Monday, October 25, 2010

Jam of the day: "I Was Meant For The Stage" (and a film theory)

Artist: The Decemberists
Song: "I Was Meant For The Stage"
Album: Her Majesty
Released: September 9, 2003
Label: Kill Rock Stars

I like being reminded of songs in strange and/or seemingly unrelated contexts. Example: I was doing a Sporcle quiz with some friends the other day wherein one must identify movie titles by short plot synopses. The following was included
English professor John Keating inspires his students to a love of poetry and to seize the day.
and as I typed in the answer it reminded me of something. I said, "Have I ever told you guys my theory about that Decemberists song, 'I Was Meant For The Stage'?" and they said "No", so here I am doing just that. In a nutshell, I think this song is a direct reference to the movie Dead Poets Society and, more specifically, a lyrical retelling of one of the major themes and plot points: character Neil Perry's struggle with his family (mostly his father) completely resisting his newfound but completely overwhelming desire to become an actor and the ultimate realization that, since he cannot truly carpe diem and fulfill his dream, his only choice is to end his life after a breakthrough performance as Puck in the school's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Sorry, spoiler alert! If you haven't seen this film yet, I just ruined it for you, but it's one of my favorites and I really needed to spell that all out to make my theory tenable. Mea culpa.

So anyway, I can't remember when I first made this connection in my mind, but the more I hear the song and see the film, the more compelling I believe it to be. The lyrics are such an overt expression of yearning and fate, but not fate in the sense of just waiting for something to happen to you because it's bound to happen anyway, but fate in the sense of truly believing that there is something out there meant to happen and you want and need to do everything in your power to make sure it happens because if it doesn't then you've failed the universe or it's failed you or something like that and life just wouldn't be worth living anymore. It's about being "meant" for something, specifically created and brought up and cultivated to fulfill this specific role (hah!). And Colin Meloy sings these words so heartfeltly, as if he's telling you face to face that this is what he believes and the passion in his voice keeps increasing as he becomes more and more sure of everything as he's explaining it. The verses repeat and by the time the lyrical section ends and the long instrumental begins, he's already sung a few lines at full volume and you can practically hear him restraining himself, like he really wants to yell these things from a mountaintop but you're just standing at the bus stop and he doesn't want to be seen screaming at the top of his lungs that he really really really wants to be an actor because he'd look like a lunatic, but in some sense he doesn't really care anyway. Just read along with the words below as you listen to the song and tell me you don't feel that passion and tension building and building.

You'll also notice that he mentions his mother and father and how they've reminded him that he'll never earn a living (in the film, his father is obsessed with ensuring he becomes a doctor to bring pride and cash to the family), and he subtly jabs at them when he says something about resuming one's "callow ways", I believe. There are multiple mentions of fate and the heavens and so on, but the ending verse and the ensuing crash-bang instrumental denouement is what really solidified this theory in my mind. He says that he is "fated to reside" on the stage, like leaving it and going back to "real life" isn't even really "living" to him, and he declares it to be his "final bow", referencing that scene where Neil's father confronts him about the play and tells him to quit and Neil says he will but there's a defiant look about his jaw and face that make me think he knew all along that he was just going to do the play anyway and kill himself afterwards if it didn't please his father. (Watch that scene below.) Then right around the 4:30 mark, the last lyrics are sung and the music builds with the trumpets blaring and even the guitars and drums get progressively louder. And it keeps building and building, the crowd is applauding, it was a fantastic performance ... but then reality sinks in around 5:30 and everything devolves, the horns spiral out of control and the piano falls off rhythm and melody and there's total chaos, there are shouting voices, the sudden realization of the tragedy that's occurred, "Nooo, Neil! My son, my son, my son!" It is literally making me shudder right now listening to it and thinking of Neil's mother and father embracing over his dead body, sobbing uncontrollably.

I don't know about you, but I'm emotionally drained just thinking about it. Time to stop typing.

I was meant for the stage, I was meant for the curtain.
I was meant to tread these boards, of this much I am certain.

I was meant for the crowd, I was meant for the shouting.
I was meant to raise these hands with quiet all about me.
Oh, whoa ...

Mother, please, be proud. Father, be forgiving.
Even though you told me, "Son, you'll never make a living."
Oh, whoa ...

And from the floorboards to the flies, here I was fated to reside.
And as I take my final bow, was there ever any doubt?
And as the spotlights fade away, and you're escorted through the foyer,
You will resume your callow ways, but I was meant for the stage.

The heavens at my birth intended me for stardom.
Rays of light shone down on me and all my sins were pardoned.

I was meant for applause, I was meant for derision.
Nothing short of fate itself has affected my decision.
Oh, whoa ...

And from the floorboards to the flies, here I was fated to reside.
And as I take my final bow, was there ever any doubt?
And as the spotlights fade away, and you're escorted through the foyer
You will resume your callow ways, but I was meant for the stage.

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