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Wednesday, January 09, 2008 

When we're all fully grown

Considering its near total absence from the music actually played in the bars I go to, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' "Free Falling" soundtracks a disproportionate number of my solitary walks back to my apartment at the end of the night. Not in any sort of maudlin way - I just heard Full Moon Fever way too much as a kid (I could still hum all but one or two songs from it, I think). Today I was discussing Pulp's "Disco 2000" with Stylus people, and we had startlingly different opinions on what was going on in that song.* One idea being tossed around, and largely agreed with, was that the narrator in "Disco 2000" never loved the girl in high school at all.

"Free Falling" seems to me to be a good way to approach the topic. The most striking thing about the song as a kid, during a period when I was still used to liking narrators, is that section in the first verse about "I’m a bad boy, ‘cause I don’t even miss her / I’m a bad boy, for breaking her heart." Yes, his depiction of the 'good girl' previously isn't exactly free of contempt (and as a young Canadian boy who already had a sense he'd be spending most of his time on the fringes, I shared that sense of dismissal, even then), but I always took those lines as sincere. I'd heard enough Petty by that point to know that his voice always sounded kind of like that, and too much of the song doesn't make sense if he doesn't actually regret it; the "write her name in the sky" part, yes, but even his sudden leap into the anguish/joy of the chorus after those lines about being a bad boy.

It wasn't until years later, hearing songs like "Refugee" that I got a better sense of what Petty's narrator is up to in "Free Falling." He's sincere, yeah, but that initial sense of mocking (and not just self-mocking) is valid. Listen to the way he sings, in the second verse, "And all the bad boys are standin' in the shadows / And the good girls are home with broken hearts" - that same smarm to his voice as he elongates "good" and "bad" as before. Yes, he wishes he could be home with the good girl, no broken hearts. But he also revels in the situation, in the 'coolness' of being one of those bad boys. He knows he's done wrong, but at the same time as he coolly damns himself for it he tries to squirm away from the real force of his petty emotional crime. It's the sound of someone trying to have their cake and eat it too, and it's what gives "Free Falling" it's very real force.

To any Pulp fans, I'd like to think the parallels to "Disco 2000" are beginning to become obvious. "The boys all loved you but I was a mess / I had to watch them trying to get you undressed / We were friends but that was as far as it went / I used to walk you home sometimes but it meant / Oh it meant nothing to you / 'Cos you were so / Popular" is a heartbreakingly blunt and common reading of shy schoolboy romantic trauma, and the pain here is twofold; both the remembered failure and the fresher sting of knowing that he's no longer quite so awkward. Don't get me wrong, he may not suddenly be irresistible to women, but growing up imbues enough social skills that he's presumably had dates, relationships, intimate contact. He knows, in other words, how easy it would have been not to have been so awkward and fumbling, that it wasn't anyone else's fault, and that it doesn't matter now - he's never going to have her. He may not even want to any more.

There are two readings of Deborah's situation which are equally valid, I think, given the lack of clues in the song itself, and which give slightly different feels to the song but that both fit into the same basic picture. The video, of course, remains teasingly vague; the impression it always gives me is of what the narrator would imagine some sort of teenaged success with Deborah would be like. But in the now-present day of the song, I can't see both of them being happy. So, in the first case, Deborah is. She's married, she's got a kid, successful, etc. While he's "living down here on my own." He wants to see her again, still wants her, knowing nothing will happen. "You can even bring your baby" is bitterly self-mocking. He knows he shouldn't even be calling. He's better with women than he used to be but it doesn't matter. The song is both achingly, sincerely romantic and full of the bitterest mockery.

Or, our narrator is happy. He's single and he enjoys it. Deborah has aged into a drab housewife, with a husband she tolerates and a baby she's not even sure she wanted. He's possibly a cad, a womanizer, but enjoys it even as he knows it's wrong. He's not even sure if he wants her, but the idea of success, or rather of her wishing now, too late, that he'd try is sweet to him. "You can even bring your baby" is about the cruelest thing he could say to her. And yet, he knows he's being horrible, and he hates it even as he revels in it and can't escape it. He's better with women than he used to be but it doesn't matter. The song is both achingly, sincerely romantic and full of the bitterest mockery.

Either way, the narrator of "Disco 2000," like the narrator of "Free Falling," wants what he can't have, what he won't let himself have. Either way, on some level what Jarvis wants is what he never had in high school, but he thinks it's impossible (either because she's happy and will reject him again, or because their roles have shifted too much for it to mean anything). He can't help asking, just as Petty can't help empathizing/regretting, but the only way he can bring himself to do that (both because he thinks its doomed and because he genuinely enjoys his status as lech/sad bastard/"bad boy" even as he laments it) is by role-playing. The role-playing, of course, is his sincerity. Only by joking or posing or mocking can he fully get across the whole "I need you / I don't need you" (to quote Cohen again) in his heart.


*I think. The people I was talking with will remain nameless, not because they would be or should be embarrassed, but because I concede I might have totally misunderstood them.

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Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.

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