Sophistic Rhetoric and “Little Pink Houses”

I guess I should attempt to make a bridge between “guitar” and “sophist.”

In “Encomium of Helen” the sophist Gorgias defends Helen of Troy, widely considered to be the epitome of a bad woman.  Gorgias argues that she is blameless because her actions were either due to the will of the gods, or she was “by force reduced or by words seduced or by love possessed.”  Gorgias’ argument deprives Helen of all agency and thus all moral responsibility. However, what I am interested in here is not the argument, but the theory of rhetoric represented here by the seductive power of words.  Gorgias argues

Speech is a powerful lord, which by means of the finest and most invisible body effects the divinest works: it can stop fear and banish grief and create joy and nurture pity. I shall show how this is the case, since it is necessary to offer proof to the opinion of my hearers: I both deem and define all poetry as speech with meter. Fearful shuddering and tearful pity and grievous longing come upon its hearers, and at the actions and physical sufferings of others in good fortunes and in evil fortunes, through the agency of words, the soul is wont to experience a suffering of its own. But come, I shall turn from one argument to another. Sacred incantations sung with words are bearers of pleasure and banishers of pain, for, merging with opinion in the soul, the power of the incantation is wont to beguile it and persuade it and alter it by witchcraft.

Much of the effect of Gorgias’ speech derives from rhythmic, poetic language with odd turns of phrase and lots of repetition of words and sounds.  The translator of the above passage has attempted to preserve a bit of this effect.  This is the sophistic logos, a persuasion through hypnotizing words rather than logical argument, as in Aristotle.  Note especially the last sentence above, where he talks about the particular power of words that are sung to beguile and persuade the soul.

I want to argue that rock n’ roll music is the inheritor of the Gorgianic strand of sophistic rhetoric.  Let me see if I can make this case.

In 1984 (1984, yikes, how Orwellian!) Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign tried to use Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” as a campaign theme.  The chorus sounds stirringly patriotic:

Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.

It is almost impossible to hear this chorus without singing along, even for people who were not born in the U.S.A.  However, the words themselves are banal and repetitive.  It’s the music, the rhythm, the chords, and the arrangement, that drives them into your skull.  You can hear this song a hundred times and not hear any lyrics besides these.  That is what fooled the Reagan campaign.  If you listen more carefully you hear words like these:

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up

Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man

The song is clearly a bitter message about the men who went to fight in Vietnam and the problems they had when they returned home.  The Reagan campaign’s cluelessness about this is old news.  People, including Springsteen, said that they needed to put in the time and effort to listen to the song.  However, songs with a rousing chorus like this are not designed to be understood in one take.  What is the rhetorical effect of living with a song for a period of time, liking it, hearing it as a celebration of patriotism and American values, taking it into your heart and consciousness, and then suddenly hearing it as a critique?  Could it be that a message that would have been fended off by ideological filters actually gets a hearing?

The McCain campaign recently made a similar blunder with John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses.”  The chorus is equally patriotic and stirring, except that the last line contains a hint of possible irony:

Oh, but ain’t that America
For you and me
Ain’t that America
Something to see, baby
Ain’t that America
Home of the free, yeah
Little pink houses
For you and me
Oooh, little baby
For you and me

The verses are about ordinary people, their aspirations and disappointments.  There’s a black man in a black neighborhood with an interstate running through his front yard who “thinks that he’s got it so good.”  There’s a greasy young man in a t-shirt who already thinks he’s found his destination because his crazy dreams to be president, “just kind of came and went.”  But the real problem for the McCain campaign might be this verse:

Well, there’s people and more people
What do they know, know, know
Go to work in some high rise
And vacation down at the Gulf of Mexico
Ooh, yeah
And there’s winners and there’s losers
But they ain’t no big deal
‘Cause the simple man, baby
Pays for thrills
The bills the pills that kill

Each verse builds up the irony of the “Ain’t that America” of the chorus until the catch phrase signifies a sense of broken dreams and quiet desperation rather than celebratory pride.

Neither “Born in the U.S.A.” nor “Pink Houses” is anti-American.  Both songs question American culture and politics in constructive and provocative ways. However, neither song is exactly what it appears to be on first listening.  The music opens the way for the bewitchment that is to come.  Gorgias would approve.

Encomium of Helen
“Born in the U.S.A”
“Pink Houses”

About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
This entry was posted in Music and Guitar, Rhetoric and teaching and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Sophistic Rhetoric and “Little Pink Houses”

  1. jimsturges says:

    Interestingly, Mellencamp performed “Pink Houses” at the DC mall today during the inaugural celebration.

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