COMMENTARY BY CLAUDIO GIUNTA.
This is a lyric text, if lyricism implies, as stated in the Treccani dictionary, the prevalence of the “expression of the poet’s pure subjectivity” (and not, for the sake of argument, the aspect of the story, or the dialog, etc.). Now, the “pure subjectivity” expressed in songs is usually that of falling in love. Not here. In recent decades the thematic repertoire of songs has greatly expanded, and at least in the works of singer-songwriters, love is now a far less central topic than it was in the 1950s, a topic which later songwriters have even treated in ironic fashion. As Frank Zappa states: “I detest love lyrics. I think one of the causes of bad mental health in the United States is that people have been raised on ‘love lyrics.’…It’s a subconscious training that creates a desire for an imaginary situation which will never exist for you. People who buy into that mythology go through life feeling that they got cheated out of something.” (Frank Zappa and Peter Occhiogrosso, The Real Frank Zappa Book, New York: Poseidon Press, 1989, p. 89). And here is Dylan on the subject: “Feelings really aren’t my thing. See, I don’t write lies. It’s a proven fact: Most people who say I love you don’t mean it. Doctors have proved that. So love generates a lot of songs. Probably more so than a lot” (Paul Zollo, “Bob Dylan: The Paul Zollo Interview,” American Songwriter, January 9, 2012, http://americansongwriter.com/2012/01/bob-dylan-the-paul-zollo-interview-3/7/).
This is its first original trait: Quello che non c’è does not talk about love. Here is a second: the rhetorical situation at play in this song is a reflection spoken aloud by the author to himself, not a dialog with an absent party. The you – so present in pop songs – appears in a single verse, “Rivuoi la scelta, rivuoi il controllo” (you want your choices back, you want control again), and this you does not have a recognizable identity, much less a role as interlocutor or recipient, and indeed it could be the narrator himself, split into two selves. As to the development of the discussion, the nexus of meaning and implication between the strophes is not clear, even when this connection is made explicit by a causal conjunction (“Perciò io maledico” (Therefore I curse…)). Nevertheless, it is evident that, unlike what occurs in many pop songs, each stanza does not simply reiterate in a slightly different way the same basic concept (typically: “I love you,” or “I miss you,” or “let’s get back together”), just as it is clear that there exists an order—however ephemeral—or a sort of narrative articulation which is also strengthened, made coherent, by the internal chronology of the text (“Arriva l’alba, o forse no” → “Ed ecco arriva l’alba” ( The dawn is coming, or perhaps it’s not → And here comes the dawn)).
Regarding symbolism and forms of expression, these are so idiosyncratic as to leave the reader/listener in doubt about their exact meaning: that is to say that, as normally occurs not in pop songs but in modern poetry, the text evokes opaque, allusive images (the angel breath is the memory of the child whom the adult sees in the photo? What does it mean to walk on water, what are the black wings, what is the key metaphor “something that isn’t there”?), which belong to an encrypted code to which the reader/listener does not have the key. The song also organizes these images into a syntax that ignores the constraints of logic and breaks the linearity of the prose speech, according to a method much used by songwriters of the second half of the twentieth century, such as Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, David Bowie, or David Byrne of the Talking Heads:
Question: You are the person who introduced the idea of “stop making sense,” which is a liberating thought for songwriters, that we can be freed from linear, logical thought in songs.
Answer: There was a lot of stuff I heard when I was growing up that was like that: Beatles songs, Rolling Stones songs, Bob Dylan songs. Even a lot of R&B and James Brown songs. If you took the lyrics at their face value, it was just a series of non-sequiturs. But in context, in sound and in the way they were said, whatever the gut reaction was to those particular words, it made sense on a non-logical level. It skirted your logical or rational facilities and struck on a different level. (Interview with David Byrne in Paul Zollo, Songwriters on Songwriting, 4th ed., Cincinatti, OH: Da Capo Press, 2003, p. 496).
“It made sense on a non-logical level” does not have much meaning, but what Byrne is trying to explain here is familiar to anyone who listens to contemporary songs of a certain complexity. The words that are found in these songs are words in the dictionary, the phrases are articulated in a rational manner. What escapes us is usually the relationship of meaning between these words and phrases: that is to say, the question most often posed by the post-symbolist poets, “But what does it mean?”, can be asked just as rightly about the poetic paradoxes and non-sequiturs of Quello che non c’è—leaves that grow stronger, if the author can “ignore that the trees are dead”; his remorse for his “way of dying safe and sound.” But what does that mean? This is a question which, up to the time of the Beatles, nobody thought to ask while listening to a song; this is a question which today nearly every song brings to mind.
Finally, let us consider the identity of the lyrical “I.” The text does not depict a predictable situation (for example, a man’s declaration of love and devotion for a woman) but rather a strongly characterized situation (a reflection elicited by an old photo of the narrative “I” as a child), which seems to reflect the real experience of the biographical “I.” What is more, another important fact contributes to making us take seriously the Sitz im Leben of this text, and that is the fact that his bitter and painful tone pairs with the tone of many other songs by the Afterhours: the fragment is consistent with the whole, and this whole reflects the personality of the person or persons who have written the song with a degree of truth infinitely greater than that which could be found in the lyrics of a singer from half a century ago.