Hello and welcome to Notes on Notes, the internet’s only series of articles that combines terrible clip-art with musical analysis.
Last year in a Cracked.com article I wrote, I discussed Blue’s Traveler’s “Hook” and its meaning, which some people might have (understandably) overlooked when first hearing the song. Basically, when you take a closer look at the lyrics and musical content, what sounds like a generic 90’s pop song is actually an ironic send-up of generic pop songs. Here’s a great AV Club article that elaborates on what I’m talking about.
After Cracked and AV Club covered it, it seems like “Hook” and its true meaning is pretty well-tread territory online. But there still is more Blues Traveler ground to cover. Or should I say… travel? Yes, I should. Because it’s a very funny joke to start off this article.
In hopes of becoming the internet’s preeminent Blues Traveler scholar, I’d like to now take a look at one of the band’s other huge hits: “Run-Around.” A song that, in my mind, rivals “Hook” in terms of its terms of its surprising depth and overlooked meaning.
This horse is here because horses like to run and this song is about running.
From a quick reading of the lyrics–or really just an educated guess based on the title–it’s probably pretty clear what the song is about. The singer is lamenting that he is being led on by someone he is attracted to. He is confused and frustrated by these mixed signals giving his mind and emotions the “runaround.” This is the internet, I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate much more. If “The Social Network” is to be believed, the internet’s main source of energy and innovation is just such indignation.
So, OK, now that we’ve got the core concept down, let’s look closer at how the song works. Not only does it repeat its chorus several times throughout it’s run time, but–and here’s where it starts to get cool–the same 4 chords are repeated in a 4 second loop for the entire song. There isn’t any kind of change for the entire 4 minute run time.
Just like with “Hook’s” use of the overused “Canon in D,” this may come off as a case of pop simplicity, but given the song’s subject matter, and Blues Traveler’s track record for such things, I think it’s safe to say the looping guitar exists to reinforce the song’s theme.
Similarly to how the narrator of the “Run-Around” finds himself in an infinite romantic loop of emotional ups and downs, the song’s guitar repeats the same chord progression throughout the entire song.
But that’s only one example of Blues Traveler using songwriting techniques to reference the song’s subject matter.
With “Run-Around’s” themes in mind, meta-textual meaning begins to emerge in its lyrics.
Take a look at this stanza from verse 2:
But I’ve been there I can see it cower
like a nervous magician waiting in the wings
Of a bad play where the heroes are right,
and nobody thinks or expects to much.
And Hollywood’s calling for the movie rights,
singing”Hey babe let’s keep in touch.”
What starts as a simile representing the narrator’s nervousness with dealing with his crush suddenly becomes a tangent about Hollywood fat-cats and a magician being in a play for some reason. Again, what could be hand-waved away as a literary device that got out of hand actually becomes intentional when looked at in context. Just like this girl is giving the guy the “runaround,” the singer of the song is also giving the listener the same treatment. And since the song is seemingly directed at the narrator’s crush, these extended musical metaphors may be a case of the narrator giving her a taste of her own medicine.
Instead of getting to the point, “Run-Around” often gets sidetracked with shaky metaphors about fishing, or the aforementioned one about magicians, or my favorite, one near the end of the song where we go from the narrator comparing himself to a pilot weathering an emotional storm, to a fun tangent about waitresses and drink orders. The whole song is filled with unnecessary similes, references, and other literary devices.
So what might seem like a repetitive song with some half-baked lyrics suddenly becomes a fairly interesting musical representation of a frustrating relationship.
And if you really want to get fancy about it, “Run-Around” serves as a meta-texual criticism of repetitive pop music and manipulative record labels just like “Hook” did before it. Just imagine this song is being sung to some record executive or it being directed at Blues Traveler’s pop contemporaries, it suddenly becomes pretty scathing criticism of the business of music.
This short passage here becomes a lot more poignant as well when you realize it can represent both a romantic relationship, or a love/hate relationship with pop music. Check it out:
And Hollywood’s calling for the movie rights,
singing, “Hey babe let’s keep in touch.”
“Hey baby let’s keep in touch.”
But I want more than a touch I want you to reach me,
and show me all the things no one else can see.
The song seems to be begging pop music to get to the point and stop wasting time with meaningless fluff and repetition.
So yeah, if you don’t mind donning some protective gear and diving past the dated 90’s jam-band pop veneer, you’ll find a pop song with some considerable depth that is absolutely worth a second look.
This is a picture of me in real life.
All that being said, and even though I really, honestly do like the song (clearly), anyone that dislikes it is absolutely not wrong. Even if they understand what it was trying to do with the metaphors and repeating chord progression.
So let’s talk about why. Yeah. There’s more. Feel free to pretend this is me referencing the song and giving the readers the “runaround” with a way too long and analytic blog post, but the truth is, I am a sick fuck and I enjoy discussing such things for far too long. So please excuse the self-indulgence for a moment.
So here’s why “Hook” and “Run-Around,” despite clearly having a lot of thought put into them, don’t seem to connect with people on a deeper level–especially now, almost 20 years down the line. Blues Traveler seemed to have misunderstood how music affects us and what we actually take away from a song.
OK, that sounds really harsh. I should repeat: I like this song. It’s just, the whole infinite repeating guitar thing is a cool idea, and I definitely not am one to discourage songwriters from trying to connect ideas and themes with the musical content of a song–god knows we need to see more of that in every genre–but this particular instance ends up doing the opposite of what it was intended to do. Instead of reinforcing the emotions of the song, it hinders them.
This might sound obvious, but chords play an enormous part in songwriting when underscoring emotions at play. Just like in a movie, we have an implicit cultural understanding of what certain images or colors represent, in music, different chords evoke different emotions. By repeating the same chords over and over, “Run-Around” effectively strips itself of a crucial songwriting tool in favor a thematic decision that only really works on an intellectual level. It’s like the musical equivalent of a joke that’s clever, but doesn’t make you laugh.
This is sounding overly critical, but in the song’s favor, John Popper and drummer Brendan Hill do their best to inject emotions and dynamics into the song, and they do a hell of a job. I’d say “Run-Around” has some of the best synchronicity when it comes to a vocal performance enhancing lyrical content. And Hill’s drums are right there behind Popper’s vocals, supporting him each time the tone switches around from defeated to triumphant to frustrated and plenty others. Seriously, go back and pay attention to the vocals read along with the lyrics. Popper and Hill channel the emotions at play throughout the song in a really masterful way.
But that damn repeating chord progression going on with the guitar not only doesn’t contribute to the emotional narrative present in the vocals, lyrics, and drums, it ends up holding up them back.
I think that’s what we can take away from “Run-Around.” If you want to get right down to it, the guy in the song is wasting his effort, trying to make make himself sound like a victim of manipulation in a relationship where the object of his affection simply doesn’t share his feelings but is trying to let him down easy. Similarly, Blues Traveler ended up putting a lot of thought and energy into a song element that ended up holding the song’s emotions back. Their heart was in the right place, but the effort might have been a little misguided.
Music works best when all its elements come together. Going back to a movie comparison, it’s like our implicit understanding of the language of cinema. A director wouldn’t use a frenetic shaky-cam and fast cuts to show a couple having a romantic dinner. Even if the scene was beautifully lit, acted, and written, the camerawork would prevent the audience from appreciating the full emotion of the scene.
This isn’t to pick on Blues Traveler (sorry guys), really this speaks to a bigger issue that applies to pretty much all music across all genres. Music, for whatever reason, isn’t discussed like other media, and as a result, we lack an understanding of how choices in music affect us emotionally. We get caught up in small surface-level aesthetic choices, when often, the problems lie elsewhere. In the case of “Run-Around,” the focus on surface-level choices caused many people to not appreciate some ambitious and smart songwriting.
Similarly, probably because it is so highly valued, musicians, songwriters, and producers end up putting their main effort into surface-level elements while neglecting deeper, more emotional elements. It’s absolutely fine that a song uses numerology to dictate its time signature, or that a song is part of a 30 song series about a robot, or that a track features the most modern farty synths on the market, but I feel like we should step back and be honest, none of that stuff is what makes us connect with a song is it?
So I think the best we can do is try and figure out and discuss what exactly it is that makes a song make us feel feelings. So if you wanna talk about it, you are more than welcome to do so below! Or if you want to call me a swear word or a virgin, you are welcome to do that too. If you got this far, you earned it.
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