Monday, June 4, 2012

Ten Years

Another relatively obscure song, unless you watch daytime television. In that case, you may recall Oprah Winfrey's talk show opening with this song a while back, written as it was in honor of the show's 10th anniversary.

The song begins in the second person, but with the same image that began "Call me Al": "You are moving on a crowded street." The next line recalls one from "What a Wonderful World," which spoke of how "The colors of the rainbow.../ are also on the faces of the people going by." Simon summarizes this as "Through various shades of people."

Despite the crowds and the sweltering temperatures, you are preoccupied with other matters; there is a "A story in your eye." What can you do about this?

Talking about it (on TV, maybe?) might help: "Well, speak until your mind is at ease."

"Ten years come and gone so fast/ I might as well have been dreaming," Anyone who has been married, or in a job, or having raised a child for that long can attest to this... as can other songs ("Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof comes to mind.)

But the time has not always been pleasant: "Sunny days have burned a path/ Across another season." The image of the sun "burning" seems more in place with the early S&G cover "The Sun in Burning" than Simon's solo song "Was a Sunny Day," with its imagery of happy people and "birdies" twittering.

The line "A fortune rises to the sky" seems somewhat cruel, as if Oprah had become a billionaire just for the heck of it. I'm not saying she didn't, just that if you are writing a song in someone's honor you could phrase that observation more politely... or just ignore it. Then again, it may not be piles of money, but the other sense of "fortune": luck.

The next verse is more grim. There is a "an empty road," and "a shady river," images that could be either positive or negative..."When the sky turns dark as stone/ And the trees begin to shiver." 

But, luckily, "The grace of God is nigh... And that flash has never been forgotten." God's grace, rather than being, well, graceful, is seen as a "flash," as of lightning. Even if it is not harsh, it is certainly fleeting.

This surprisingly cynical song then grows more serious, and asks a question that is central to much of Winfrey's work: "How do the powerless survive?" Yes, she occasionally interviewed a celebrity, or gave away high-end gifts. But much of her show was concerned with asking guests how they had survived seemingly impossible situations.

He answers his own question: "A familiar light/ burning in the distance/ The love that never dies." While this love is eternal, it is not seen as divine; that sort of love was dismissed as a "flash" in the pan-- enduring in memory alone. This other, human "light," like is seen as "burning" like the sun-- it is "distant" yet constant, and therefore more reliable, in terms of helping "powerless" people themselves survive their ordeals.

The song is full of the imagery of heat and light. The heat in the first verse is oppressive, so much so that the "shade" in the second verse seems a welcome respite. Throughout, we have the imagery of the Sun "burning a path"-- we get the image of a ray of fire actually "blazing" a trail with its heat. Then the same word, "burning," is used to indicate the love that never dies, which inspires similar indomitablity in those who see its flame.

This is a bit... off. I see Dr. Phil as the one who seeks to cure by the cauterizing fire of intense honesty, while his mentor, Oprah, sought to heal by light, not heat. Perhaps our focus, in the phrase "A familiar light/ burning," we should be on the word "light," not "burning"... and maybe the word should have been "glowing" this time?

Then again, Simon could be making a point. Sure, we see Oprah's smile beaming from our TVs. But let's not forget, even if it is "distant," the fiery passion of her drive. Yes, to amass wealth, but also to simply help people. She could have stayed at the Jerry Springer level of talk-show discourse. She chose not to, and forced the industry to change to her vision.

Personally, I am not a huge Oprah fan, but we should give her her due. On the balance, her show did much more good than harm. If nothing else, she got people to read again with that book club of hers.

One last note-- Simon often goes for the perfect rhyme, and here there is abundant slant rhyme: fast/path, road/stone, life/light, season/dreaming/forgotten, ease/sky/nigh/survive/dies. It could be that this was a rush job, or that rhyme was less important this time, given the variety of topics Oprah covered over a decade. 

Next song: Rockabilly Music 

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