Song Studies: “Passenger Side” A. M. (1995)

Hey, wake up, your eyes weren’t open wide
For the last couple of miles you’ve been swerving from side to side
You’re gonna make me spill my beer,
If you don’t learn how to steer
Passenger side, passenger side,
I don’t like riding on the passenger side

Years back at a party in my apartment I received several compliments on a playlist I had put together (called the Phoenix List in honor of the burned out apartment whose rebirth was being celebrated). This was not too surprising—if a list has significant variety and some rare tracks over four hours of drinking it is bound to seem good to someone.

There were, however, some exceptions taken to certain choices. After Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer” came on, one of my guests (who, incidentally, had tattoos on the inside of his mouth and made a point of mentioning that he didn’t drink but would do cocaine) began to interrogate and mock. Of course, I would like Wilco, he said. I probably like Death Cab for Cutie too. (The answer to that question in a later post.)

Now, as then, I wouldn’t describe myself as a Wilco Fan. Some of their music is good, but I prefer Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt. (Jeff Tweedy is, also, a little more than annoying.) The early Wilco albums are pretty good; the recent stuff is fairly mediocre.
But, I guess the question I pose to myself, is: why do I buy Wilco records when I don’t really listen to them all that much? The answer: one song. What draws me to that song, I think, tells me more about me (as usual) and about what makes pop songs work (if not art in general).

The first time I heard “Passenger Side” I was hooked. The song is pretty simple: one vocalist, a basic rhythm guitar with some countrified electric licks, backed by an organ in the background, some strings peppered in effectively and a simple but clear drum line. Tweedy’s voice is raw and breaks at just the right moments. The verses transition well into the chorus; a bridge appears ¾ of the way through the song before the final verse.

This musical description can’t possibly explain the attraction of the song—too many rock and country songs fit the same description. What makes this song effective is its narrative. The singer asks for a ride from a friend (someone who could have been a lover) because his license has been revoked.

The story is simple, but its details strike up just enough verisimilitude to evoke memories from my world growing up—the friend offering a “few dollars to put in the tank” to go on mundane errands because he or she is somehow barred from driving; someone worrying about spilling a beer in a car; “rolling another number” for the road; court dates to get driver’s licenses back.

The story is also a simple one. This is not an overtly political song. This is not obviously engaged in broad universal themes, but there is something in its simplicity that is deceptive. Regret suffuses the lyrics and nearly drips from the chords and guitar licks. When Tweedy’s voice breaks it seems worn by both the weight of nostalgia and the knowing self-deprecation of remorse. The narrator seems to know that he is, like most of us, a self-saboteur.

The chorus, the complaint of being relegated to the passenger side, helps to expand the focus of the song from the specific to the general. The ‘passenger side’ becomes a metaphor for being sidelined, for being compromised, for being, in some way or another, disabled. By engaging with the mundane, by evoking a simple believable life where the narrator is incapable of running simple errands but still drinking and smoking and making grand deals over minor gestures, the song achieves a sublime effect. It makes the able bodied listener feel disabled. It puts drivers in the passenger seat.

Well, this is sublime for me anyway. This song doesn’t inspire nostalgia in a good way, but it does inspire what Aristotle would call recognition or identification. In the mundane struggles of the narrator I see the simple struggles of my past (or simplified in reflection); in this simplified struggle, I find myself compromised by a strange yearning for a time and place that was never actually that good, for a life I could have lived. And, even in the life I am leading, I see echoes of the self I could have been, of the narrator of the song.

So, another range of answers in my search for why songs ‘work’ lie in Tweedy’s  friend’s car. “Passenger Side” is successful because its details add up to a coherent whole, because its narrative has just enough verisimilitude to invite listeners to identify with the situation, and because, through the evocation of the specific and believable, it gains a part of something greater. Aristotle also wrote that Tragedy worked as an art form because it caused its audience to experience fear and pity. “Passenger Side” does this—it just isn’t clear whom the pity and fear are for.

One last note—when I first told the Younger J that I liked Wilco, he was skeptical, readying himself to mock me like old tattoo-mouth himself had. Then, I played him this song. He didn’t need it explained. He nodded to me—his eyes may have been moist—no more words were needed.

Or is that the way it went, Brother? That’s how I remember it (there are other details off course), but my memory sometimes betrays me. Are there other songs that strike you this way? Is my overwrought theorizing on course?

10 comments on “Song Studies: “Passenger Side” A. M. (1995)

  1. […] don’t really know new Wilco. I don’t really know old Wilco actually as I only listened to their first album with any regularity. I know they’re kind of a […]

  2. […] live versions and I’d venture to say it’s now close to my favorite Wilco song, although I think “Passenger Side” will always retain that position. It’s country enough to be awesome and different enough to stand […]

  3. […] William Empson, a literary critic, famously identified Seven Types of Ambiguity and in doing so claimed ambiguity as an essential characteristic of literature (and, by extension, all art). Empson’s ambiguity is where different interpretations of a phrase or text can be made without willfully misreading it. Such moments constitute a type of puzzle that indicates conflicts within the work’s creator. Empson’s focus on the ‘puzzle’ and the ‘conflict’ should rightly be expanded to the audience (since I don’t think we can ever know anything about the author’s mind at all). Ambiguity is an effective artistic device because it invites the audience to participate in the creation of meaning; it embraces the mind of the listener/reader and allows for the perpetual re-creation of meaning. (As an aside, I think that this sense of ambiguity is what makes the emotional tone of U2 not “Emo”, to continue an earlier discussion. Emo tends to be over-contextualized; it prizes the experience of the artist and the evocation of the particular over the universal. This is not, however, altogether alienating—particular and specific moments can elicit identification from listeners too, see our posts on Wilco’s “Passenger Side”). […]

  4. […] It is the intellectual component of belief that is most ridiculous. I think. Tell me more, Wilco. […]

  5. […] myself newly engaged both by the strange juxtaposition of some of my chosen tracks next to hers (Wilco as a prelude to Rihanna? Sinatra followed by Fugazi? Whiplash.) and by initial hearings of songs I […]

  6. […] cards ballooned. Depression ebbed and flowed. But we now look back on the time with the kind of nostalgia that the ‘good’ past usually attracts.During the time, however, money was a concern and we […]

  7. […] album after the one I know well and I’m pleased that I enjoy this too. It isn’t “Passenger Side” , but it does sound like the Rolling Stones as every article mentions and I think this is a good […]

  8. […] the summer, I really started to listen to music more widely—I became obsessed with Wilco, Rogue Wave and wore out my love for Iron & Wine faster than I can now believe possible. For a […]

  9. […] It is the intellectual component of belief that is most ridiculous. I think. Tell me more, Wilco. […]

  10. […] (As an aside, I think that this sense of ambiguity is what makes the emotional tone of U2 not “Emo”, to continue an earlier discussion. Emo tends to be over-contextualized; it prizes the experience of the artist and the evocation of the particular over the universal. This is not, however, altogether alienating—particular and specific moments can elicit identification from listeners too, see our posts on Wilco’s “Passenger Side”). […]

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