Deconstructing Lyrical Mythologies: The Boxer by Paul Simon

The Boxer by Paul Simon peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100.   Rolling Stone ranked the song No. 106 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.[1]

From the last album Paul Simon recorded with Art Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon had this to say to Playboy Magazine about the song in 1984:

Playboy: “What inspired it?”

Simon: “I think I was reading the Bible around that time. That’s where I think phrases such as ‘workman’s wages’ came from, and ‘seeking out the poorer quarters’. That was biblical. I think the song was about me: everybody’s beating me up, and I’m telling you now I’m going to go away if you don’t stop. By that time we had encountered our first criticism. For the first few years, it was just pure praise. It took two or three years for people to realize that we weren’t strange creatures that emerged from England but just two guys from Queens who used to sing rock’n’roll. And maybe we weren’t real folkies at all! Maybe we weren’t even hippies!”

To me, this song is a classic example of the hero’s journey:  Young Boy leaves small town for big city, Boy gets kinda beat up by shitty people and adverse circumstances,  Boy emerges from experiences as the “fighter” that “still remains.”  The adventure of self-discovery, revelation, and acceptance relayed in one of the most widely accesible formats.

Based on the snippet from the Playboy interview above, I believe that this is true whether or not that is what Paul Simon was aiming for.  It’s tucked away into the subtext that I’ve emboldened for your convenience.  Go ahead, re-read it.  I’ll wait…..

There is NO THING blatantly misogynist about this song (Ok…the use of the word “whore” is arguable).  BUT!  It joins a multitude of hero’s journey tales that are classically reserved for the masculine or male experience.   The Iliad, Odessy, Aneid, Paradise Lost…and on and on….

They (dudes) get to hear the “call to adventure.”  They get to “depart” into the greater world, find mentors, test allies and enemies, and they get to ultimately return home a hero.

Sign me the FUCK, UP! 

A typical feminine or female experience is potrayed more prominently in smaller, more domestic sound bites of pithy, interpersonal dramas (see two previous entries) in which the protagonists ultimately get stuck in a circulatory hell of their own making.   *Snore…

I will offer Alice Walker as a counter to this norm.    However, due to the sheer fact that her characters are such underdog heros, the epicness of their plight, when compared to the Godlike or demi-godlike status of trojan warrior ex-patriots is lost on subtler ears.

Another writer who has written tomes of material to counter this trope is Ani DiFranco.   Sure, she’s got some of the classic feminine experiences in her writings, she’s a woman, after all.   But she doesn’t rely on the more generally accepted experiences of her gender alone to tell her stories.    She relies on her experiences as a person who has lived the hero’s journey and writes about it with zero fucks given about her acceptance into the mainstream gastrointestinal tract of pop storytelling.

Dar Williams is another.

Brandy Carlile’s album, By The Way, I Forgive You is chock full of epic anthems from all KINDA angles and perspectives.

But these examples are most sincerely the exception, not the norm AND I digress….

The boxer is such an exquisite example of a hero’s adventure, I wanted to make an example out of it.

Here’s a version of the original that will give you a glorious earful:

For this edition of Deconstructing Lyrical Mythologies, I’m not going to annotate the lyrics so much as I’m just going to appropriate them for the purposes of giving the feminine genders (let’s remember, tis’ a spectrum) a hero’s narrative of similar ilk.  Here’s what I mean by that:

Let’s break it down. 

In bold are the lyrics I’ve altered for the purposes of re-gendering the story.  Truly, I didn’t have to do much to alter it.   Enjoy!

I am just a poor girl, though my story’s seldom told.

I have squandered my resistance for a pocket full of mumbles such are apologies.

All in defense, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.  Lie lie lie lie lie lie lie

When I left my home and my family I was no more than a girl

in the company of strangers, in the quiet of the free health clinic, sitting scared.

Laying low, seeking out the quiet quarters where the unassuming go,

looking for the places only they would know.

Lie Le Lie…..

Asking only equal wages I come looking for a job, but I get no offers.

Just a come-on from the suits along Fifth Avenue.

I do declare, there were times when I was so lonesome I took some comfort there.

Lie le lie lie lie lie lie lie lie lie lie

Lie Le Lie…….

Well I’m growing out my winter coat and wishin’ I was gone, going home

where the windowed, corner offices aren’t teasin’ me

cheatin’ me, goin’ home.

Interlude

In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by her trade

and she carries the reminder, of every bloke that laid her down

and fucked her till she cried out, in her anger and her shame

“I am bleeding, I am leaving”, but the fighter still remains.

Lie Le Lie…

Oh!  BTW, now it’s a punk-rock song.  Here! Have a listen!

Our stories are not cut and paste, but much of the collective narrative at large is categorized quite consistently into certain gendered experiences.

Hopefully the likes of the previous writers I mentioned, along with Lady Gaga and others may eventually change that.

I wanted an adventure and I didn’t see that kind of adventure being demonstrated for women like me.   So, I borrowed one and it feels truthful because, well….a lot of it IS true for me.

I’m willing to bet that if it rings true for me, then it probably rings true for others.

Do you have a song you’d like for me to de-mythstify?   Let me know in the comments below!

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