“So Beautiful or So What” by Paul Simon – On Dr. Martin Luther King and other “figures in the distance”

paulsimon_sbosw

Paul Simon’s song, “So Beautiful or So What,” from his latest release is a great song for many reasons, and I will allow the song itself to mainly support my statement. I decided to post this song since today is the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and since the reference to that tragic event in this song is quite intriguing. I think the song’s meaning (or purpose?) is summarized in the short question that is the chorus:

“So Beautiful, So beautiful, So what”

Most of the song is about random and seemingly trivial actions, with the point being that “life is what we make of it.” Therefore there are  two possible things we make of life. It is either “so beautiful” or “so what.” It is a life of meaning, or a life of no meaning. In the midst of the song Simon moves us from the trivial to the “question” of the tragical:

Four men on the balcony
Overlooking the parking lot
Pointing at a figure in the distance
Dr. King has just been shot

Paul Simon’s inclusion of this lyric puzzled me for a long time, but I think I now at least partly realize why it is so appropriate. It’s inclusion forces us to ask several important questions that make the song’s purpose hit us with the force that all of life. trivial or tragical, should hit us with:

  • was Dr. King merely “a figure in the distance”?
  • was his life meaningful?
  • was his life “so beautiful”
  • or was his life “so what!”
  • was the civil rights movement meaningful?
  • is anything meaningful?
  • is the entire human race just “figures in the distance”?
  • So beautiful!.., or so what!

It seems to me that although Paul Simon appears to be “neutrally” presenting two options for the question of meaning, he heavily weighs the scale toward the view that life “should” have meaning. I believe that Paul Simon has provided an interesting meditation on life, and I agree with him that it “should” have meaning. But I actually do not agree with him if he means to say that life only has meaning because of “what we make of it.” I simply don’t believe that life can merely be given meaning so easily, and any good nihilist will probably agree. But I do believe that Paul Simon has shown that humankind generally tilts the scale, in an existentially “hinting” sort of way, toward meaning. The statement “so what!” to most of us humans seems to be a flippant attitude, even when held in the face of life’s seeming “triviality.” But perhaps it is only life as tragedy that causes us to realize this, and I think this premise is part of the basis of why Paul Simon’s inclusion of the tragedy of Dr. Martin Luther King works. I’ll propose a pair of statements that I think ring true.

If everything is truly trivial there can be no such thing as tragedy.

If anything is truly tragic there can be no such thing as triviality.

I know there are undoubtedly deep philosophical and rationalistic “reasonings” that could inform and critique this whole subject, but I am contented to say that Paul Simon has made a song that is “so beautiful” that for some reason it seems that we should feel ashamed to say “so what!” about it. So I think Paul Simon’s question is mainly rhetorical.

 

So Beautiful or So What

I’m going to make a chicken gumbo
Toss some sausage in the pot
I’m going to flavor it with okra
Cayenne pepper to make it hot
You know life is what we make of it
So beautiful or so what

I’m going to tell my kids a bedtime story
A play without a plot
Will it have a happy ending?
Maybe yeah, maybe not
I tell them life is what you make of it
So beautiful or so what

So beautiful
So beautiful
So what

I’m just a raindrop in a bucket
A coin dropped in a slot
I am an empty house on Weed Street
Across the road from the vacant lot
You know life is what you make of it
So beautiful or so what

Ain’t it strange the way we’re ignorant
How we seek out bad advice
How we jigger it and figure it
Mistaking value for the price
And play a game with time and love
Like pair of rolling dice
So beautiful
So beautiful
So what

Four men on the balcony
Overlooking the parking lot
Pointing at a figure in the distance
Dr. King has just been shot
And the sirens long melody
Singing Savior Pass Me Not

Ain’t it strange the way we’re ignorant
How we seek out bad advice
How we jigger it and figure it
Mistaking value for the price
And play a game with time and love
Like a pair of rolling dice
So beautiful
So beautiful
So beautiful

© 2010 Words and Music by Paul Simon

(Note added on April 5: I was thinking about this song today and realized that I should have mentioned how Paul Simon’s expression when he sings “So…. beautiful” and “so what!” is how he not only lyrically, but more so emotively, “tips the scale” towards life having meaning. He still has an amazing voice and knows how to use it!)

Any comments, critiques, questions?

“So beautiful or So what?”

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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