Over the next several weeks, I plan to post a wad of song explications. There are two major reasons behind this. One, I want students to have examples to work with, and, two, I want students to know that I put myself through the same paces I put them through.
First, a bit of background on the art that is explication. Here’s a great walk through (even if it is UNC). It is a formal procedure, focusing on the poem/text itself, rather than the historical or social context of the poem/text. New Critics love this stuff. I can’t say I love it, but it as fabulous writing tool. I use explications to teach students how to incorporate and analyze quotations, so it is the first paper of virtually every Composition II course I teach.
We’ll begin with the song that inspired this little project, the Clash’s “Janie Jones.” Read the lyrics before we begin if you’ve never seen them before or never heard the song (not that hearing it would necessarily help). Have a listen if you are unfamiliar with the wonder is “Janie Jones.”
We’ll handle this as a two parter because I’m going to work every step. All others will be single posts.
The first step is to take copious notes on the poem/song/text. Be as detailed as possible in the notes. You should see an overall idea take shape pretty quickly.
Big Picture (Forest as a Whole):
- Who? Rock n roll guy, likes getting stoned and likes Janie Jones, so, sex, drugs, and rawk n’ roll. Working stiff. Doesn’t like his job. I would expect that most students would need to look up Janie Jones. Never go into an explication expecting to know everything that will be cited/mentioned/ etc. Not all poets are T.S. Eliot (for which we should all be thankful), but we still can’t expect to know every allusion immediately.
- What? Discord between what he wants and what he needs to do to get it: “This time he’s really gonna show the boss/Gonna really let him let him know exactly how he feels/It’s pretty bad!”
- When? Not specified. Possibly 1970’s, based on the JJ reference, but I’m not sure it’s relevant here. There’s a touch of universalism, isn’t there?
- Where? Workplace, in part: “An’ the invoice if don’t quite fit/There’s no payola in his alphabetical file”
- Why? Unclear. A celebration, it would seem. Speaking to a woman, describing the man in question.
Content Details (Trees in the Forest):
- Form: No particular form. Very structured rhyme scheme, though much of it is slant rhyme.
- Rhetoric: dialect—“Gotta” “Jacko”, “An’ ” etc.
- Syntax: Nothing outstanding. Several uses of the double negative.
- Vocabulary: See notes on Rhetoric above. Nothing especially surprising. Payola may be unfamiliar to contemporary readers. The particular word choice suggests that he would be part of the music “industry” (record companies and the like), but nothing else in the song supports that, so the word is probably used generally to mean payoffs, graft, etc.
Form and Patterns (Leaves on the trees):
This is one space that we will find working rather differently in song than in poem; for instance, most songs kindly announce the major theme (sex, drugs, rock n’ roll vs. working life, here) in the chorus.
- Rhetorical Patterns: The lines in the chorus are structured similarly, probably for rhythmic purposes.
- Rhyme: Good bit of slant rhyme to be found here: “stoned/Jones/roll,” “work/shirks,” Nearly all of that is end rhyme. Standard stuff, nothing amazing or ridiculous stands out. No sign that the rhyme is forced, however, which is lovely.
- Patterns of Sound: Not sure what to do with this yet, but there is a fair amount of alliteration for “f”: “fit,” “file,” “feels.” A substitution, perhaps, for a FU to the boss? Thematically possible, but…a stretch even for me.
- Visual Patterns: Because this was really meant to be heard, this doesn’t really matter to us for “J.J,” or virtually any other song we’ll encounter. They will tend to, pardon, look like songs (verse, chorus, verse, etc.).
- Rhythm and Meter: Just for grins, I practiced my scansion (the UNC site mentioned above covers this) techniques. It’s a bit odd, as, again, songs weren’t generally meant for “reading,” so the line breaks tend to be unclear. We usually break with a singer’s breath or thought. Anyway, the chorus is, as I determined it, an excellent example of trochaic (stressed, unstressed) octameter (if one counts the “woah”) or trochaic heptameter (if one doesn’t). As UNC points out though, we’re more likely to hear the lines as “He’s in love/with rock n’ roll, woah,” which renders all of the above obsolete. I’m guessing Strummer and Jones weren’t much concerned with English major pedantism, however, so I’ll let this one go.
Next time: From notes to beautiful rhetoric and beyond