Often, Simon seems to have two songs going at once, sewing them together at the end. Here, it seems there are three. One is about watching fireworks on July 4, the USA's Independence Day. Another is about making life choices. And the third is about Simon's musings on his own family history.
The discussion about those things in life which we choose-- or not-- takes up the bulk of the song. The chorus, from which the title comes, sounds accusatory: "How can you live in the northeast?" Usually, when asked a question of that nature, we hear "How could you...?" or more pointedly, "How dare you...?"
But then we hear the rest of the chorus, which asks the listener how he or she could live in "the South," or on the "banks of a river"? So the question is not accusatory at all. It's a genuine question of wonder. How can you live here... when you are forgoing a life there? How does one decide, when the options are limitless, and one such choice precludes all others? This query is then extended into the realm of religion-- how can one choose to believe any one thing, when there are so many things to believe? In one of the choruses, the question is further extended to specific practices; "How can you tattoo your body/ Why do you cover your head?"
And then something as basic as food: "How can you eat from your rice bowl?" Ah, but then comes a judgment: "How can you eat from your rice bowl? The holy man only breaks bread." This comes to show how silly these judgments are, especially coming from a Western perspective. Do we really think the only holy men are the ones who eat bread, not rice? Well, then, why do we act like it?
Simon backs off in one of the verses, admitting that in fact we do not make many such decisions. They are an accident of birth, and babies are totally dependent on those adults to care for him or her: "Weak as the winter sun, we enter life on Earth." A father myself several times over, I can tell you that the next line is also correct; before we even process the idea of being a parent, a bureaucrat comes in with a form for us, demanding the name of the newborn. And then there is the ceremony welcoming the infant into the religious community and instruction in a language: "Names and religion come just after birth... everyone gets a tongue to speak." None of these major factors in our development are our own choices!
Ah, but why the word "tongue?" Why not "language?" Because we are born with that part of our anatomy-- a tongue-- with which to make our own voice heard, and our own wishes known. Once we can assemble words into our own sentences, we do start to guide our own courses more and more. After all, "everyone hears an inner voice," of consciousness and conscience. Of self-awareness. It is up to us to listen to it and decide how much of it to share with the rest of the world, and in what manner, with our "tongues."
Then Simon poses a puzzler: "If the answer is infinite light, why do we sleep in the dark?" This is not just a practical question, although even nocturnal animals find dark places to sleep during the day. But Simon has provided his own answer. The same as with sound, so with light-- if we have an inner voice, do we not also have an internal brightness? Further, is there not such a thing as "blinding light," a brightness that denies us the ability to see? We can only see this "infinite light," perhaps, with our eyes closed, and only with our subconscious mind. No matter-- it is internal in any case.
Now, what does any of this have to do with fireworks? The song starts with them, after all. The fireworks celebrate American independence from colonialism. This was one of the greatest strokes for self-determination in human history. "This is a free country," we Americans are fond of saying, but first the whole nation had to become free for the individuals in it to share in that self-determination, that liberty.
(Yes, I know... almost 300 years later and we're still working on getting everyone their fair share of that liberty! And while we are no longer a colony of the British Crown, there are still colonies aplenty on Earth, and some are American).
The holiday is a celebration of excess-- noise and explosions, fire and food, family and parades. It is "happy-go-lucky." We have created many chances in American to become lucky, and we are happy about that. And no one wants to see the party end, so we wait until the fireworks are mere "fireflies" in the sky before packing on home.
But we watch them across the "endless skies," because that's what we see when even the fireflies fade. The sky, and how endless it is. We see in its infinity the infinity of our own possibilities.
And so the question of the title might be phrased: "Now that you can do anything, what do you want to do?" And, since you can choose anything, how can you choose any one thing?
The song ends with a verse in which Simon assesses how all of this has impacted him. He is the son of immigrants, "only three generations off the boat," and has had all of the benefits of the American Dream: "I've been given all I wanted." Usually one plants, then harvests, but Simon knows that in his case, others planted for him first, so he correctly says "I have harvested and I have planted," meaning for his own children.
The song closes with the observation that "I am wearing my father's old coat." When he was born, he was given a name, a faith, a language and so forth. And like other Americans, he grew up to know that these were not the only options. That he could truly choose another name, faith, language and so forth.
But, like most people, he chose to keep the ones he had been given. How can you live in the Northeast, or anywhere else, forsaking all other places? Well, maybe you don't want to move too far from the place of your roots. Maybe, like an old coat, it just... fits.
Add to Simon's grand songs about America-- "America" and "American Tune"-- this one.
Surprise was, musically, a departure for Simon, as he made extensive use of electronic production (and electronic music guru Brian Eno) instead of his usual acoustic or electric instruments. Suzanne Vega had done the same with her 99.9oF album more than a decade before, but it was still a, um, surprise when Simon did it.
Surprise made it to #4 in the UK and cracked the Top 10 in Ireland, going gold there. In the US, it rose to "only" #14. It also made the Top 20 in much of Scandinavia and did well in other Northern European countries.
Next Song: Everything About It is a Love Song