I was at a wedding the other day, and one of the last songs to be played was Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight”. A decent song – not one of my favorites of his. With its slow and loose feel, “Wonderful Tonight” and chorus of “you look wonderful tonight” it has become a perennial favorite for weddings, dances, and for many an ode to each other’s love.
But like many rock “love” songs, there’s a dark side to “Wonderful Tonight”. Impatience lies at the heart of the song – Eric Clapton wrote it while waiting for his wife Patti to get ready for a party. The attitude isn’t “you look amazing”, it’s more in the vein of, “yeah yeah, you look great honey…we’re late.” She’s taking too long, and he’s bored. This isn’t the sweet long song, that everyone makes it out to be but the music disguises the disgust, the impatience and the irony of the chorus.
I’m all for open interpretations of songs. That’s what makes listening to and deciphering lyrics fun. But does this open-interpretation apply to a song is obvious? At what point, does a song stand on its own without several interpretations? Is irony lost when the lyrics are put to music? Lots of songs are written specifically to be open to interpretation, but I’m not sure that “Wonderful Tonight” is one of them. Clapton is not being vague here. But does the interpretation of “Wonderful Tonight” as sincere make it more powerful, or less powerful?
The same could be said for U2’s “One”, which isn’t about togetherness at all, but rather about breaking up. Should listeners take what they will from a song, or go with the artists’ original intent? Perhaps I’m being presumptuous here, but a lot of listeners only listen to the chorus (ie – “we’re one”, “you look wonderful tonight”) and only pick up on one aspect of the song. It’s easy to say, “they don’t get it!” (and I do tend to do that quite often). But does that make the song any less meaningful to those who view the two songs as sincere? Should the song mean more to me, because I “get” the original intent and see the irony?
Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm” has several verses many which refer to temptation, loss, and a mysterious woman. At the end of each verse, Dylan informs us that she wants him to come in, she’ll get him “shelter from the storm”. This song was picked during a ceremony for my class-rings in high school. But just because the chorus ends with the woman saying she’s going to give shelter, doesn’t mean she actually is. If that interpretation were true, the narrator’s situation would be getting better as the song progresses, but it doesn’t. “If I could only turn back the clock to when her and God were born,” is the last line of the song before the refrain. The narrator realizes the regret, loss, and suffering that has occurred, and yet the woman is still offering him shelter. Sure the refrain at the end of each verse is ironic, but the rest of the song isn’t – it’s a very serious song.
Is irony in songs the interpretation of critics and music snobs? Does irony make a song better? I tend to think yes, but that doesn’t mean that my view is above anybody else’s.
(For the record, I think it would be funny to play “Wonderful Tonight” at a wedding knowing it is ironic.)