Monday, April 25, 2011


One of the laziest rhetorical devices in song-writing is the use of the oppositional 'they'.

Usually this is done in relationship songs. For some reason, 'they' are always opposed to any given relationship. Don't ask me why. We live in a world were large impersonal forces are aligned to prevent couples who are always 'meant to be' from getting together. (The only exception that I can think of is 'the old folks', with their "C'est la vie ... it goes to show you never can tell" attitude.)

A good example of this is 'Check Yes Juliet', by 'We the Kings'. Catchy and boppy, but inane:

(If the Vevo clip doesn't work, you can also try here)
"Run baby run
Don't ever look back
They'll tear us apart if you give them the chance"
It is an immense but common conceit of juvenile relationships that the world, as personified by the mysterious 'they', has deep interests in making sure that you and your girlfriend don't stay together.

The world, of course, is very rarely troubled by such matters. Your relationships end because you found someone else, or because you weren't actually suited to each other, or any other number of mundane but important reasons. Rarely do they end because 'they' chose to 'tear you apart'.

To give 'We the Kings' credit, they at least get a little more specific about who is opposed, in this case (implicitly) the parents.
They can change the locks, don't let them change your mind
You can tell how serious the parents are, because the Dad in the film clip keeps looking on in a vaguely disapproving manner while never actually saying anything. He's probably thinking about the possibility of illegitimate red-headed grandchildren, which frankly would concern me too.

Forget the parents. The 'they' that the narrator should actually be worried about is some other smooth-talking guy at school who also wants to hook up with the cute chick in the film clip. But that doesn't work so well as a rhetorical device, because for this particular 'they' to succeed in 'tearing them apart', the girl would have to want to go along. Which makes the narrative a little more awkward.

(Other examples of the mysterious 'they' can be found here, or here, or here.)

You know who could honestly write this song without it being self-indulgent?

Eva Braun, maybe? Okay, so 'they' had less interest in ending the relationship specifically, and more in ending one party to the relationship, but still.

Edward VIII is about the only one that springs to mind. Yes, large impersonal forces really were opposed to that relationship.

And I'll give a pass to anyone living in areas where "honour" killings are practiced.

Other than that? Justify your relationship without pretending it's so important that an entire conspiracy is being organised against it.

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