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Paul Simon's Short Little Span of Attention

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Paul Simon's Short Little Span of Attention

For a while now I've heard Paul Simon's song "You Can Call Me Al" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uq-gYOrU8bA as slightly more than a eulogy to the mid-life crisis. And it's not just me. Right from its opening line the jovial tune and cheerful delivery are offset by a series of darker and more complex observations:

"A man walks down the street
He says why am I soft in the middle now
Why am I soft in the middle
The rest of my life is so hard"

Listening for the first time, it's the pun on soft and hard that catches our ear. Simon jokes by playing on the contrast between weak, flabby tissue and an unforgiving existence. But, by repeating 'soft in the middle', Simon's structure lingers on the phrase. Pausing in self-examination, the lyric contemplates the spare tyre of middle age on an emotional and literal level - only to cut this reflection short in jarring monosyllables.

Now, this may just sound like a prize-winning entry for Private Eye's 'Pseud's corner'. But, if you've ever listened to 'The Sound of Silence', you'll know that this guy isn't taking his lyrics lightly. But, why the critical analysis of song lyrics? Well, other than exhibiting fine song-craft, this song also contains two particular lines that particularly resonate.

Using a similar structural composition, Simon sings:

"He says why am I short of attention
Got a short little span of attention"

Again, the repetition draws our focus on a particular word; in this case 'attention'. Paradoxically though, what we are being asked to examine is the singer's own inability to reciprocate this level of concentration. Our 'attention' is taken for granted - we, the audience, must want to hear what this voice in the wilderness is saying - but, the singer himself is seemingly indifferent to his surroundings. What's more, this is a wilderness that the singer has created for himself. Clearly surrounded by listeners (for what is a song without an audience?), the singer laments an isolation that is constructed from an unwillingness to interact with his environment.

That's not to say that Simon is wallowing in reclusive narcissism. Or if it is, it's because the world around him holds little meaning. As he continues to sing:

"I need a photo-opportunity,
I want a shot at redemption!
Don't want to end up a cartoon,
In a cartoon graveyard."

Here, the juxtaposition of a 'photo-opportunity' and 'redemption' seems to equate spiritual healing with a form of self-promotion. Likewise, by suggesting that the alternative is a demise fit only for a piece of frivolous artifice, Simon fabricates a spiritual scale - one on which the photo shoot is a pinnacle of achievement and the cartoon is the nadir.

Yet this is patently false. The photo shoot and cartoon are both material artifacts created solely for the purpose of aesthetic entertainment. As a result, Simon implicitly acknowledges that his attempt to wrestle significance into his desires is an act of metaphysical wilfulness. Trying to give life some sort of significance by means of social conventions you yourself have deemed inadequate is like borrowing more money to pay off a debt - a self-defeating task. In short, Simon's "short little span of attention" is symptomatic of an awareness that has little to no stake in the surroundings conditioning his existence.

And it is precisely this kind of short attention span that we have been taught to hate. Modern mass media alongside the omnipresent force of "the internets" have supposedly frazzled our brains to a crisp, such that we care for little and society is (*cringe*) "broken". But what this song (from 1986 by the by) and others like it actually seems to illustrate is that "not caring" comes from a fundamental unhappiness about the world around you. Short spans of attention do not reflect or propagate social breakdown, they are symptomatic illustrators of it.

For example, anger and revolution are not born out of apathy. They come from a genuine hope that out of even the most corrupt society, something better can be established. Apathy is a lamentable admission that here, in this world, there is no redemption. The corruption is so total that, like Milton's Satan, we can only reflect on any attempts to ameliorate our society with a grim and all-too cynical despair.

Only at the end of Simon's song then, are we eventually granted a reprieve. Relocating his protagonist at the bottom of a portable property food chain, the narrator sings, "Maybe it's the Third World. / Maybe it's his first time around". By introducing a qualifying possibility, Simon suggests his protagonist's novelty of place is instead a new way of imagining and incorporating his surroundings. Refreshing his perspective, the singer is free to care about the things that previously excited little to no interest at all. And the thing that triggers this renewed perspective? It's been staring the audience in the face all along. As the soundtrack for a film called The Bodyguard, the song's only really about one thing - caring for someone else:

"If you'll be my bodyguard,
I can be your long lost pal!"

With the chorus gently plodding in and out of the verses' narrative the two build to form a cohesive and hopeful redemption. The singer's mid-life crisis and crippled attention span are saved by one thing and one thing only: a genuine reason to care about anything. And its in this which I suppose I would (somewhat reluctantly) like to anchor my point about "society". We can't ask people to care, without them having something to care about.

Dodgson.