Postmodern literary theory trends toward the idea of subjugating original authorial intent for one crafted by the audience. In plain English, the meaning of a work is not what the author says it is (or only what he or she says it is), but what the person who comes into contact with the art says it is. Art cannot simply be taken at face value, but is to be perceived as something more malleable, to be redefined by those interacting with it.
Keeping that in mind, what if that form of criticism was applied to the world of popular music, what with its often trite phrasing, strained rhymes, and lyrics that at times are either tossed off or constructed by committee? The result is that, unbeknownst to the original artist, the song can take on a life of it’s own, as the viewing or listening public (or certain segments of it) can attach different meanings to the work and cause it to represent, or to actually become, something else entirely.
The first song I wanted to look at under those conditions is one of the more catchy yet lyrically odd hits of the 1980s, Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl”. Most familiar with the song know well of the ridiculous and improper use of the term “moot” at the end of the second verse; but I’m not here to rehash Springfield’s lack of knowledge as to the precise definition of certain legal terminology. That’s already been done. What I want to concentrate on is the more vague parts of the song–what is only alluded to, hinted at, or left completely undefined. Because, when you actually look deeply at the lyrics-admittedly deeper than Springfield actually did-what you find is not a simple song about how the protagonist (let’s call him “Sprick Ringfield” for purposes of this article) is jealous that his best bud has a relationship and he doesn’t, and that the even greater problem is that he’s in love with his best bud’s girlfriend. Oh, no. Far from it. The lyrics could be interpreted, instead, to belie a tale of a closeted man in love with his friend Jessie, who now has had the possibility of a physical relationship between the two dashed by the entrance of a female into the equation.
Let’s start right off by going over the first verse:
Jessie is a friend, yeah
I know he’s been a good friend of mine
But lately something’s changed that ain’t hard to define
Jessie’s got himself a girl and I want to make her mine
Right off the bat, we have a love triangle set up. But it’s set up under the definition that “something’s changed” in the relationship between Sprick and Jessie. The girl is tossed in during the last line after the first three have been about the relationship between the two men. And then as a button to the verse, it’s mentioned that the protagonist wants to make the girl his. Why? Why does he want to take his friend’s girl away? There must be something special about her that makes him want to likely ruin his friendship with Jessie, but possibly end up not getting the girl as well. So, what is it? Maybe the transition to the chorus will give some details:
And she’s watching him with those eyes
And she’s lovin’ him with that body, I just know it
Yeah ‘n’ he’s holding her in his arms
Late, late at night
Nope. Nothing there. Possibly even more vague lyrically than the first four lines, in fact. For one thing, the “girl” (and note that she-unlike Jessie-is never named in the song) is ill-defined to the point that she is described as nothing but “those eyes” and “that body”. Nothing else. And this is the person that the protagonist has to have as his girl, and is willing to wreck relationships in order to do so? As well, there seems to be a sense of anger, even disgust, in the tag at the second line: “I just know it”. And as the song goes on, it becomes less clear exactly what (or whom) he is angry at, let alone if he has a legitimate reason to be.
You know, I wish that I had Jessie’s girl
I wish that I had Jessie’s girl
Where can I find a woman like that
Then, the chorus comes, and with it, even more lyrical confusion. The first two lines say that the protagonist wants Jessie’s girl. He is specific. But that seems to be offset by the final line of the chorus, in which he declares wanting a “woman like that”. Now the desire is no longer specified as being towards this particular girl, even though he stated in the first two lines of the chorus that it was, and also said in the first verse that “I want to make her mine”. What gives? Why the movement from the specific back to the vague? Does he really want Jessie’s girl, or just what Jessie’s girl represents in his mind? It’s tough to answer those questions still at this point; so we need to move onto the second verse for some (hopefully) additional clarity.
I play along with the charade
Wait, what “charade”? What is Sprick talking about here? Is the charade acting like he’s cool with the relationship but he’s not? And if it is that, is he simply not cool because he wants Jessie’s girl to be with him instead of with Jessie, or is there something else? Right here is a good point to bring up the fact that, often in literary criticism, especially in the last fifty years, when discussions of sexuality in art have grown more common, one of the tropes often referred to is that in a love triangle between two men and a woman, the most significant relationship-in fact the greatest amount of love-is being expressed between the two men. Thus, when Sprick Ringfield talks about a charade, it’s possible to interpret that as seeing the heterosexual relationship taking place as the charade, and that the joining of the two men intimately, with the vaguely defined “Jessie’s girl” cast to the side, as the resolution that the protagonist is actually referring to and desiring.
There doesn’t seem to be a reason to change
Here’s where the concept of a possible break with the hetero-normative begins to really surface. Yes, you can simply say that the singer means he will not change because there’s nothing he can do to alter the status of the relationship. But, why exactly is the word “change” used here when (a) there is no internal rhyme like in the first verse that necessitates that word being used; and (b) the word “changed” has already appeared in the first verse in relation to the reconfiguration of Jessie and Sprick’s relationship? In fact, with the word “change” specifically associated with the state of the relationship between the two male characters, and the anxiety of the protagonist at this point over the heterosexual relationship taking place, one could interpret this line not as a follow-up to the previous line in terms of “playing along”, but saying that “there doesn’t seem to be a reason to change” the relationship that he and Jessie had before the introduction of the female into their world. Could he and Jessie have had an intimate relationship before Jessie’s girl came along, and what has changed is a fluidity in Jessie’s sexual desires, while the narrator has stayed the same? Or was it just friendship, but the narrator thought he might want more, but was dealing with sexual confusion, and Jessie dating this girl has finally brought it to the forefront?
You know, I feel so dirty when they start talking cute
Here, we go even further into a possible revelation of the protagonist’s confusion with his own sexuality. All Jessie and his girl are doing here are “talking cute”. There’s no hint that they’re making nasty talk, doing any other public displays of affection, or that Jessie is laying his girl down right in front of Sprick and making sweet, sweet love to her while Sprick is forced to watch. So why is this “dirty”? What is going on with the protagonist that leads this minor public display of affection to actually make him feel dirty, instead of, say, “ugly”, which, unlike dirty, is the opposite of cute, and would have fit better here.
I wanna tell her that I love her but the point is probably moot
And here’s the most (in)famous line of the song, with the reference to “moot” being both ridiculous and the opposite of what the actual definition is. But, the more important question is: Why does he want to tell her that he loves her? Or rather, why does he consider it and then immediately reject it? The obvious answer is that he feels that both she and Jessie will reject him, and therefore, he’ll not only have been cast aside by the woman he “wants”, but also by the person with whom he shares the more important relationship. And yet, that’s what brings to the surface again the confusion inherent within the song: the most important relationship in the song, at least to the protagonist, is the one with Jessie. Regardless of saying that he loves Jessie’s girl, he’s made no attempt to give any reason why–no descriptions, no actions, not even a name. She’s completely anonymous. Jessie, who is both named, and has his relationship with the protagonist defined in the first two lines of the song, is a much stronger character, and thus should be seen as the person who Sprick Ringfield really has his focus on. It could be seen that in getting Jessie’s girl, the narrator is finding some way to get closer to Jessie, even if it’s through a secondary conduit. I’m not saying he’s thought this plan all the way through, but a guy who doesn’t know what the appropriate use of “moot” is might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to working through complex relationships.
The only other unique lines in the song are the bridge. But, I feel that they do a good job of covering the psyche of the narrator, and what’s actually going on in his head:
And I’m lookin’ in the mirror all the time
Wondering what she don’t see in me, I’ve been funny
I’ve been cool with the lines
Ain’t that the way love supposed to be
NO! That’s NOT the way love is supposed to be! Why does Sprick think this is? Love is about acting “cool”? Does he get all of his ideas about love from Fonzie? The sad truth is that the protagonist doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, which exposes what is surely his lack of any intimately emotional (and possibly phsyical) relationships in the past, and certainly ones with women. And while the subject of the “male gaze” in modern criticism (especially film theory) is based on the idea of heterosexual men using the camera to reduce women to an object, it should be noted that here, the male protagonist is looking at himself in the mirror: not at Jessie’s girl. The anxiety inherent in the concept of the gaze here (“lookin’ in the mirror all the time”) reflects directly back on the protagonist, and the troubles he has with himself, not with Jessie’s girl because of what she doesn’t see in him. In this, Sprick Ringfield is not really pondering over why Jessie’s girl has not independently fallen for him and dumped Jessie’s ass, since he admits a lack of assurance as to what love is, and thus can have no confidence or answer as to whether his methods of “courtship” should work; rather, he’s looking at himself, taking part in a one-person debate over the state of his desires, and the girl merely becomes a trope which he can focus his anxieties on.
Did Rick Springfield set out to really write a love song that concealed homosexual desires under the guise of a traditional hetero love triangle song? No. I don’t thing there’s any real chance that Springfield was trying something so esoteric there. His other work shows him as a very straightforward writer and performer, not given to complex symbolism nor buried meanings. However, that does not change the fact that, seen through the prism of postmodern criticism as described at the beginning of this article, the construction of the song’s language does give the listener the ability to-without too much of a stretch in my opinion-see the song as something which may express the love between the narrator and Jessie, and not with Jessie’s girl.