Saturday, March 01, 2008

A Day in the Life: An Analysis

In last week's essay I made only passing reference to the Beatles' cultural importance. Most of the critical attention to the band today seems to dwell on the concept that they were a symbol of the 1960s zeitgeist (it's just too hard not to notice how they went from black and white mop tops to psychedelic full color in three years). But to take an exclusively Historicist approach to analyzing their work is a disservice to everyone. Their best work deserves to be lauded for its timelessness, not it's connection to a specific time. The beauty of the song "A Day in the Life" is that it could serve as an exploration of a day in the life of anyone in 1928, 1968, or 2008.

In an album overflowing with irony, there is something oddly poignant in a closing track with a title that eschews all trace of irony. The song lyrics attempt something ambitious and modest at the same time (and the musical accompaniment will do the same). Rather than the cosmic soul-searching lifted from the Tibetan Book of the Dead that closes out Revolver, rather than the absurd irony of "Her Majesty" at the end of Abbey Road, the group sets out to capture both the mundane and the transcendent in holding for examination one day in the life of any given individual. Allow me the indulgence of a line-by-line analysis:

I read the news today oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade

The day begins, as it does for so many, with vicarious living. Perhaps the daily routine of starting with the morning paper has been supplanted in recent years with the computer homepage or the morning television news, but the modern experience is as much about plugging into others' experience as in seeking out personal experience. The "oh boy" is an interesting exclamation. On one hand, it would seem to denote a sudden shock, but due to the repetitive nature of the phrase's utterance, it actually doesn't carry all that much emotional potency. It would seem that the newspaper reader has run across an item that they know should inspire feeling, but all they can do is go through the motions.

And though the news was rather sad
Well I just had to laugh

A double consciousness emerges. The reader knows the emotional reactions that are expected of him, he knows how he is supposed to behave, but the redundancy and repetition of the experience has dulled him. Who can watch the TV news anymore and muster empathy for the world's 818 kazillionth victim of a house fire? Even worse, though, because we use the same media for news that we use for entertainment, we tend to conflate the two. The sad news becomes a source of amusement.

I saw the photograph.
He blew his mind out in a car
He didn't notice that the lights have changed

Here the tragicomedy of the previous lines is validated. The possibility of having one's mind literally blown out because of a momentary lapse in perception is so horrifying that it almost needs to be made into a joke. However, the fact that the photograph exists, and is published, is a constant reminder that it is real. One can imagine that the photo dominates the reading experiencing. The reader feels the need for some closure.

A crowd of people stood and stared
They'd seen his face before
Nobody was really sure
If he was from the House of Lords.

In the effort to find closure, the reader puts himself on the scene. It doesn’t seem likely that the news account would include details of the crowd’s perception, so we’ve gone from a literal reading of the account and the consequent emotions to some kind of nebulous fantasy. This will not be the last time in the song the narrator goes into a daydream. This is only fitting, for in any given individual’s “day in the life,” there is likely more imagined experience than actual experience.

I saw a film today oh boy
The English Army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book
I'd love to turn you on.

One can imagine the narrator reading the newspaper in bed, then absent mindedly turning on what he would refer to as the “telly,” and seeing some kind of war footage: it might be the British army in WWII, it might be some overseas campaign in Africa, or it might be in Iraq. Just as with the newspaper, the emotions that one would be expected to have upon seeing their national army victorious is blunted. In fact, the narrator feels a sense of isolation, as if he has the experience that so many of us do when watching TV: “I wonder if I’m the only one watching this.” His curiosity seems to be piqued because of recently reading a book about the subject. He thinks about how lovely it would be if there were no need for war, if everything were perfect, his thoughts start to get more irrational, and as symbolized by the orchestral break, he falls asleep. The alarm clock jolts him awake, and the shift in lead vocals from Lennon to McCartney tell us that the day is beginning in earnest.

Woke up, fell out of bed,
Dragged my comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup,
And looking up I noticed I was late.

The abstraction of the previous section has been replaced by sheer pragmatic survival mode. We have elements of the comedic in the notion of falling out of bed and “dragging” instead of “combing” one’s hair, but the sheer urgency of the situation precludes much time for any subjectivity.

Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke,
Somebody spoke and I went into a dream.

Precious time is lost in searching for a coat that was probably cast aside without much thought the previous night. Fortune smiles on the narrator, and he gets his ride just in time (and though I won’t belabor the point I made last week, it is still remarkable to me that the biggest celebrities on the planet remember the stress of having to get to the bus on time). But as is typical of the modern life, there is a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. After all the energy expended in getting to the workplace on time, the quality of the time spent there does not justify that expenditure. Rather than engage in something productive, the worker diverts himself with tobacco (which today would probably be coffee or a Krispy Kreme donut), and immediately lapses into daydream as the “somebody,” presumably a boss but maybe an annoying co-worker, drones on about something in the background. The shift back to Lennon again shows the shift in intensity of the narrative.

I read the news today oh boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.
I'd love to turn you on

The daydream turns the narrator’s thoughts back to the newspaper. Lost in the story about the tragic automobile crash was the story about the potholes discovered in Blackburn, Lancashire (an actual news story that Lennon used in writing the song). Although the newspaper would likely only mention the number of holes and the plans to fill them in, a reader would likely fixate on the implications inherent in the story, the probability that someone actually had to count the potholes, even the small ones. While the connection to the Albert Hall seems tenuous, our stream of consciousness is built upon tenuous and seemingly random associations. The last line is, as in its previous place in the song, jarring. This is appropriate given that our thoughts of the minuscule are often jarred by the realization that we are thinking about the minuscule. The narrator again grieves over the insignificance that permeates so much of his life, while wishing for something greater. The concluding music crescendo echoes this earnest desire, before ending on a final note that somehow seems to convey both permanence and fleetingness, finality and tentativeness.

Next Week: A final thought on the legacy of Sgt. Pepper’s, and why Don McLean got it wrong


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