You know how sometimes you’ll pick up an album (or even two) from some artist, give it a couple listens, and then forget about it for months—even years? And then, on a whim, you decide to give it another listen and can’t believe you didn’t instantly recognize how brilliant it was when you first heard it? Well, I’ve been doing that lately with The Magnetic Fields, whose album i I’ve had in heavy rotation lately. One thing I’ve been puzzling over is the lyrics to the impossibly catchy “I Thought You Were My Boyfriend.” It starts as the lament of someone who’s just realized his lover had rather less commitment in mind than he did. Except there are shifts in the narrative voice that seemed odd, until I realized that it made sense as a duet with Stephin Merritt singing both parts. Now, rereading it a bit, I can also sort of make sense of it as one consistent narrator throughout, but let’s proceed for a minute on the assumption that it is supposed to be two distinct voices. Merrit doesn’t vary his inflection in any very overt way I’m able to pick up, so you’ve got to rely on semantic cues to figure out where the narrator shifts. The beginning seems easy enough to break down:
A:You told me you loved me. I know where and when. Come sunrise, surprise surprise, the joke’s on me again. I know you don’t love me.
B: You know I don’t care.
A: Keep it hidden better. [? Not sure about this one—this could also still be the second guy.]
B: Did I say the world was fair?
A: I thought I was just the guy for you and it would never end. I thought we were supposed to be like glue. I thought you were my boyfriend.
B: Love or not, I’ve always got ten guys on whom I can depend, and if you’re not mine, one less is nine; get wise.
A:I thought you were my boyfriend. I thought you were my boyfriend.
A:I just hope you’re happy stringing me along. While you’re stringing, I’m here singing this, my saddest song. I wish I could see you. I wish I could sleep. Should I freak out? Should I seek out someone I could keep?
So far so good. But then we get this final bit sung to a different melody than the preceding verses:
I wanted you tonight. I walked around a lot, wishing you were here to keep me from sleeping with anyone who might want me, or even not. Some guys have a beer and they’ll do anything, anything…
Now, here there are two ways to interpret it. The first is that it’s the initial guy again, still feeling jilted and depressed. But a more interesting possibility is that this is the voice of the second guy—the melodic change signifying a move behind the initial bluster to a concealed regret about and distaste for the partner-juggling he’d earlier been so cavalier about. Any die-hard Magnetic Fields fans out there know which it’s supposed to be? Or whether—and maybe I like this possibility best—the ambiguity is deliberate, and it’s for the listener to decide which he thinks it is—who the titular “i” is?
Update: Magnetic Fields pianist Claudia Gonson was kind enough to offer her take:
I’m going to stick with my policy of not asking Stephin to provide his
opinion, for the excellent reason you gave in your blog:
Or whether-and maybe I like this possibility best-the ambiguity is
deliberate, and it’s for the listener to decide which he thinks it
is-who the titular “i” is?
It strikes me, PERSONALLY, that it’s a single person struggling inside
his own interior monologue. However, I have never spoken to Stephin
about this. Which may seem odd since we performed it live 57 times over
6 months last year… but, oh well.
Stephin has a few songs which can ambiguously be either interior
monologues or duets- such as the song “Absolutely Cuckoo,” which I
believe he once had us perform as a duet. There are really obvious
duets too, such as “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!”, as well as some of the new
theater songs, which will be available in February.
But I like this idea of an style, or genre, of songwriting where the
voices can ambiguously be read either as in the head of the
protagonist, or as an actual dialogue. Let’s leave it at that. I
presume Stephin would agree.
The one-narrator reading did begin to make more sense as I mulled it after initially posting this—the classic “oh fuck it”/”why, God, why?” post-breakup schizophrenia renders the shifts in tone intelligible enough without having to inject an actual second party. But given the residual ambiguity, I reserve the right to sing this one as a duet at karaoke joints. And—on grounds of semiotic efficiency as much as aesthetics—I kind of like getting (at least) three interpretations for the price of one out of the same set of lyrics.