Sometimes I wonder, am I overthinking a songwriter in trying to figure out what a song’s about? Am I being more clever than the meaning right there on the surface and imagining far more intense thought on the writer’s part than was ever put into the song?
Most recently this idea came into focus as I was listening to the new Holsapple & Stamey CD Here and Now, which (in the version I downloaded from eMusic) contains a couple of bonus acoustic renderings of dB’s songs. “Happenstance” has always been among my favorite dB’s songs, partly for the way its chord sequence sort of slides sideways away from a somewhat indefinite home key – but also because it’s sort of puzzling: the chorus seems, on the surface, almost boneheadedly contradictory: it’s the two lines “think for yourself / and come back to me.” Uh, if she thinks for herself that would be her decision to come back or not, no?
In this case, though, because songwriter Chris Stamey’s a clever lad, I think I’m on firm ground in locating that contradiction as unnoticed by the song’s narrator…but clearly to be noticed by listeners. Most of the lyric is a rather passive-aggressive attempt at encouragement by the narrator toward an (ex-?) girlfriend about how she should free herself from her mother’s apron strings, how her mother never liked him, how Mom never thought he was good enough for her…and this sort of “our parents will never understand” declamation from a sensitive rebel is right from one of the rock’n’roll songbook’s longer index entries. But that contradictory exhortation that she should think for herself – but make the right decision, the decision the narrator wants her to make – is a bit of sand in the shoes of that rock orthodoxy…because it highlights the manipulation by which our sensitive rebel works his will. Which he does most effectively precisely on over-dependent young women who aren’t quite as self-aware or independent as they would wish to be.
All that places a bright spotlight on the song’s bridge, whose narrative perspective shifts to third person. Now, in an unironic rock’n’roll song, the perspective of this bridge – with Mom worryingly treating her precious daughter like a little child, dithering about daughter’s late hours and unknown whereabouts – would be set up for dismissal (again: “our parents just don’t understand”). But by this point in the song, our narrator’s wheedling, self-contradiction, and evocation of every cliché in the book (dismiss the “cruel things” because “all I ever wanted was to make you so damned happy”) raises the possibility that maybe Mom is right: maybe she really does have cause to worry where in the world her daughter’s been.
And I think the musical setting of the lyrics reinforces this idea. I noted earlier the way the chord sequence is a bit unstable: the bass is often rooted on the third or fifth of the chord; it’s often hard to tell what the song’s tonic center actually is. By contrast, the bridge is quite steady and stable, staying rooted on the same big E-minor chord that opens the song, with interjections from a flat-seventh (D major) in between.
But all that’s maybe a bit unfair to the narrator. After all, a girl does have to grow up sometimes – and even if he is being manipulative, who’s to say he’s actually aware of it: he may genuinely want to make her so damned happy and is just trying everything he can think of, never mind whether it’s consistent, to persuade her. After all, the “happenstance” of the title appears to be an “off-the-cuff, vitriolic remark” he made but didn’t mean…and so his comment that her mom never thought he was “smooth enough for her kid” isn’t an irrelevant put-down but something of a self-reproaching remark. So maybe he’s less manipulative than he is impulsive…and impulsiveness certainly can lead to contradiction, so that he genuinely does want her to think for herself and come back to him. (It’s only contradictory if that “and” is a logical connector rather than merely, well, happenstance of two coexisting situations.)
I suppose you could then read the bridge as our impulsive narrator actually slowing a down a bit, trying to empathize with her mother’s situation. And it’s true that while the first half of the song finds the narrator both self-pitying and insulting, the second is a bit more encouraging and less selfish (“we could be so happy” vs. both “think of what I’m saying” and “All I ever wanted was to make you so damned happy”).
There’s no reason to resolve this: one reason someone like Stamey is such a good songwriter is that he constructs his songs so that they’re open to multiple readings, rather than assuming the listener cannot, in fact, think for him- or herself.
The dB’s “Happenstance” (Repercussion, 1982)