At some juncture, late in J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit, one of the minor characters tells Bilbo: “Never seek advice from elves, for they will say both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.”
When I first heard Adam Duritz’s “Colorblind”, I took it to be a discussion of the conflict between the inner and the outer man, with reference to racial characteristics, specifically white and black skin. The speaker is bi-racial and misunderstood. I heard the word “colorblind’ as it most often used in contemporary speech: to refuse to make decisions or to draw conclusions about people because of physical differences between them, chiefly race. I understood the limits between the inner and outer self to be set in playground political parlance: “No one gets to come in,” and the inner self, bound and unified in a series of declarative statements: “I am… I am… I am…”, to sustain a deep terror of human contact. The speaker is shaking and stuttering, his tongue stuck like taffy to the roof of his mouth.
The music accompanying the lyric reinforces this impression. The piano moves between major and minor chords, hesitating and then rushing forward as shy people do, the triangle tinkles tentatively, and the woodwind floats over all in a timeless melancholy that mirrors the universal and unending nature of human suffering. Duritz’s voice trembles with some words and soars with others. Finally, he lets us know, he is “ready” for contact, and if we weren’t so sympathetic, and so deeply engaged by the speaker, perhaps we would feel he protests too much, for the “I am ready”s begin to sound like a series of deep breaths taken before a plunge.
Lately, however, I’ve started wondering if I’m really getting it right with this song. It may be a manifestation of “the closer you get, the less you see” phenomenon. It may be that the song, under too close an examination and against my will, is beginning to deconstruct itself. Deconstruction theory postulates (and here it is in a nutshell, in case you’ve been wondering – it took me a year’s reading to figure this one out, and glossaries in lit texts don’t help – who writes this stuff anyway?) that no work of literature, or of any other type of composition, including music, has a determinable meaning. It is, like the Seinfeld show, “about nothing’, although deconstructionism prefers the term “empty center.” Meaning is not a fixed thing you can find, they say. It is not a rock in a field, and it is not your job to find the right rock. Meaning is an EVENT that takes place when your mind plays with the words or sounds, or even when he words or sounds play with themselves. Yep.
I’ve never liked deconstruction.
Anyway, what I’ve been wondering lately is whether or not the song is really about the superficial self opposed to the real person, under the skin. Maybe the color that the speaker is blind to is all color. Maybe he sees only black and white, and is eager to declare what he knows for sure: coffee is black; egg is white. Maybe his injunction that we pull him out “from inside” is not a request for contact but a plea for tolerance – for the limitations of his vision, for his internal contradictions, for his sense of being – in a multitude of ways other than racially – both black and white. In that case the song would almost say what it seems not to say: that for every “I am” there is another, equally true but contradictory “I am.” And, if you think about it, interior conflict is actually more true to human experience than is any absolute. For example, if you say, “I am humane,” then you must also admit, “I am cruel.” If you say, “I am civilized,” then you are also forced to acknowledge, “I am barbaric.” “I am clever.” “I am insipid.” The more you do this, the more mutually exclusive assertions – all true – you discover, and also the more blurry become the distinctions, like “I’m careful with money,” and “I’m going to the mall.”
The fact that contradictions exist within the self is why, when Duritz’s speaker asserts that he is in the act of opening himself to the listener (“I am folded, and unfolded and unfolding”), he sounds only more or less sure of himself. The series of declarative statements actually reveals the impossibility of declaring anything. To make a claim is nearly always, like the elves’ advice, to say both yes and no.
One thing I want to make clear is my use of the term “speaker.” I think it is important not to confuse the writer, Adam Duritz, with the voice of his creation, that is, with the character or speaker in this song, or in any song. Some of his songs contain very obvious first person narrating personae, and there’s nothing new in this. Consider the stalker who speaks in Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” or the idiotic fan in Mark Knopfler’s “MTV.” As Duritz’s audience we must allow him the freedom not only to draw on his experience, but also to invent. No artist – nor anyone else, for that matter – should have to feel, as the “This Desert Life” cd cover suggests, that he not only lives his life in a fishbowl, but his thoughts are public property.
I have only once had the pleasure of discussing Duritz’s “Colorblind” in the classroom. Although my primary field is literature, I also teach a humanities course which attempts to shovel together all of Western art, from the cave paintings to Basquiat, and all of Western music, from Gregorian chant to, well, how about Counting Crows? On one of the last days of class students bring in their own favorites. I think the student who brought in “Colorblind” was surprised to discover not only that his professor knew the song, but could talk about it with some authority. At any rate, I had, ever after, his perhaps misplaced but hat-sweeping respect.
Popular music, to me, is a serious art form that deserves analysis. To explore it is to find new ways to appreciate and enjoy it.