Thursday, July 29, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton's "Islands in the Stream"

Solipsism is a word used by eighteen year-old teenage males to make themselves appear to be more intelligent than they really are. It is a concept wherein one believes that only the self exists, or that knowledge outside of one's self cannot be proved. As a result, when the term solipsist is used as an epithet for an individual, it is usually referring to what the Webster's* Revised New Post-International Dictionary describes as "a totally self-absorbed fucking asshole." Fortunately, for most of humanity, solipsism is not a philosophy with much popular traction, thanks in large part to the British poet John Donne, who reminds us, in "Meditation XVII," from his text Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624), that "No man is an iland, intire of it selfe." This without question proves that there is existence beyond the self. In fact, Donne elaborates, "Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." See? I told you so. However, despite Donne's convincing and well-phrased argument, there will always be naysayers. Two such doubters are Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, who communicate their point loudly and clearly on their legendary hit "Islands in the Stream," which was written by The Bee Gees.

Both Rogers and Parton had amassed a stellar backlog of hits by the time they decided to meet up in 1983. Rogers scored hits with "The Gambler" and "The Coward of the Country," while Parton had massive juggernauts with "Jolene," "I Will Always Love You," and "9 to 5." On this single, the lusty duo manage to brilliantly defy both the solipsists and John Donne's "no man is an island" notion of (human) being by asserting that THE BOTH OF THEM are islands, and that "everything is nothing" (actual lyric from the song) outside of them. Though Rogers and Parton had cut their teeth recording Country music, they jump head-first into the pop mainstream with "Islands in the Stream," thanks to Barry Gibb's knob-twiddlin'. Plunky keyboards and silky Stax-Volt horns bolster this exquisite tale of true love. In the process, the song redefines the art of lyricism as we will forever know it.

In the song, Kenny Rogers initially comes across as a stalker who feels "soft inside" after having looked hard "with a fine-tooth comb" for, presumably, a blond, busty, Southern belle. In Dolly Parton he finds this very woman, who manages to complete him. It soon blossoms into love ever-flowing. They confirm their unlikely union, singing, "We got somethin' goin' on." They quickly become sexually involved, as they "ride it together ... uh huh / makin' love with each other ... uh huh." Kinky! During the chorus, the illicit partners sing, "Islands in the stream / That is what we are / No one in between / How can we be wrong?" This chorus is INSANE. First off, an island cannot fit itself in a stream. It is PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE. Second, they don't come across as selfish, but rather couplish. This is a word I've invented specifically to describe their mindset. And, besides, I have a Ph.D. in English, which gives me the license to just make up words. It's written in the fine print on the degree, in Latin. And here's another one: yuthresh--a verb meaning "to remove ones hands quickly from a blazing hot steering wheel on a sunny Summer day." And here's the word in a sentence: By pulling a yuthresh, the driver avoided suffering traumatic third-degree burns. But I digress. Nothing exists for Kenny Rogers or Dolly Parton outside of themselves, save for their steamy love. Their love is so large that, later in the chorus, they sing of traveling "to another world" that can hopefully contain it. Let us keep in mind that they sing this nearly thirty years before the release of James Cameron's 3D sci-fi epic Avatar (2009).

For better or worse, "Islands in the Stream" elevates solipsism to romance and contradicts John Donne by claiming that, indeed, man and woman can be islands, just so long as they are in streams. Do you ever notice new couples who are blissfully in love with each other, unaware of the world outside of their sensual glances? Of course you do. They're all over the place. And it's all because of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton's masterpiece that this happens.

*-The Webster here does not refer to Noah Webster**, the man whose dictionaries have made the world easier to define (drumroll please). It refers to an imaginary, gender-neutral, pan-ethnic lexicographer named Kelly Webster who I just made up out of thin air to avoid possible litigation.

**-These wonderful dictionaries would make a wonderful addition to your bookshelf.

1 comment:

  1. I have a Ph.D. in English, which gives me the license to just make up words.

    Does it also give you license to split infinitives?