Thursday, December 6, 2012

Things you can infer about 'Songs of Love'

I always enjoy when someone's choice of words reveal things about them that they almost certainly didn't intend to convey.

A great example of this can be found in the wonderful Ben Folds song, 'Songs of Love'.

Let me pose the challenge in advance to you. Where was Ben Folds when he was inspired to write the song?

I've put a copy of the video below. To make sure you focus on the important part of the lyrics, I've written down the first two verses. Read through them, and see if you can infer what I inferred.
Pale pubescent beasts,
Roam through the streets,
And coffee shops.
Their prey gather in herds,
Of stiff knee-length skirts,
And white ankle socks.
But while they search for a mate
My type hibernate,
In bedrooms above,
Composing their songs of love.
Young, uniform minds
In uniform lives,
And uniform ties,
Run round, with trousers on fire
and signs of desire they cannot disguise,
While I try to find words,
As light as the birds,
That circle above,
To put in my songs of love.
The song is here:




In case you want to guess, the answer is below the fold (no pun intended):

Here's what we can infer, in order:

1. It's unlikely that Ben Folds was in America at the time.

2. Most likely he was in either Australia or England, or possibly New Zealand.

3. If you know a little about Ben Folds life, you would get to the punch line: "I'd bet $100 that he wrote this song when he lived in Adelaide.

So how can we infer this? Let's go back to the lyrics above, with the important parts now in bold:
Pale pubescent beasts,
Roam through the streets,
And coffee shops.
Their prey gather in herds,
Of stiff knee-length skirts,
And white ankle socks.

But while they search for a mate
My type hibernate,
In bedrooms above,
Composing their songs of love.
Young, uniform minds
In uniform lives,
And uniform ties,

Run round, with trousers on fire
and signs of desire they cannot disguise,
While I try to find words,
As light as the birds,
That circle above,
To put in my songs of love.
He is clearly describing teenagers courting. But look at the description of what they are wearing. Very few American schools have fixed school uniforms. And when they do, are the girls wearing 'stiff knee-lengthed skirts and white ankle socks'? Are the boys wearing 'uniform ties'? Perhaps in some of the toniest prep schools, but that kind of outfit is much more common in Australian and English private schools.

What's the second clue?

Both sets of groups are separated by sexes. This is again much more common in Australia and England, where good schools tend to be private, single sex, church-affiliated schools. Even most of the good American schools tend to be co-ed. This does't mean that you don't get all boys groups pursuing all girls groups, but that scene is again much more common in Australia.

And finally, we get the use of the word 'trousers', which isn't part of American English. I wouldn't put it past someone worldly like Ben Folds to put it in anyway if he knows it and it fits the metre of the song better. But as a Bayesian, you're more likely to think of that word if you're contemporaneously surrounded by people likely to use it.

I thought of this post before checking out the music videos to the song. But there's actually an almost uncanny illustration of the subtle disconnect between Amercian teenagers and the song's lyrics, because one (American) youtube user made a quite good music video to accompany the song, displaying some of the scenes depicted.


It's close, but not quite. Specifically, here is the boys group:


Pale and pubescent they are. But they sure aren't in 'uniform ties'.

Here are 'their prey' 


If you were looking at a scene like this, is it remotely possible that the words that would spring to your mind would be 'stiff knee-length skirts and white ankle socks'?

No.

Do you think that those words might have been more likely to occur to you if you were looking on a scene like this, which is taken from the first page of an image search for "Australian Girls School Uniforms':


The guy who made the video assuredly has not seen many groups of Australian teenagers, hence it doesn't even occur to him that the scene he depicts is not quite right.

In the end, however, I was only half right, and probably would have lost my bet on a technicality. How come?

On the plus side, the song was released in September 2003 as part of the Sunny 16 EP. Ben Folds was married to Australian Frally Hynes, Adelaide in 1999. I can't find out when he moved back to the US, but I do know his song 'One Down', from his 2002 live album, describes the process of writing songs on a deadline before flying back to Australia, so it seems likely he was still living there at the time he performed 'Songs of Love'.

So where did I go wrong?

It turns of 'Songs of Love' is actually a cover. The original was written by Northern Irish singer Neil Hannon, from their Cassanova album. Most of the logic is sound - he was almost certainly looking on a scene involving British schoolchildren.

The two things that should have given it away were the following:

1. The 'trousers' inference is wrong with hindsight - not only is it unlikely that an American would write that, even if he had been living in Australia, but the word is more common in Britain than in Australia.

2. The adjective 'pale', which starts the song, fits very well with English, and especially Irish, schoolchildren, but may not be the first word that comes to mind when looking at a group of Australians.

Ah well. I'll call this half-right. It's good to test your models of the world.

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