Not A Second Time

A study in rock semiotics
by T.P. Uschanov

Many experts take the early Beatles' song "Not A Second Time" for a weak member of the group's songbook, because of the inconsistencies between Lennon's lyrics and his voicing of the song lines. The Finnish philosopher T.P. Uschanov argues, however, that the song's strength resides precisely in this incoherence. Therefore the song, he says, offers an excellent argument for the significance of semiotics for popular music studies.

For as long as I have told people of my research interest in the philosophy of rock music, they have bemoaned my choice of such a worn-out, or at least overvalued, research topic. This puzzles me. I feel that apart from certain sub-genres — Madonna Studies, Rap Studies, Video Studies — there is a dearth of even basic research in the field. In time I have begun to suspect that the object of my interest is often confused with its naïvely anarchistic bourgeois cousin, rock journalism. Reading that, except for the likes of Lester Bangs or Nik Cohn, will of course shed even less light on the music's aesthetic value than casual non-analytic listening.

There has been plenty of earnest rock writing — Eisen (1969), Heylin (1992), and Kureishi & Savage (1995) are excellent anthologies. But so far it has largely concentrated on disciplines like sociology of music, with their concepts and theories rooted in the social, not human, sciences. On the other hand, learned musicological rock theories have hardly ever sought a synthesis between two opposing methods of interpretation. These are Kantian formalist aesthetics, according to which a beautiful object has a form liable to be recognized and therefore an absolute intrinsic validity, and a purely emotivist aesthetics that highlights physicality, rhythm and certain performance variables as characteristics setting pop apart from other idioms — on the horrors skulking in stylistic delineation, also see Green (1988: 102-120). Often a writer has ended up either using traditional formalist criteria in condemning popular music as inaesthetic, coarse and cheap (e.g. Adorno, 1941), or defending the unique importance and inviolability of individual emotions by invoking the crimes of formalism (e.g. Baugh, 1993). Paradoxically, in both of these cases it is clearly assumed that a subject can easily formulate significant propositions, be they linguistic or aesthetic, subjective or objective. This is why I think future rock analysis could benefit from using the methods of semiotics.

Semiotics is based upon the idea, first formulated by Ferdinand de Saussure, that language is not a means of expressing the meanings speaking subjects want to express, but the meanings are instead the product of structures controlled by the rules of language. Natural languages and all other language-like systems of signs produce the meanings which make up consciousness. In its classical structuralist form, semiotics considers the conscious subject to be a pure product of language. Later semioticians have concentrated on discourses — groups of propositions that are subject to rules higher than those necessary merely to form meaning, such as metre — and the conflicts within and between them. Also observing the psychoanalytic finding that individuals do not become social beings very simply or easily, semiotics has been especially interested in the problem of the subject.

Popular music is of course meaningful to us subjects. Recordings are calculatingly produced industrial mass products, but they bring about undeniably concrete, in fact even physiologically measurable, feelings in both their producers and consumers. The formalist aesthetics of music, established by Eduard Hanslick in his Vom Musikalisch-Schönen (1854) and developed in the 20th century by Susanne Langer, thinks that music is the most formal of art forms, because its form is the same as its content, and that music cannot be a means of self-expression, owing to the performer's inability to make himself experience the feelings the music is supposed to express. Music can at most make a sophisticated mapping of potential feelings. This is true, in a sense. But one cannot deduce the validity of formalism from it. The somatic and instinctive features of music, overlooked by formalist aesthetics, do in fact emanate from the form-content's not being so atomistic that it cannot contradict itself psychologically.

The song "Not A Second Time", recorded by the Beatles in September, 1963, is a good example of this. The tune begins with piano and guitar vamping between major and minor chords as if to urge the vocalist, John Lennon, to get on with it. On paper the lyric by Lennon — who is probably its sole author, although Paul McCartney is listed as a co-writer in the usual fashion — is a stern, decisive rejection of false love:
You're giving me the same old line, I'm wondering whyYou hurt me then, you're back againNo, no, no, not a second time

As heard on disc, however, it feels like something completely different. Lennon's singing sounds confused and hurt, and it almost sounds like he's certain of going for the same trap again. The line between love and hate is of course among the most popular themes in rock songs, but it is usually explicit and a central point in the lyric, whereas it is hidden very deep in our example. In the end the large amount of hate in the lyric of "Not A Second Time" can only make the hate feel more untrue. Even ostensibly unambiguous lines like "And now you've changed your mind / I see no reason to change mine" do not suggest their presumptive meaning — that the disappointment caused by the ex-lover is still vividly on the singer's mind — but, contrariwise, that it never really was there at all.

There is no bass or electric lead guitar to be heard on the recording, as the only instruments used are Lennon's double-tracked vocals and acoustic guitar, Ringo Starr's drums and producer George Martin's piano. The absence of bass makes the harmony eccentric, and a piano sound exercising an effect of mediating contentment only raises the level of strangeness, especially as the piano solo appears in a section based on the refrain instead of the verse. The sparse instrumentation creates a peculiar touch of fullness, but it is only an illusion in light of the song's general view. During the fade-out Lennon self-deceptively repeats the words "not a second time" to himself again and again.

It is a part of the semiotic view that the forms of texts depend greatly on identification. To make a text intelligible, the reader, viewer or listener must take a position in the narrative. The listener of songs in the first person is usually advised implicitly to take the singer's position. When the singer and songwriter are the same person this is emphasized. Lennon's extraordinary reading of his own text makes the thought of identifying with the singer of "Not A Second Time" an exceptionally difficult and unattractive one.

The music critics who have analyzed Beatles recordings furthest, Tim Riley (1988: 81) and Ian MacDonald (1995: 74-75), consider all of this proof of the inauthenticity and weakness of "Not A Second Time" compared to balanced early Beatles gems like "If I Fell", "Tell Me Why" or "I'll Get You". But I feel that the strength of "Not A Second Time" is precisely in its incoherence.

In his research in phonography Evan Eisenberg mentions the concept of cool, which is to him one of the three main modes of performing arts, the others being projectivity and uncommunicativeness. A cool performer does not court his audience, but neither does he ignore it. Instead of being observed, a cool performer observes (Eisenberg, 1988: 129). In addition to technically impeccable musicians like Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra, one of Eisenberg's examples of cool is John Lennon. He does not have sovereign virtuosity, which would make it possible to get praise for reproducing the musical text faithfully. Instead he wants the listener to think for himself, and withdraws behind the scenes to mock the listener's bumptious nervousness when facing a schizophrenic performance like "Not A Second Time". Lennon got so tired of the pretentious pseudo-analysis accorded his lyrics and prose texts that he wrote an entire song ("Glass Onion") about it in 1968, while still with the Beatles.

Sean Cubitt (1984: 210, 223) theorizes that the use of fade-outs to end rock songs is what tells the listener that he's hearing a mere record of something that has already happened in the real world, but which can nevertheless be experienced countless times. (In the liner notes of With the Beatles, the album containing "Not A Second Time", journalist Tony Barrow also hopes that the listener will feel able to start over after the record ends.) According to Cubitt, the fade-out also contradicts the Aristotelian view that an aesthetic object has a beginning, a middle and an end, and therefore also the Cartesian conception of the subject as something integral, autonomic and closed. This conception is also part of what formalist aesthetics rests on.

In the case of "Not A Second Time" the aestheticity is something downright wilfully fragmented and unpredictable. Yet this is not a Barthesian "writerly text" revelling in its refusal to interpret itself (Barthes, 1970: 5). It can obviously be grasped neither on the listener's terms nor the text's. The song's seeming conclusion's being faded out suggests that the real meaning cannot be found in the song itself. The song asks those seeking information on it to turn elsewhere.

Unlike purely formalist or emotivist music, "Not A Second Time" seems to require the transparent, "questionable" subject endorsed by much twentieth-century continental philosophy. (But it is at least conservative enough to require the visibility of a subject, as opposed to more radical views — Heidegger, Bataille — that consider the subject wholly useless.) The subject gets its meaning in an open forest of discourses, the parts of which are dependent on each other in unforeseeable ways. Sometimes they have to call attention to themselves quite uninvitingly. Even though it may be impossible to see such a theoretically flawed work of art as "Not A Second Time" as culture, it is fruitful to think whether it could be counter-culture.

T.P. Uschanov works at the Department of Philosophy, University of Helsinki.

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