Monday, May 10, 2010

Untangling “Perfect Day"

I have always found the narrative to this song strange. It is called “Perfect Day,” and it describes what would be a very small, almost homely day in which the narrator—obviously out of place in such a situation—sees as a transcendent experience.

Instrumentally though, the song is bluish and melancholy with its minor-chord piano, its strings, and its horns. Similarly, the last lines of the chorus and the coda are odd, throwing the song into a kind of bizarre and schizophrenic confusion. This uncanny element though, is what elevates it beyond its purported humble and quotidian leanings.

Take the first verse—"Just a perfect day, drink sangria in the park. And then later, when it gets dark, we go home. Just a perfect day, feed animals in the zoo. Then later a movie too, and then home."

These are very small moments—very romantic, and in the urban sense, naturalistic. The green space of the park mixed with the “animals in the zoo.” It’s an obvious bucolic veneration of nature above unnatural urban space. Again, this is a very romantic conceit—I would love to have someone to drink sangria in the park with. And then the evening is capped off in the most conventional of ways, with a “movie…and then home.”

Then the chorus tells us that the perfection of such an experience is necessarily connected to the presence of a certain individual, something I think we all have felt: "Oh it's such a perfect day, I'm glad I spent it with you. Oh such a perfect day." But then the confusion sets in—"You just keep me hanging on, you just keep me hanging on." These last lines are where the confusion really commences.

Why, after such a perfect day is the narrator felt to be kept hanging on? And why is the song delivered in the present tense, when obviously this transgression at the end of the chorus would lead us to believe that the perfect day ought to be in the past?

Obviously, the transcendence of such a day is intimately entwined with the person who it is spent with. But to end the chorus with the lament: "You just keep me hanging on," intimates that something melancholy is afoot.

That the perfection of the day stems from its difference from what is the normal experience of the narrator is key—he sings "You make me forget myself, I thought I was someone else, someone good." That he is experiencing the perfect is obvious in the fleeting character of it, which has passed. In this way, it seems as if—tense aside—it is a song written from the point of view of the past. Though he sings it in the present tense, it is really meant to represent what has passed, and that the shock and trauma of the now is present in what has passed.

This song would be easy to unlock and boring if it was written in the past tense. If we transform the first verse from the present to the past tense, see how morose it becomes: "It was just a perfect day, we drank sangria in the park. And then later, when it got dark, we went home. It was just a perfect day, fed animals in the zoo. Then later we saw a movie too, and then went home."

Obviously it loses the poetry, but gains infinitely in melancholy. There is no mystery why. The past tense is the tense of loss, of death, of what has passed and cannot be reclaimed. The interesting part is that the song was written in the present tense but mixed with the strange menace of the coda: "You’re gonna reap just what you sow" four times.

Why this threatening coda? I think the more obvious question is why would such a melancholy minor-chord song—it has, I think, an am, dm, c#m, and f#m in it—be called “Perfect Day?” It is an obviously sad song, written in the elegiac style of a lament.

The answer I think is in this blurring of time, the idea that the song as it is narrated actually takes place in, whether it is real or imagined, the past. The coda is the present—"You’re gonna reap just what you sow." This statement comes only from the lips and pens of those who are wronged. One does not reap the good from what goodness they sowed; it is the voice of vengeance.

What is fascinating about this song then, is that it drags the past into the present, and the present into the past—which is, I think, the way most of us think, for the past is always with us. How else do we account for the strange temporal slippage of the chorus: "It's just a perfect day, I'm glad I spent it with you?" The present is obviously much more wide ranging and important in most of our minds, it is the heavier of the two. But the past is the deep source of melancholia that we all draw from which informs the present.

Why the song is so affecting though, is how quick, and with such hidden violence, it moves from transcendence to vengeance. From “you made me forget myself,” to “you’re gonna reap just what you sow.” There is no transitory reason for such a shift, it just moves, like life, from love to hate, from necessity to vengeance. It is irrational, melancholy, and sadly, true.

Beyond all this though, is another, more depressing reading. And that is the one that shows the confusion that is always with us when we are in the presence of a barely-known other. Those moments when we think we have embarked upon something together, and are in some sense deeply communicative. But really we are leagues away from each other. That terrible moment of misunderstanding can account for the slippage that is represented in this song. There is that terribly embarrassing moment when we believe an experience to be one thing, but to the other it is nothing. Between where one finds the sublime and the other the quotidian, may be the most melancholy space of all.


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Blogger Sarah said...

i dont think it has to be hateful. "you just keep me hanging on" could be basically "you keep me from falling apart" or whatever, and "you're going to reap just what you sow" could be something more like " you'll get out of something what you put into it." the chords are sad no doubt, but i've always seen it as more imbued with regret rather than hatred.

10:18 PM  
Anonymous jan said...

Can I just say that I love this song? I've always been a fan of songs that document love and transcendence in the face of adversity, and your reading of it is, I think, spot on (not to mention nice and long, without slipping into snooty and blustery Pitchforkisms). It's melancholy at times, and triumphant in the interlude, but the contrast is what makes it sublime - it's so awesome that at times it's terrifying - and the magnitude of the risk of losing the perfection of the day only becomes painfully clear once it's attained, in the past. (Here I go, getting all blustery. All that to say, right on, man. I enjoyed this post.)

12:51 AM  
Blogger Goodnight Georgie said...

i think you're reading is sound, i may have totally misread it--i've been known to misread things--but what makes me think that it might not be such a rosy story (aside from the chords) is that lou reed is such a misanthrope, and there would need to be something awry. but you may be right.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know if anyone else has ever experienced this but for me, this song is really about dealing with depression. Hear me out, the lyrics speak of somewhat mundane, daily events, but for me especially they really hit home. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 12 years ago and for me it describe the bizarre paradoxes that come with it. Especially those around us who are there when we are at our lowest, I have had days like this with friends, there is nothing significant in what we have done or where we have been, but the fact they were there, just kept me hanging on

7:57 PM  

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