June 6, 2009
Someone searched on the phrase: poetic techniques in the song 21 guns by greenday. At the time, I had no answer for them, but they found my site, anniekwrites, through the key words in the search. They stayed for a minute or two, and maybe clicked the link to hear the song in a live performance. It got me thinking about impressions I’d already gleaned, pertinent for the writer, any writer, of prose, poetry, or song lyrics. Billie Joe Armstrong breaks the rule; he shifts his point of view.
One minute he’s in third person, the next it’s first, or it’s the second person, “you,” or the understood you, as in a command, sometimes all in the same song, or in the same sentence, and there are the layered elements of tone, narrator reliability, and distance. And nobody minds it, because it makes you feel included, and he readily admits, every song he writes, from a male or a female perspective, starting with the multiple points of view expressed in the concept album American Idiot, and continuing with 21st Century Breakdown, with its two major characters, is him. Often, when he uses the second person “you,” it’s almost like he’s talking to himself.
In the June 6, 2009 British music magazine, NME, Billie Joe Armstrong is interviewed by Hardeep Phull. On page 10, Phull asks Armstrong:
The characters on 21st Century Breakdown are extensions of you, aren’t they?
“I think it’s 100% me. It’s just different names. Those songs could be ‘Billie’s Inferno’ or ‘Viva La Billie Joe’ (laughs). The character thing came almost by accident during recording. There’s a yin/yang element to them- it’s a little bit schizophrenic in a lot of ways.”
Doesn’t that worry you - that you’ve written an album that’s 100 percent you and yet it’s two different people?
“Yeah, and one’s a man and one’s a woman! What does that say (laughs)? I think it’s more down to creativity. When you put names and characters to it, it gives it flesh and blood… it means so much more than if the songs were all obviously me.”
Whether he knows it or not, Billie Joe Armstrong works to achieve what all good writers do: to translate his personal visions and demons onto the page through his characters, so that every word is accessible, without compromise, and essential to the piece.
Because of its emotional content and lyrical melody, the song, 21 Guns, is one of my favorites on 21st Century Breakdown, but it is not the best constructed of the songs in terms of poetic technique. In 21 Guns, Armstrong asks a series of questions and gives the listener an answer. This is an example from the third stanza and then the repeating refrain:
Did you try to live on your own
When you burned down the house and home
Did you stand too close to the fire?
Like a liar looking for forgiveness from a stone
(incredible musical interlude, before powerful refrain)
One, 21 guns
Lay down your arms
Give up the fight
One, 21 guns
Throw up your arms into the sky
You and I
The “You and I.” That’s when you learn he’s talking about a version of himself, and not an abstract concept. That’s why I call 21 Guns a song about relationships.
In the closing stanza before the final refrain, Armstrong starts out in the second person “you,” and in the third line, brings in the concept of the first person, “I.”
When it’s time to live and let die
And you can’t get another try
Something inside this heart has died
You’re in ruins.
Of course, you could consider it as a discourse, where he’s interjecting, as a third person omniscient observer, “Something inside this heart has died,” but I prefer to think of it in a first person context, and that he’s talking about his own heart. But, then, why doesn't he say "my heart"? (Because he wants you to feel included, the mark of a master writer, the ability to convince the listener to identify with the characters. And he wants you to know he's been in the same place, emotionally, so you can identify with him, the performer.)
(And if I haven’t thoroughly confused you yet, Green Day fan or bewildered reader, just remember, this is only my opinion, not a critical analysis. I write prose and poetry, but sadly, I was never an English major.)
When I was a ninth grade student, we were asked to analyze Paul Simon’s lyrics in songs like Sounds of Silence and Like A Rock. I still have that essay somewhere. It was a useful exercise, not because I learned to analyze the construction of the songs as poetry, but it gave me the opportunity to think about what the songs meant to me, and what I thought the first person character in I Am A Rock was really feeling when he said, “and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.” (I got an “A” on the essay.)
Ultimately, what a song (or a story or a poem) means to you is more important than any literary technique. But, as a choice from 21st Century Breakdown, 21 Guns is probably about the only song on there you could analyze for a high school class, though the title song from the album is probably the most ambitious in terms of technique.
Poetic technique in 21 Guns? There’s some slanted rhyming going on. There’s a stanza structure and a refrain. Lines repeat for emphasis. But the power of the song is in its performance. The words and the melody and the voice are ready companions, and there is no reason they should stand alone. Sung and played in the Key of F, in every note of 21 Guns, there is emotion and there is resonance.
© 2009 Annie King