Monday, April 18, 2011

Review of "Levi Johnston's Blues" by Ben Folds and Nick Hornby

Last week, I assigned writing a persona poem to my beginning poetry class, which is always an interesting way to explore new material. To help give them a sense of a persona poem, I assigned the classic Browning poem, “My Last Duchess,” a few by Ai, Eminem’s “Without Me,” and a couple of songs off of Ben Folds and Nick Hornby’s latest album, Lonely Avenue, that is all persona songs. We looked at “Levi Johnston’s Blues” in particularly, which is one of my favorites.

Here’s a link where you can listen to the song and read the lyrics:

One of the many aspects about this song that interests me is how the media in the song serve as a modern version of those ancient Greek choruses that warn characters what will be their fates. Famous Briston-Palin-ex-fiancé walks out of his house one morning and is surprised to find “three thousand cameras” pointing at him. The media then explain their presence and say, “Well, you’ve knocked up the VP nominee’s daughter.” And this is when Levi begins his lesson—which begins with a feeble attempt to take control: “So, I tell him, No, you got it wrong, Mister. / Already got a girl and her name’s Bristol. / They all laugh and say, where you been, Sonny. / Your mother-in-law’s a heartbeat from the presidency.”

Right after this verse the music becomes a bit more melancholy as Levi then attempts feeble assertion number two: “I say, Mother-in-law? No. We ain’t getting married. / They say, you will be soon, Boy, she just announced it.” The music at this section is a little quiet, almost elegiac as it’s clear this “Boy” is getting schooled—and fast. Here the media are aware of their power; if something is announced, even if untrue, it can be the truth. And in Levi’s case, his actions are no longer simply his. So, when we come to the chorus with a bleacher foot-stop beat, it sounds assertive, but it’s actually a feeble attempt to take control and sounds like what it is: a teenager telling an adult who he is and the adult shrugging it off, knowing that’s more wishful thinking than reality. I think this is why I don’t find the chorus mocking Levi, but asserting a dream of an independent, can-make-his-own-choices sort of guy: “I’m a fucking redneck, I live to hang out with the boys / Play some hockey, do some fishing, kill some moose. / I like to shoot the shit and do some chillin’, I guess / you fuck with me and I’ll kick your ass.” The last two lines are especially all bluff and bravado, especially considering what comes later: “And when I try to tell them I’m eighteen years old / they say, Levi, it’s too late. You gotta do as you’re told.”

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