Often, when we watch movies, read books, or listen to songs with a story, there is a clear protagonist and antagonist. We like to know who to root for and who to root against. It helps us, as consumers of media, identify with the people we should identify. Yet, I have found that sometimes the most interesting stories are the ones in which the line between hero and villain isn’t so clear. This is why shows like Breaking Bad and Dexter are so compelling. We like to root for the person we feel we should be rooting for, even if they aren’t doing the right thing. I find, however, that we can gain a whole new depth to the piece of media if we take a step back and look at it from a new perspective.
I have recently done this with one of my “old people” songs, “Evil Woman” by Electric Light Orchestra. The song, when you first listen to it (or have been listening to it for years like me), seems fairly cut and dry. The narrator is singing about an “evil woman” who hurt him. She has been moving from town to town, seducing men for their money. Her tricks have apparently lost their magic, and she finds herself with “no place left to go,” because she has alienated everyone in the area where they live. This is pretty by-the-book as the narrator feels vindicated because she got what she deserved, in his view. I have recently begun to take issue with my own view of this song.
I don’t think all of the awful things that have happened to her are what she deserves. Throughout “Evil Woman,” the singer literally mocks this person for all of the suffering she experiences. He says, “It’s so good that you’re feeling pain” and “ha ha woman what you gonna do / you destroyed all the virtues that the Lord gave you.” I don’t think this woman’s actions are morally defensible either, but the narrator seems to be lowering himself to her level by taking pleasure in her pain.
This sort of retribution is going much too far for the narrator to be solely a sympathetic character. The good guys or protagonists are supposed to take the high road. If this person is going to invoke a deity to do her ill, he should play by his own rules. I haven’t spent a lot of time in church (thank God), but I’ve seen enough movies involving religion to know a few things. This guy has clearly heard the phrase “Turn the other cheek” and “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” It doesn’t sound like he is doing any of those things. If the woman in the song is evil, then so is this guy. I would say to call the song “Evil People,” but it wouldn’t be nearly as catchy.
On the other hand, there is a character in another song who does bad things, but is a good person. A song I’ve been thinking about more and more is “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals. I really really like this song. Full disclosure: I first heard this song when ninth-grade me was into the CBS show Supernatural, and one of the episodes (Season 2 Episode 16, “RoadKill,” a fact I definitely didn’t know off of the top of my head) had a ghost that played this song on the radio every time he got close. I have since moved on from that television show, but the song has remained one of my favorites.
But, as always, I believe I have found a new meaning to this song. I think that the song isn’t about a real place in New Orleans. I think it is about a gambling addiction. The singer describes how the House (gambling) has “been the ruin of many a poor boy” because they have gambled all of their money away. The singer admits that his father was a gambler, so it is something he grew up seeing, and it would lend itself to him becoming a gambling addict, too. At the end of the song, the singer has been in a different place for a while, but he has given in and is “goin’ back to New Orleans / To wear that ball and chain” (read: be tied down by his addiction to gambling). He knows that what he is doing is wrong, but he feels a compulsion to do it anyway. He tries to tell others not do what he has done, don’t “spend your lives in sin and misery / in the House of the Rising Sun.” Some might consider this man a sorry sight, giving in to his baser desires, but I think there is admiration due to him. He realizes that he can’t escape this addiction, but he is trying to stop others from suffering a similar fate.
Both of these songs have a hidden message inside of them. The lessons themselves might be cheesy: take the high road and don’t get in over your head, but unlocking them is the point. We might be faced with hidden meanings in our lives everyday, but we won’t know unless we are looking. We can get a different frame of mind if we only take a step back and squint.
Featured Image by Columbia Records