Interpretation is Key

Something struck me today. No, not on the head. That’s happened enough. But I recently reread a Mental Floss article about whether or not famous literary authors intentionally put symbolism in their work, and that led me to the idea that a reader’s interpretation (within reason, of course) is at least as important as the author’s, and indeed, can sometimes be more important to the reader than any official meaning.

Case in point:  I’m going to dig into the archive of noted poet William Martin Joel. In his song “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” a song I grew up listening to (had no choice but to grow up listening to it, really… thanks, Mom…) he sings, in the first bridge

There’s a new band in town
But you can’t get the sound
From a story in a magazine
Aimed at your average teen

Gently cynical words, of course, and it adds a little depth to what is otherwise just an example of an adult contemporary pianist wanting to rock out for at least one album. (Later, he apparently dropped acid and angry pills and filmed the video for “Pressure,” which left a much different impression on me, but those stories will lead us back into why I like dark psychedelic fiction.) However, I didn’t have the liner notes when my Mom would play that song; I just had to pick out the words myself. And what I heard was:

There’s a new band in town
But you can’t get the sound
‘Cause it’s only in a magazine
Aimed at your average teen

Much more bitter, I think. And for years, that’s what I thought he sang. When I finally learned what the real lyrics were, I was disappointed. My version was what I held on while growing up, as something of an average teen, and reading about the important new changes in music that were revolutionizing the industry, and how important new bands (picked by the editors, and usually, conveniently, with a new major label album on the shelves) were going to enter my ears and change everything about how I hear and feel and even taste music. Somewhere in the back of my mind was that four-line phrase, what I thought I heard from a Billy Joel song, and I think that kept me from jumping all-in and marching right along with everyone else, rebelling in exactly the way we were all approved to rebel. Or at least it kept me from doing it too often and marching for too long.

Anyway, when someone tells you that your interpretation of a book is way off base, you can throw my Billy Joel story at them, or at least you can tell yourself that if it means something to you, everything is copacetic.

Oh, and today’s Billy Joel’s birthday. I’m not the biggest fan (and the whole time I drove through Pennsylvania, recently, I had that damn “Allentown” song in my head, playing on repeat for a good two hundred miles’ worth of I81) but he was still an influence.

Enjoy your day.

One thought on “Interpretation is Key”

  1. I totally interpret the things I read in various ways! I see so many meanings it’s hard to pick one. I think this is what all people do. The bible or other religious texts are an example of this. We are of many minds, not just one. Writing is art and that is the beauty of it.
    I love Billy Joel!

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