The first five lines of Marty Robbins’ Big Iron

One of the goals of a story is to introduce its elements in a way that a reader can process who, when and where. Sure, there are things happening, but they do not matter unless the reader understands it; the greatest love story of all time falls flat if the question guiding the reader is “who even are these people?”. In order for a story to work, these things need to be established before the action proper begins.

This does not necessarily mean an extended discussion of the economics of tobacco in the particular part of the world the story is set in, spanning a good dozens of pages before the main character enters the narrative stage, but there has to be something. Some indication of where the story is at, when it happens and who is in it. “Why” can be introduced later, and the necessity of a “how” seems to depend on genre. Get these three things right first, and the rest – and possibly the reader – will follow.

With this in mind, we can consider the opening words of Big Iron: “To the town of Agua Fria rode a stranger one fine day”. Here, we are introduced to the where and when. Even if you do not know that Agua Fria was an important town in gold rush California, the fact that the stranger rode in on a fine day heavily suggests that this is a cowboy narrative. The mere act of riding marks the story as something taking place before our time – the stranger did not arrive on a bus, or a motorcycle, or by parachute. The fact that he is introduced as a “stranger” also tells us something. He is not introduced as a knight, nobleman or other person of means who rode in historical times, who would be instantly recognizable to anyone laying eyes on him. This places the narrative in a time period where strangers can ride, sometime when the process of modernity had loosened the social identities of the old world to such a degree as to make strangers possible, but not recent enough that the presence of a horse warranted mentioning. Moreover, the clarification that this day was “fine” is a genre marker common in retrospective cowboy ballads. Thus, from the very first line, we have gleaned the information that we are somewhere in cowboy times.

This, I dare say, is some heavy duty narrative work performed by only twelve words. While not rich on specifics, anyone who paid even the slightest attention immediately understand what kind of story is about to be told.

Thus, the audience is primed and ready for the next spur of character development: “Hardly spoke to folks around him, didn’t have too much to say”. To those familiar with cowboy stories, this is a common enough description that it might fit on any number of famous protagonists, antagonists, villains, heroes or side-characters of other famous entries in the genre. Indeed, the stranger would be out of place would he suddenly break out into long discursive expositions about the nature of this thing or that; such discursive outbursts are the antithesis of the lone rider who enters into towns on business yet untold. The fact that the stranger did not have much to say, however, is not to be understood as if he had nothing to say. Rather, his later explanation to the townsfolk of his reason for being in town had a very specific purpose and a very specific way in which it was to be delivered. There is a way to go about these things, and telling any random person who happens to come into view is not it. Being sparse with words is, in the context of these lines, more of a character description than anything else, and the character is well known by those who are familiar with the genre.

In the next line, we are introduced to the reaction of the townsfolk upon the stranger’s arrival. We are told that “No one dared to ask his business, no one dared to make a slip”. Not only are the townsfolk reluctant to ask the stranger what brought him here, there is more at work here. Being afraid to make a slip is a very specific state of mind – there is something in the situation that warrants being attentive to, and provoking it by accident might prove fatal. The presence of the stranger is one such situation, and everyone tried their best not to accidentally do anything that would get his attention. While the townsfolk did not yet know the stranger’s mission, they knew he was up to something, and this something was probably not good. In a manner common to humanity for thousands of years, they avoided that which they did not yet know, for fear of what it might do.

The reason for this reluctance on the part of the townsfolk is explained in the next line. We are told, in no uncertain terms, the cause of this sudden attentive stillness: “For the stranger there among them had a big iron on his hip”. This is not a regular iron – which is to say, an ordinary gun – but an iron of such magnitude that it has to be commented upon. Given that these folks are sparse of words and deliberate of speaking, the addition of an adjective is no small matter. To openly admit that something was out of the ordinary – in this case, particularly large – was to make a statement. This gun was not merely slightly bigger than ordinary guns, but otherwise comparable; the defining characteristic of this gun was the unusual size of this weapon. There are guns, and there are big guns, and this gun, it was one of the big ones.

Indeed, the very next line consists of the words “Big iron on his hip” again, which serve as the chorus of the song, underscoring the size of this weapon.

As the song continues, it will introduce new characters and new elements of the backstory, all with the same economy of words and expository discourse. The demise of Texas Red will not come as a surprise to you, given what you have been told about the stranger and his big iron. All this within a span of fifty-six words.

While your own writing endeavors will probably not consist of retrospective cowboy ballads, it might benefit from looking at their minimalist approach to establishing when, where and who. Sometimes, less is in fact more.

The first five lines of Marty Robbins’ Big Iron

Dance 2 Trance: Power of American Natives

The 90s had a very distinct musical sound. If you know it, you can hear it coming from miles and miles away, and it is very possible you have been informed by its arrival by means of a posted timetable and realtime updates through social media. Which is to say, it is impossible to mistake a 90s song for anything else. You hear those first few notes, and instantly any doubt has been removed as to the nature of what you are hearing.

This process is somewhat aided by the fact that many 90s songs were self-contained units that did exactly one thing, and that was the thing they did. Indeed, there were musical acts whose whole production were exactly one thing – that’s you, Vengaboys – and even entire genres whose only purpose were to refine one single core element to its purest form – boy bands come to mind.

These were not subtle trends. Those were not subtle times.

This brings us to the song so eloquently mentioned in the title. There are words that could be applied it; “cultural sensitivity”, “careful exploration of historical themes” or “character development” are not among these. In fact, if we were to summarize the song, it would go like this: there is oontzing, there is the phrase “I believe in the power of American Natives” repeated an untold number of times, and a few generic phrases which are related to a very general stereotype of Native Americans (the particular choice of the wording “untamed people” does not help). If you are looking to learn more about the historical context of this particular group of people, then this is not the place to find it.

The song does not even work as a vote of confidence to Native Americans. Despite explicitly stating that it believes in their power, it is phrased in such a way that anyone listening immediately understands who the real target audience is. Which is to say, not Native Americans.

This vritique might seem overly harsh, considering the fact that it is an utterly generic dance song which makes no pretentions to be anything but a bit of oontz oontz oontzing. This is the kind of genre where the affordances are such that you can put in just about any trope whatsoever and get a song out of it. Analyzing it on the level of words will only go so far, before running smack dab into the conditions of production. There are hard limits to hermeneutics, and we have poked them.

This is an interesting thing to have done.

The disconnect between words and communication is not particular to this one song. It is a common feature of modern communication – particularly online communication, where irony is the order of the day. In order to say something, simply saying it outright will not get the job done. Whenever you say something, a context will immediately materialize wherein every word you just said are interpreted, imbued with layers of meaning, and overall serve as a resonance chamber for previous statements. You are not just saying a thing – you are mobilizing a vast mountain range of previous things that were said and now have renewed meaning. It is, by and large, these things that your peers respond to, rather than the exact wordings of whatever you said.

This is something of a predicament for those valuing clear, unambiguous communication. It is also utterly familiar to anyone who has a crush on someone. Simply walking up to the person in question and telling them that you have a crush on them – just like that, out of the blue, no preamble – is a brutally counterproductive course of action, and some different strategy will have to be devised. Cheesy pick-up lines is one such strategy, but it is by no means the only one. The goal is not to make a definitive statement right out the bat, but rather to create favorable social conditions for further communication.

This song is the musical equivalent of a cheesy pick-up line, and has to be understood as such. The words are incidental, but the oontz

The oontz is eternal.

Dance 2 Trance: Power of American Natives

Star Wars: the last jedi (2017)

The new Star Wars movie asks and answers one simple question: are you in the Star Wars fandom or not?

If you saw it and thought that it was an okay Star Wars movie, in line with the others, not perfect but perfectly okay in terms of being a movie where things happened – then you are not in the fandom. If you, on the other hand, find yourself having very lengthy opinions about Snoke’s footwear and their exact relationship to canonical lore, then you are deep in it.

It is a simple question, but it tells us something interesting about who you are as a person. And we will have to apply interesting methodologies in order to answer it.

In the psychoanalytic tradition, dream interpretation is used as a means to get at the inner processes of someone’s psychological life. The empirical material to be interpreted are not the dreams themselves, however. Rather, it is the way a person relates these dreams that’s of interest – what is emphasized, what is left out, what is construed as the important parts, and so on. The dreams are radically unavailable to any scrutiny whatsoever, except through process of rapidly decaying personal memories, but the discourse about these memories is eminently analyzable. The dreams themselves, from a practical point of view, serve more as an excuse to get the person talking than anything else.

Something similar is going on with the new Star Wars movie. There is an ever increasing amount of things said about the movie, but the least interesting things about these discourses are their factual contents. Where Snoke came from, why no one has mentioned Canto Bight before despite it being an important in-universe location, or how the events in the rebel fleet and the Jedi Island came to align perfectly for the final confrontation – these are questions whose answers are akin to retelling of dreams. The particular facts are of secondary importance. The real stuff is in the how the telling is conducted.

Thus, simply saying that it was an okay movie where things happened is not a failure to engage with the content of the movie – it is to the contrary an important statement about what kind of person we are dealing with. A person who saw the movie, liked it, and shrugs at questions of internal consistency is a very particular kind of person. Knowing this makes future interactions with this person easier, as you now know something about them:

They are not part of the fandom.

The reverse case – someone who goes on at length about the motivations of the characters, the logistics of rebel fleets, and how the books fit into all of this – likewise tells us something about the person in question. It would be a mistake to analyze these statements on the level of content, however; it is all process and inflection.

That such persons are in the fandom goes without saying.

What is of particular interest is the proliferation of takes mimicking fandom discourse. There are not simply one or two persons out there suddenly having detailed thoughts about how it all fits together or how to reconcile this new information with previous (head)canons. A large number of people want in, and thus launch into endless expositional discourses on the how, where, why, when. Their conclusions, naturally, possess varying degrees of coherence, but that is beside the point. The point being that we now have a large amount of roughly commensurate data abount a large amount of people, and no clear idea of how to use it.

The interpretive work awakens.

Star Wars: the last jedi (2017)