by Simon, in an interview. My mother guessed that it referred to a papal visit to a sports stadium. I thought it meant that the lines between first base and third, and then second base and home plate, resembled a cross in the ballpark.

But Simon said-- and he was clear that all listeners are entitled to their own interpretations-- that "the cross is in the ballpark" came from fusing two idioms; "The crosses that we bear, they're in the ballpark, they're doable." I have also heard this phrased: "God never gives us more than we can handle."

The speaker then explains why he brought up that "girl"-- he had a child with her: "We had a little son and we thought we’d call him Sonny." Then we hear Sonny's story, how he "gets married," "has a baby" and still feels as "sunny" as his parents did when they were young. Not like his father, the speaker (see the first verse).

The next chorus has the speaker talking about the actual Sun, and how he follows it across the entire day. "Some people say the sky is just the sky," he muses, "But...why deny the obvious child?" Again, the result of that thought is despair. The sky is more than just the atmosphere the sunlight passes through. It is a source of life-giving oxygen, the protective shield against the coldness of space, possibly the abode of angels.

Back to Sonny. Sonny is feeling uncharacteristically pensive and stifled, and is perhaps having a midlife crisis (his hair is "thinning"). So he finds his high school yearbook and sees how he is doing, compared to others his age.

Simon's site has a major error here; it has the line "roots are like cages." The book and liner notes, as well as the sound in the song, are clear. The line is "rooms" are like cages. This is key, as the word "room" appears three times in two stanzas "The light across my room"; "the room of my day"; and this line. While his father can feel connected to the whole "sky" from his "room," Sonny feels that his is a "cage." Then the site screws up again; the word is "idly," not "idle."

So... how are Sonny's classsmates doing? Not well. Some have "fled from themselves"-- Had breakdowns? Made compromises that denied their desires?-- and some have simply passed on. So Sonny "wanders beyond his interior walls"--either by simply going outside, or by realizing that his life now consists of others as well as himself (his wife, his baby) to whom he is connected.

The song closes with the first verse repeating, with alterations. The speaker, for all of the thoughts he has just worked through, seems unchanged. But then...

Simon folds two ideas into one. The lines "a lie's a lie's a lie" combined with "the sky is just the sky" to form "a lie is just a lie."

In other words, some people think that a a lie is just that, an isolated untruth. But no, it is more than that. A lie can be a roadblock, or a burden you carry your whole life. But that burden, that cross, is actually "in the ballpark."

How does he come to realize this? Well, "why deny the obvious child?"

OK, already, who is that? Why, his own child, Sonny. Obviously.

The child who was there all along. The child who still carried the joy of his father's youth, the joy he was raised with. The youthful joy that said "These songs are true... and hey, the cross is in the ballpark."

And Sonny realizes this in his own "baby," his own "obvious child."

So maybe Kafka was wrong when he said "The meaning of life is that it ends." Kafka, who did not have children, did not have an obvious child to show him-- the meaning of life is that it begins all over again.

Musical Note:
The percussion part is performed by a Brazillian drum ensemble called Olodum. They were founded in 1979 and have brought many youths into music, while pioneering a blend of samba, reggae, and African rhythms. Simon brought them to New York for his Concert in Central Park.

To record this track, the ensemble performed outside, as no studio was large enough to hold their 20-plus drummers. (I am not clear if their name, "Olodum," is connected to that of the Yoruba deity "Olodumare," mentioned in a song later on the album.) They later appeared on the Michael Jackson track "They Don't Care About Us."

Another Brazillian act, a vocalist named Briz, sang backup. And two noted American musicians appear as well-- Fabulous Thunderbirds vocalist Kim Wilson on harmonica, and Michael Brecker on his Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI).

Simon brought several of his Graceland session musicians to Brazil with him for this album, his next major project.

The Rhythm of the Saints peaked at #4 on the US album chart, and while this track did chart, it did not crack the Top 40. The album did better in the UK, topping the charts; there, the song reached #15. Worldwide sales overall sent the album over the multi-platinum mark.

In 2014, a movie about "an unplanned pregnancy" titled Obvious Child was released; the song is on the soundtrack.

Next Song: Can't Run But


  1. I'd add that are religious undertones to the song.

    "The obvious child" brings in mind the child of god, "the sky is just the sky" means people the existence of god, and obviously, "the cross is in the ballpark".

  2. I did cover that territory. Please refer to Paragraph 4.

  3. Thanks for this, I've had this song bouncing around in my head a lot lately but couldn't quite get a handle on some of the metaphors. With his songs, I often easily get a particular feeling he's conveying, but can't always see the details in the words. I think that's why I like him so much. This interpretation has given me a lot of very interesting things to think about. And its great to finally have "the cross is in the ballpark" explained. What a line.

  4. You're welcome. But I think that Simon himself would agree with your sense that the interpretations are personal; what does it mean? Well, what does it means to you?

  5. Are most of these lines similes or metaphor's and which ones?

  6. All your teacher cares that you learn is that similes use "like" or "as." Look for those words, and please don't try to get me to do your homework.

  7. This is one of my absolute favourite songs. Mainly because every time I listen to it, I can take a different meaning to a part of it. I honestly believe you could write a book on the multiple different interpretations and cultural references in this five minutes of lyrical glory!

  8. Caroline-- Thank you for your lovely comment. If one thing is obvious, it is that Simon is a master of multiple meanings.

  9. Caroline-- Thank you for your lovely comment. If one thing is obvious, it is that Simon is a master of multiple meanings.

  10. Another Paul, thank you for sharing your interpretation with us. :) I'm from Brazil, and you are right as to the band's name -- it does refer to that Yoruba deity, refered to in Brazil as a "saint". Their deities are never called deities in Brazil. They're all called saints. I wonder if "The Rhythm of the Saints" is a reference to that.

  11. Unknown-- Thank you for your kind words. I am gratified to know that my research was correct.
    As to the title of the album, it may refer to the custom you mention. The story I heard was different-- that the African slaves in the New World hid their worship of their native gods from their masters by lying and saying their drummed rhythms were for Christian saints.
    Interestingly, there is a Jewish version of this idea. The dreidel tops played with at Chanukah were a distraction to Roman soldiers who were enforcing their Empire's ban on Jewish study: "No, we are not studying, sir! See, we are gambling with these tops!"

  12. What a beautiful, beautiful explanation. The rhythm of this song was what first caught my attention and propelled it to favorite-song-ever status, but now that I understand the lyrics as well...

    A more wonderful blog would be impossible to find. I'm immensely excited to read your Stranger to Stranger posts, once the album is released. Thank you so much for sharing your insight into every single one of Paul's masterpieces. Each of your essays are a work of art themselves!

    Do you think there can be symbolism in Sonny's name as the Son of God as well? Sonny's bright attitude leading up to his mid-life crisis, as he continues to take up his crosses with ease, could reflect the fact that he knows what a true cross feels like. The one that's not in the ballpark,that is. The one only the Son of God lifted.

  13. Emily-- Thanks for the compliments! I am looking forward to writing my Stranger posts, myself!
    And I admit I had not thought of the interpretation of Sonny as Jesus. Perhaps it's because Sonny's parents "had a lot of fun" and "money," and Mary had not much of either. But I do think they may have named Sonny FOR Jesus, in that sense, hoping that would help him overcome adversity with grace.

  14. It might be helpful to keep in mind that Paul Simon is Jewish, so unlikely to use a Christian metaphor - though I get the temptation!

  15. Jeffe-- I am aware of Simon's religion, but if you know his material, it is rife with Christian imagery. Simon based his song "Blessed" on the Sermon on the Mount, for instance. S&G recorded several Christian hymns, including "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and the Gregorian "Benedictus." Simon regularly uses gospel singers and Christian harmony acts as backing musicians, and has referenced "church bells" in songs as early as "Bleeker Street" and recently as "Born at the Right Time." I could go on... despite his Jewish heritage, Simon is perfectly willing to, and adept at, using Christian imagery.
    That said, he uses Jewish imagery, too. But you didn't ask about that.

  16. I enjoyed your insightful analysis and further thoughtful responses. I chanced upon your blog when the song was reminded to me as I read the news of yet another pathological lie emanating from the highest office of the land. These lies ane not just lies; they are malicious murder weapons. I say, why deny the obvious children? To quote JS Bach, "sleepers awake!"

  17. Dr. Sack, Thanks for your comment and compliments. I try to keep this blog free of politics, just to keep the focus on the material.
    I'll just say that I belong to the Superman Party, whose platform only has three planks: "Truth, Justice, and the American Way."

  18. Dead interesting, thanks for the write up. I always interpreted the line "Why deny the obvious, Child" but the meaning to be different to the one you put forward (and dismiss). I thought the line meant why deny the obvious just because it is a lie. Combined with the religious imagery I thought the song was saying that even if religion is a lie it is in the right ball park and captures something so obvious that it isn't just another lie. It's worth accepting.

  19. Anon-- Thanks for the compliment. You are discussing the difference between what is factual and what is true. A very good explanation is made by Stephen Colbert in his video about "truthiness."
    As for what Simon means here, I can see how the thought "Some say 'a lie is just a lie'/ but I say 'the cross is in the ballpark.'" could be taken the way you suggest. Like they say, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

  20. I've always read "the cross is in the ballpark" to be saying that morality is a ballpark figure. It follows the line "Some people say a lie is a lie is a lie, but I say why, why deny the obvious child."

    The theme of the song is the fear of aging and leaving behind the unlimited promises of youth. Life becomes bounded (in the ballpark, the room is a cage, etc.), and possibilities are limited.

    At the same time, you realize as you age that the things you once thought clear, correct, right or moral become more complicated as you see the world and the actions of people with more clarity and compassion.

  21. breuddwydiol-- It is true that morality can be seen either as absolute or conditional. I would like to read through the lyrics again with the idea that it is about aging; it's a valuable construct to consider! (and a topic Simon deal with regularly). I wonder whether this song agrees with the Dylan observation, "I was so much older then/ I'm younger than that now," which I always read as becoming less certain of moral absolutes with age.

  22. I interpret it slightly different.
    The first form part of the song is the father who’s had a care free life.
    The third form part of the song is the son who hasn’t.
    Their conclusions, though, are both the same. Sonny’s is only more bitter.

    A lie is just a lie, the sky is just the sky, a house is just a house: these are examples of simplistic thought. It can lead to a child is just a child.
    Why deny the obvious child?
    Considering the father lived a carefree life and mistakenly thinks Sonny’s life is getting sunnier and sunnier, one also notices that the cross in the ballpark is before having a kid.

    The father reflects on the light and how it changes the room when day comes.
    The son reflects on everyone’s misery as he leaves his interior walls (which means there are exterior walls: a geriatric home, a prison, etc.).

    Perhaps a cross in the ballpark with his father would have made a difference.


  23. Shaviximir/Mark-- Thanks for your comment. Yes, it is, um, "obvious" that the father and son have had different lives, and different interpretations of, and reactions to, those lives. I don't know that it is implied that a child is just a child, though.

  24. Another Paul, this song has puzzled me more than any other of Paul's songs, but I have an idea which pulls the song together at the separate layers of meaning, including societal. In your analysis of Kodoachrome, you mention "Obvious lies" in literature and when I searched "Obvious lies" on Google, I discovered(by coincidence?) a text by Steve Biko in which he used the phrase of "Obvious lies" in explaining how South Africa had come to apartheid. Paul been to South Africa in just the previous years (coincidence?). Obvious lies takes on a signification meaning beyond the isolated two words, more like an idiom. Now, what if the song is about obvious lies, but Paul adapts obvious lies to "Obvious child" to tie the personal biographical level of meaning to the societal? So a "child is just a child" means society is also our child, we have responsibility for creating it. Why do we create an unsatisfactory world despite "the cross is in the ballpark", making a better world is doable?

  25. David-- Thanks for putting me in the ranks of Biko and Simon himself! While I am not sure I follow your logic, I cannot argue with your conclusion (and I think both Simon and Biko would as well)-- if we can make a better world, why don't we?