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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A very literary rock star...

In my last post, I dissected the meter and thematic development of a pop song, and I felt positively schoolmarmish.  So I thought I'd dig up a picture of myself in my glasses, just so I could look the part.
The schoolmarm is in.

Today, we're still looking at the ways our modern troubadours are following in the footsteps of Homer and the Bard of Avon, and I've chosen one of my favorite lyricists, Sting.  Yes, sometimes he stomps onto the wrong side of that slender boundary between literary and pretentious, but the man has written some most elegant songs.  I'd rather risk being pretentious than spend all my time penning predictable tales in single-syllable words, and I imagine that Sting feels the same way.

As of last week, I am the mother of the a two-time National Junior Classical League mythology champion.  In her honor, I want to talk about The Police's hit, "Wrapped Around Your Finger," which draws from the mythological themes that she so loves.  I saw The Police perform this song in 1984, during their Synchronicity tour, and I continue to admire their work, particularly Sting's songwriting abilities.

This song is as classically inspired as they come, from the opening sentence:

You consider me the young apprentice
Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis.
Scylla and Charybdis were a pair of monsters who terrorized sailors back when the Greek gods walked the earth.  Scylla had a bunch of heads, bobbing on very long necks, and she would reach those heads out to a passing ship and snatch sailors right off the deck.  Charybdis took the form of a gargantual whirlpool that didn't bother with snatching individual sailors.  It just sucked the whole ship down into the depths.  Scylla and Charybdis make a famous appearance in The Oddysey.

Saying one is "caught between the Scylla and Charybis," is a whole lot prettier and fancier than saying that one is "caught between a rock and a hard place," but it means pretty much the same thing.  And what's our young apprentice doing in this precarious spot?  Why, I do believe that Sting has induced a state of dramatic tension in a mere 12 words.  We should all make it our goal to be equally economical.

Hypnotized by you if I should linger
Staring at the ring around your finger.

Until I started writing this post, I was certain that I understood this reference.  I was under the impression that the sorceress Circe wore a magic ring that she used to enchant Odysseus.  I can almost see the book where I read this, an adaptation of The Odyssey.  And I thought she used it to turn people to stone, which will come up again later in this post.  But I can find no evidence of these things on the internet and, as much as I love you people, I don't have time to re-read The Odyssey for you.  So I'm going to regard this line as referring to a generic sorceress's ring.  Or maybe she's not a sorceress.  Maybe she's a married woman who's got the young apprentice's attention.  This song has been out 27 years, but there are still people talking on the internet about this question.

I have only come here seeking knowledge,
Things they would not teach me of in college.

Sting has a way with feminine rhymes, doesn't he?

I can see the destiny you sold
turned into a shining band of gold.

Back to the sorceress/married woman question.

I'll be wrapped around your finger.
I'll be wrapped around your finger.

And the hook...repeated, of course.  Because it's the hook.  :)

Doesn't it oh-so-elegantly mirror that mysterious ring?

Mephistopheles is not your name,
But I know what you're up to just the same.

Faust sold his soul to Mephistopheles, so now we know exactly what's at stake.

I will listen hard to your tuition,
And you will see it come to its fruition.

Tuition/fruition.  Another feminine rhyme, maybe the prettiest ever...because the words work with the story.  "Tuition" and "fruition" would be the perfect words here if they didn't rhyme.  Never force the wrong word into your story, just because you want to use it.

As a schoolmarmish word-person, I think that "tuition" and "fruition" look pretty and sound pretty, and they even feel good in the mouth.

I'll be wrapped around your finger.
I'll be wrapped around your finger.

And the hook he just using an old saying here, or is he talking about a wedding ring, or is he talking about the spell this woman has over him?  The line works because we care about the answer.  We know nothing about this apprentice, except that he is trapped in a power struggle, but Sting tells his story in a way that drags us into the young man's viewpoint.  We're all wrapped around her finger...whoever she is.  Circe?  An unnamed modern woman?  We really don't care.

Devil and the deep blue sea behind me  

In a neat bit of songwriting legerdemain, this sentence fragment harks back to Faust's deal with Mephistopheles and to Charybdis the sea monster, and to the unnamed singer's struggles with those two beings.

Vanish in the air you'll never find me.

And the apprentice has harnessed his magic!  Don't you want to applaud?

I will turn your face to alabaster,
Then you'll find your servant is your master,

It bugs me that I remember a story of a sorceress who used a ring to turn men to stone, but I can't find a reference for that story.  If anybody knows it, please write me.  But even without it, this couplet is simply awesome. It functions like the final couplet in a Shakespearean sonnet, requiring the observer to re-evaluate everything that came before in light of the surprise now being revealed.

The multisyllabic feminine rhyme, master/alabaster, emphasizes two important words.  "Master" is obviously a central image to the power struggle being detailed in this song.  And turning someone's face to alabaster, knowing that alabaster is a stone and is also synonym for "white," opens the mythology of the song to interpretation.  Is the student's master (or mistress) white-faced in shock, or was he or she actually turned to stone?  In this mythic land, either are possible.  Poseidon turned Odysseus' ship to stone, and Medusa's glance could turn anyone to rock.  I've always thought that the choice to use "alabaster" in this context was simple genius.

And you'll be wrapped around my finger.
I'll be wrapped around your finger.
You'll be wrapped around my finger.
I'll be wrapped around your finger.....

And the turn keeps turning.  Who really is the master in this relationship?  And does it matter when the two people are so inextricably bound?  This power struggle is going to continue as long as both parties are still breathing.  And it's entirely possible that this song will  have fans as long as human beings can see themselves in that struggle.

Keep on rocking...
Mary Anna


  1. I love Sting, and he truly is a gifted, lyrical genius.

  2. Obviously, I agree with you, Frank. :)