“What’s In A Name?” or “Room At The Top—“of the Titanic?”

In a recent interview Tom Petty bashed one of my favorite of his albums http://www.thedesertsun.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2006610200386
as reported in the following way…

He’s less enamored with 1999’s “Echo,” which opens with the grim “Room at the
Top,” “one of the most depressing songs in rock history,” Petty says,
grinning. “If anything will make you want to kill yourself …”
He trails off, then adds glumly, “I was in a rough place when I did that

Now, over at Tom Petty’s official messageboard I’m not alone in being puzzled that Tom would describe the song “Room At The Top” as one of the most depressing songs in rock history because it can easily be interpreted as a rousing song of affirmation in the face of adversity that takes stock of what is good at a time that is otherwise bleak. And even if one does not see it that way, Tom flatters himself with his hyperbole in calling his song one of the most depressing songs in rock history! He wishes! I don’t think he has any song that really vies anywhere near that distinction. He is irrepressibly hopeful even in his darkest songs, even against his own intention or awareness. Room At The Top couldn’t be interpreted as a song of affirmation like it is if it was really so depressing.

But more important than Tom’s ability to assess the degree of depressiveness of his song is the question of what difference a different title might make. Before I advance my theory of why Tom sees as so depressing a song that others find so affirmative, you must know the lyrics to the song, so read them below before reading my theory as to what makes the difference between the song being affirmative or bleak.

Room At The Top
By Tom Petty

I got a room at the top of the world tonight
I can see everything tonightI got a room where everyone
Can have a drink and forget those things
That went wrong in their lifeI got a room at the top of the world tonight

I got a room at the top of the world tonight
I got a room at the top of the world tonight
And I ain’t comin’ down, I ain’t comin’ down
I got someone who loves me tonight
I got over a thousand dollars in the bank
And I’m all right

Look deep in the eyes of love
Look deep in the eyes of love
And find out what you were looking for
I got a room at the top of the world tonight
I got a room at the top of the world tonight
I got a room at the top of the world tonight
And I ain’t comin’ down, no I ain’t comin’ down

I wish I could feel you tonight, little one
You’re so far awayI wanna reach out and touch your heart
Yeah like they do in those things on TV, I love you
Please love me, I’m not so bad
And I love you so

I got a room at the top of the world tonight
I got a room at the top of the world tonight
I got a room at the top of the world tonight
And I ain’t comin’ down, no I ain’t comin’ down
I ain’t comin’ down

Now, Tom introduces the song during his 1999 VH1 Storytellers episode around the time of its release as a song about “Escapism.” He also introduces the song only after a very humorous bit where he, tongue in cheek, marvels at the apparently unanimous popularity of Titanic and explains that since Titanic was so popular he figured he would write a song about it. He then sings this short goofy, very funny song that ends with the punchline that Celine Dion should have been on the Titanic. And it’s at this point that he introduces the song whose lyrics I just reproduced as “Room At The Top—of the Titanic.” The audience laughs and then he claims in a tone that is hard to decipher, that the song was originally called “Room At The Top of the Titanic” but that he decided to shorten the title to “Room At The Top.” It’s hard to tell if he was serious about the original title of the song but if he’s not then the title makes an enormous difference to the meaning of the song.

If you reread the song with the Titanic title, this is a song not about “polishing the brass on the Titanic” but rather throwing a party on it. Not trying to get things in order on an already sinking ship but a different kind of denial—throwing a party. All the affirmation of the song becomes not the escapism of some one retreating from his troubles to affirm his life via a party with friends, but rather it becomes a song about the escapism of throwing a party on the eve of disaster, wherein all your affirmation is really a vain attempt to spin an irredemiably disastrous situation as one that’s going to be okay after all.

And as the mockery of affirmation, this becomes, while still not the most depressing song in rock history, a distinctly cynical one, comparable to the harsh juxtaposition of verse lyrics and rousing patriotic chorus in Springsteen’s Born In The USA.

But the question is, can a song’s title, especially one that is not explicitly mentioned in the song itself (and in this case is not even retained in tact) actually play such a pivotal role in its interpretation? This is an interesting question. In written media and in films, we allow the title, while distinct from the work to be an integral interpretive piece of the work when they are selected with literary ambitions in mind. Yet, with a song, it feels so counterintuitive to allow the title to affect the meaning as we very often hear and learn songs without ever seeing their titles and a great majority of the time the title is simply a key line, usually straight from the chorus.

It’s a fascinating question to me what would happen if a musician consciously titled his or her songs in a way that drastically altered the meanings of the songs when simply heard. Maybe to call some completely earnest sounding love song about eternal commitment, “The Lie I Tell My Wife” or some earnest sounding song about the pain of heartbreak, “What I Bet You’d Like To Imagine I’m Feeling Right Now” where such songs give no indication of irony in their lyrics or musical arrangement.

I’m far from a music expert but I doubt it’s ever been done in music history, or at least that of rock and roll. And maybe in that way Tom came really, really close to making a landmark rock and roll song after all—before he changed its name.

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