Nothing Alike But Very Alike

In which I really might take this analysis business too far

Okay friends. I was listening to music this week—as, you know, I do—and something occurred to me that I think has something to it. Either that or it will evidence an overstimulated brain whose sleep schedule this week has been erratic. Maybe the coffee my flatmate has been making is stronger than I realize??

Anyway. You already know Dylan’s been on my mind (mama you been on my mind? stop making puns and get on track). As a matter of fact, in a turn of self-skepticism that surprised even me, no sooner had I opined that Blonde on Blonde was my favorite record than I got suckered into Highway 61 Revisited. As if the universe were asking, “You really wanna make that call? You really wanna commit?”

Blonde on Blonde’s acronym is literally BOB. What do you WANT from me.

Seriously, though, I was drawn back to its predecessor like a fly to…to…vinegar. Because that’s what it is, acidic and acerbic and ready to take no prisoners. I don’t know if I consciously knew this about myself until relatively recently, but I love a mean song. Not a violent one necessarily (unless it’s by a woman—flip that table, girl), just one that reads you, that says you can drop the act I see right through you or hey guess what guys this thing isn’t as great as you all think. And H61R is full of those attitudes. Pretty impressive, as there’s only nine songs.

Then I also had one foot outside the Dylansphere. And I can’t believe I’m about to talk about this song for the second time, but once I noticed the debt that the one owes the other I couldn’t un-notice it.

So here it is: “Semi-Charmed Life,” by Third Eye Blind, is the “Like a Rolling Stone” of our generation.

(Whose generation, Cecilia? The song came out in your infancy. Well, tell that to the group of baby millennials singing along word for word when one of us chose it at karaoke a few years ago. Leave me aloneeeeeee.)

Now, on its own this claim sounds ridiculous. I don’t mean that the late-‘90s gem has had the same musical impact or carries the same cultural weight or whatever. I mean that the wholes may have turned out very differently but the sums of their parts share surprising commonalities.

Their highly disparate texts explore a uniting theme, specifically that of an idle, privileged girl who gets into trouble because of (or to escape from) her sheer aimlessness. Stephan Jenkins, for all intents and purposes the personification of the entity that is Third Eye Blind, renders this girl a recurring character throughout their debut album—another single, “Losing a Whole Year,” which happens to be the opening track, states:

Rich daddy left you with a parachute

Your voice sounds like money and your face is cute

But your daddy left you with no love

You touch everything with a velvet glove

And now you wanna try a life of sin…

Always copping my truths

I kinda get the feeling like I’m being used

By track 3, “Semi-Charmed Life,” the girl bonds with the narrator almost solely through their use of crystal meth. Ironically, Jenkins’ major inspiration was Lou Reed, the song an alleged response to “Walk on the Wild Side” (the “do-do-do’s” are the most explicit reference). In discussing the song he has said that he intended it as a cautionary tale. That mood doesn’t exactly translate when you listen. Herein lies the biggest difference from “Like a Rolling Stone”: the narrator is in this situation with the girl instead of criticizing her from afar; and while he recognizes the danger of their addiction (and when the plane came in she said she was crashing…we tripped on the urge to feel alive / but now I’m struggling to survive) he is either unable or unwilling to try to get out of it, and it falls to her to take action:

She said, “I want something else

To get me through this semi-charmed kind of life…

I’m not listening when you say goodbye”

The problem is intimate—and the narrator seems pretty apathetic, in fact content to continue their destructive routine. Jenkins gets a little too smug for his own good on “she comes round and she goes down on me” (not to mention “and I make her smile, like a drug for you”). But then it really isn’t far removed from Dylan’s “don’t the sun look good going down over the sea / but don’t my gal look fine when she’s coming after me” elsewhere on H61R. Slightly more subtle, perhaps, but the same act. Neither catalogue is known for portraying women as practical beings with wants and needs of their own.

That said, Dylan at least has never written a line like “how do I get back there to / the place where I fell asleep inside you.” Asfhszfjskghnklsfjt.

(The line “I believe in the sand beneath my toes” has a definite “Mr. Tambourine Man” / Bringing It All Back Home vibe to it. See, the stamp is there.)

The gap between the lyrical content is closed somewhat by the singers’ delivery. Very, uh, energetic. (The way Jenkins shouts “come on like a freak show takes the stage” is what got me on board during my first listen.) The verses are almost spoken-word-esque, full of internal rhyming—and, especially in Jenkins’ case, rhythmic hip-hop-influenced word-painting—and leading to highly singable choruses. Nor are their musical choices alien to one another, even if again they sound nothing alike. Not many chords (five in Dylan’s case, three in Jenkins’), heavy on the V (the leading chord back to the root). It’s good pop songwriting that lets listeners feel like they know what’s going on.

Meanwhile, just as “Like a Rolling Stone” begins with a single drum kick that Springsteen famously described as “like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind,” “Semi-Charmed Life” ends with the same thing. (There is a drum fill at the top, but the final stroke is a better comparison.) And if for Dylan the drum is a door kicked open, for Jenkins it’s a door slammed shut. Both pretty effective if you ask me.

I think this is how the Comp Lit kids do?!

Anyhow, I hope some song from some era is stuck in your head by now. Sorry not sorry. I’m switching to tea and going to bed.

Image: Third Eye Blind’s eponymous debut album, released March 1997

Published by Cecilia Gigliotti

Cecilia Gigliotti is a freelance writer-editor based in Berlin, Germany, with a beloved ukulele named Uke Skywalker. Her free time goes toward singing, dancing, reading books new and old, drawing cartoons, trying to finish her Netflix queue, and devoting too much thought to the foibles of her artist-heroes. Connect with her on Twitter (@CeciliaGelato), Instagram (@c_m_giglio), and YouTube (Lia Lio).

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