Was it or weren't it? It's No Myth, either way

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2005/07/08 03:01 -04:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2005/07/08/436701.aspx


The Michael referred to in the title is actually Michael Penn, not I. :-)

It started several years ago when singer/songwriter Michael Penn wrote and performed a song entitled No Myth. The lyrics for this song as published (on several fan and official lyrics sites) are as follows:

So, she says it's time she goes
but wanted to be sure I know
she hopes we can be friends.
I think, yeah, I guess we can say I
but didn't think to ask her why
she blocked her eyes and drew the curtains
with knots I've got yet to untie.
what if I was Romeo in black jeans
what if I was Heathcliff, it's no myth
maybe she's just looking for
someone to dance with.
See, it was just too soon to tell
and looking for some parallel
can be an endless game.
We said goodbye before hello
my secrets she will never know
and if I dig a hole to China
I'll catch the first junk to Soho.
what if I was Romeo in black jeans?
what if I was Heathcliff, it's no myth.
maybe she's just looking for
someone to dance with.
Sometime from now you'll bow to pressure.
some things in life you cannot measure by degrees.
I'm between the poles and the equator.
don't send no private investigator to find me please
'less he speaks Chinese
and can dance like Astaire overseas.
what if I was ...
so what if I was...
maybe she's just looking for
someone to dance with.
what if I was Romeo in black jeans?
so what if I was Heathcliff, it's no myth.
maybe she's just looking for
someone to dance with.

I have heard Michael Penn perform this song a few times, most recently at the Tractor Tavern with Teresa and Kevin (Cathy's husband, who has better taste in music than she does at times like that!), and Michael actually talked about the fact the song was inspired was a breakup. Which seems fairly obvious from the lyrics. But he gave a hint of how bad the breakup was when he sang the song by replacing the last "someone to dance with" with "someone to f*** with". I wonder if this ex knows that in her games she managed to inspire what has been the song most often associated with him? Quite ironic, that! :-)

Back to linguistic matters now.

Some fan sites take the couplet under question here (we'll label the options in faux Language Log fashion):

1a:

what if I was Romeo in black jeans
what if I was Heathcliff, it's no myth

and instead quote it this way:

1b:

what if I were Romeo in black jeans
what if I was Heathcliff, it's no myth

while still others quote it this way:

1c:

what if I were Romeo in black jeans
what if I were Heathcliff, it's no myth

Anyway, every time I have heard Michael Penn perform this song solo (I think maybe five times to date), he sang it like 1a. And I once heard a report of Aimee Mann and Michael singing the song together at an Acoustic Vaudeville1 show where Aimee sang with 1c while Michael sang with 1a, and this apparently had the tongue waggers putting in overtime about some sort of implied insult to Michael's artistic choices (which seems silly to me, for what it is worth). I saw them both once at an Acoustic Vaudeville show myself not too long after that and they both sang with 1a. I have heard a recording of the 02-13-2000 A.V. show where they both used 1a. As perhaps an official authority, it is further confused by the original No Myth track on March and March w/Bonus Tracks, both of which clearly have Michael using 1b for the first two instances and 1a for the last two. Though I have never heard either of then do it that way live, maybe the folks who were assuming a lover's quarrel over the lyrics were just hearing what they wanted to, and in fact DID hear such a version.

Now to anyone with any even high school level literary background, the two character references are to Romeo of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Heathcliff of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.2 And there are probably fewer more beautifully tragic (or maybe tragically beautiful?) love stories than those of Romeo Montague/Juliet Capulet and Heathcliff/Catherine Earnshaw (though the latter seems more tragic in some ways since it was unconsummated, while we assume that since former young couple at least had that one night before the exile to Mantua3.

Now the difference between was and were is not just an artistic one. If you look at the dictionary:

was -- First and third person singular past indicative of be.

were -- (1) Second person singular and plural and first and third person plural past indicative of be. (2) Past subjunctive of be.

Since we know that the song is referring to 'I' we know it is neither second person singular nor first/third person plural. Thus the only differences for us to deal with are:

I think we may be able to set aside that second issue given the strong literary background Michael has and deal with the first one.

That dictionary site helps us with the definitions of these terms, and the definitions match my not entirely forgotten notions of grammar:

indicative -- Of, relating to, or being the mood of the verb used in ordinary objective statements.

subjunctive -- Of, relating to, or being a mood of a verb used in some languages for contingent or hypothetical action, action viewed subjectively, or grammatically subordinate statements.

Of course, the actual linguists over on the Language Log might need to correct my 'armchair linguist' definitions if they were to notice them. In fact, Mark Liberman, Geoff Pullum, and Arnold Zwicky have perhaps already been doing so, before I even stumbled onto the scene. I'll pretend I did not know about this for the rest of the post so I can at least empty the cache on the whole issue. :-)

Now when one is comparing one's bitter breakup to a tragic couple in literature (while pointing put that in this case it is not, in fact, a myth -- it is real life, dammit!), one is certainly speaking more hypothetically or subjectively. Comparing oneself to fictional characters in a real and painful situation suggests this, doesn't it?

I suppose one could make the claim that Michael is inventing new characters (Romeo obviously never wore black jeans, and Heathcliff was indeed part of a 'myth' or story), and in a song it could just be shorthand for saying "what if I was to you like Romeo while I wore my black jeans on the terrace -- would you still have left?" or alternately "what if was to you like the mythical Heathcliff, come to life and to love -- would you still have dumped me?"

Which perhaps makes was more palatable since it is more literally talking about the past, Michael's past, when he did wear the darn jeans, and while still hypothetical, it is being couched in a way to suggest he was asking as if it were not so hypothetical to him (or maybe he just did not want it to be, as might be common in such a 'trying to talk the jumper off the breakup ledge' scenario).

Though the bitter version he sang at that recent Tractor Tavern show makes me wonder how real he thought the options actually would have been; even if they seemed real at the time, they obviously seem theoretical now. And if cynicism can see dance transformed into f*** then certainly was can find itself transformed into were. And in truth the were feels more natural to me, anyway. 'Were I from North Carolina I might feel differently (though had that been in my vernacular, I would have said 'Was I from North Carolina', I guess. Maybe I am just blathering, now.

Maybe the best choice is actually the original on the March album -- doesn't a man in the middle of a breakup start with the theoretical past tense? And then, once that is clearly failing, try to move to the real past tense? Not only that, but he actually is saying it's no myth when he talks about Heathcliff -- which is pretty much stating the less than theoretical nature of the issue. I guess you could say Michael had it right the first time, in that case. :-)

Personally I think Michael should stick with Aimee. She seems to be a better choice emotionally than this ex-girlfriend of his, and they both do seem to be quite taken with each other. And that is no myth whatsoever.

 

1 - Yes, this link is to the Internet Archive site, as Aimee and Michael seem to have let lapse their domain ownership, the last sad poof that they will likely never release the Acoustic Vaudeville album they were once thinking about doing at some point.
2 - Although I have heard at least one person ask (after the song was performed) what a cartoon cat has to do with Shakespeare, and he seemed quite serious. No comment on this, other than to say it's like fingernails on the chalkboard to me.
3 - Could this be why the French word for orgasm (reportedly) means "little death"? Probably not, as I think that might be sleep anyway, and I do not want to start making bad etymological references. Forget I said a word....


# CornedBee on 8 Jul 2005 6:32 AM:

> I suppose one could make the claim that Michael is inventing new characters (Romeo obviously never wore
> black jeans, and Heathcliff was indeed part of a 'myth' or story), and in a song it could just be
> shorthand for saying "what if I was to you like Romeo while I wore my black jeans on the terrace -- would you
> still have left?" or alternately "what if was to you like the mythical Heathcliff, come to life and to love
> -- would you still have dumped me?"

Actually, no, you can't make that claim. With the "would you still have left" part, the correct structure, because we're talking about an irrevocable event of the past, is:
"What if I had been to you like Romeo while I wore my black jeans on th eterrace - would you still have left?"
It's the notion of, "What could I have done differently?"

However, I do not think that is the meaning of that chorus. It seems to me that it's the reverse:
> maybe she's just looking for
> someone to dance with.
I think the singer laments the fact that to him, it was true love, while to her, it was just a fling.
> what if I was Romeo in black jeans
> what if I was Heathcliff, it's no myth

What does it matter then, that he was the great romantic, when she wasn't looking for romance?
This interpretation is further supported by the use of "so what" in the last repetition of the chorus.

The singer is talking about something that actually happened: he was indeed Romeo in black jeans - but she *still*, despite this, left him.

Under this interpretation, 1a is the only correct form.

# Bored programmer on 8 Jul 2005 8:31 AM:

I remember once I was at a bad night-club in an even worse town, and there was this beautiful lady standing with some people, but looking like she was all on her own. She had these pirate-ship captain eyes, and she seemed untouchable. I don't think I saw her dance once the entire night though I think a couple of guys a approached her. And then at the very end of the night she danced with some anonymous drunk, with that same look in her eyes. That drunk could have been anybody, or even worse, it could have been me. That's when I felt I truly understood the line "Maybe she's just looking for, someone to dance with".

referenced by

2008/04/26 A song that reminds me of a roof (which isn't there, anymore) and a girl (who isn't, either)

2007/05/18 Farther in the future could I accept it being sung as Further Down?

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