"Forever Young" and the politics of meaning

Posted Thursday June 29, 2006 by John Gunders in |

It’s funny how when you are writing a thesis, everyone seems to get involved. A friend of mine emailed me with this observation:

i was watching rage this morning and there were two versions of Forever Young in the top 40, one a europop version with a cartoon video and the youthgroup version with the video of teenagers in the eighties rollerskating. The cartoon video seemed to a superficial playful storyline with no specific meaning, which i suppose went along with the style of the music, giving a meaning to the song of ‘Here’s a lark, let’s stay young forever,’ while the youthgroup video has some pathos as the young people in the video would now be middle aged, giving a completely different meaning to the song, mourning the fact that we all grow old.

But there would be a lot of cultures who would miss the point of the video as they would not necessarily realise that this is newsreel from the early eighties. So obviously the cultural meaning of a song can altered purely through the song’s video.

Quite right. But there is something else going on here too: Simon Frith made the point a long time ago that rock music seemed to “matter” more than pop. Rock critics believed that rock’s political project elevated it above those genres that were merely entertainment. As left-liberal politics lost ground to neo-liberal/neo-conservative politics, so rock’s project was dismissed by the academy as false-consciousness that failed to notice its own implication within captialist industry, or worse, that it cynically manipulated its fans to hide its own compliance.

The academy doesn’t seem to have moved far beyond this fairly banal characterisation, but as my friend points out, the texts are embedded within complex cultural structures that are still capable of producing very real effects. That’s because like all cultural productions, what matters more than the author’s intention, or the means of production, are the structures of meaning that influence the reader’s understanding, and enable us to internalise and personalise the potential meanings of the text. So if the pathos of the Youthgroup version said something to my friend (he’s getting old, like me), its because the complex doubling of the text (positive lyrics, subverted by a contradictory clip) affords greater semiotic scope for interpretation.

So OK, the pop/rock distinction that privileged rock as politically progressive is well and truly debunked, but it is undeniable that some songs do “matter” more than others, and that sometimes, different versions can matter more than others too.

Update February 2010: More here

Your Comments

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