Most great pop songs leave you wanting to know more about the story taking place within their allotted three minutes. About how things came to be, where things went after the outro, what the singer was doing during the guitar solo, that kind of thing. Did Gary Numan ever get out of his car? Did the Michael Jackson character in “Billie Jean” secretly think that, yeah, the kid probably was his son? Did Cyndi Lauper’s fun-loving party girl in “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” ever calm the fuck down?

The answers to these questions can’t be known, but they are peripheral to our enjoyment of the song anyway, so though they are fun to ponder, they are ultimately not important. But some songs pose questions that are so central to the song’s appeal that ignoring them is not an option. Such is the case in PJ Harvey’s song “You Said Something” from her 2000 album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, in which a teasingly undelivered piece of information ensures that a pivotal moment in the relationship between the two main characters remains frustratingly, wonderfully mysterious.

 

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You Said Something

Click the link above to listen to the song in a new window.

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On a rooftop in Brooklyn
At one in the morning
Watching the lights flash
In Manhattan

I see five bridges
The Empire State Building
And you said something
That I’ve never forgotten.

So begins our PJ in the best tune on her so-called “New York album.” We know where we are, we know what we’re looking at, we know how many bridges we can see, we know there are two central characters, we know they have a good view, and we know that one of them just made a comment that inspired Miss Polly Jean to write a song. PJ will continue over the next few minutes to tease us with details of the night she shared with this person, offering up a gallery of little scenes within the larger scene that encourage us to believe that we will be finding out soon enough what the person said and that what they said was pretty remarkable.

We lean against railings
Describing the colours
And the smells of our homelands
Acting like lovers

How did we get here?
To this point of living?
I held my breath
And you said something.

Oh, PJ, this is delicious. Keep going. What was he wearing? How did he style his hair? Did he have any tats? Where does he live and what does he pay in rent? What’s he like . . . down there? Oh, and what did he say? Wait! Don’t tell me yet! I want to consider the possibilities as I enjoy the scenery for a little while, like during this lovely, shimmering guitar solo.

Hmmm, so what did he say, what did he say? Maaaaybeeeee….. that his band is going on tour tomorrow but he’ll keep PJ’s picture in the locket around his neck and never take it off, at least until Oswego? That he’s glad she’s not as scary in person as she is on Rid of Me? That she kind of looks like a trannie in that pink jumpsuit get-up? No, actually I think it was more subtle than that. It wasn’t a grand announcement. It was an off-the-cuff remark that really told PJ something. About him, about them. He never graduated high school? He loves Sex and the City? He just the other day learned how to tie his own shoes? Oh, here comes PJ again to wrap up the song, let’s let her tell it, then we’ll discuss:

And I am doing nothing wrong
Riding in your car
Your radio playing
We sing up to the eighth floor

A rooftop, in Manhattan
One in the morning
And you said something
That I’ve never forgotten
When you said something
That was really important.

And with that, the song is over, and we are none the wiser. “Oh hell no,” we think. “You did NOT just let the song end without spilling the beans, PJ.” Yes, she did. Frustrating!

But also . . . perfect. Yep, I’m fine with it. We don’t need to know more. We’d like to, but we don’t need to. We desperately demand to, but we don’t have to. We beg to, but we’re being annoying. Sure, it would be nice if she divulged to her listeners her man’s confession that he’d had a banana down his pants all day, that Wembley is his favorite Fraggle, or that he thinks Cher is criminally underrated in the straight community. Of course we’d get a kick out of knowing that her dude had finally told her about his third nipple, his secret ingrown hair, or his inability to not use double negatives. But I’m glad she didn’t tell us. The mystery is central to the song’s impact. If we knew what he said, we’d probably be like, “that’s it?” But PJ isn’t giving us the opportunity to get all judgy. She’s telling us just enough to keep us guessing. And that’ll do.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m dying to know what he said. I just don’t want to know what he said.

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TIM ANDERSON has done many amazing things in his short life. Well, two amazing things. Ok, one thing that he did twice. But he's got nothing on his older brother, who can play his teeth like a xylophone with his thumb. In 2010 Tim published his first book, Tune in Tokyo: The Gaijin Diaries, a travel memoir about two years he spent in Japan's capital. It has been called "a hilarious read reminiscent of David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs" by the Logo channel and "laugh-out-loud funny" by Publishers Weekly. Tune in Tokyo was published in a new edition by AmazonEncore in November 2011. Tim currently blogs at seetimblog.blogspot.com and plays viola in the band simpleshapes. He is an editor in New York and lives in Brooklyn with his huhzband and his cat Stella.

18 responses to “But What Did He Say, PJ?”

  1. Mary Richert says:

    I have such mixed feelings about this song, but I appreciate your take on it. Actually, I’m working on an essay (to be posted soon), in which I explain PJ’s pivotal role in my sexual development. I’m kindof in love with her.

  2. Ha! What a fun analysis, Tim. This is probably my favorite song on that album, and I have a feeling that if P. J. were to ever divulge the answer at last it’d be a *huge* letdown after reading all of your suggestions.

  3. Joe Daly says:

    Tim,

    Fun analysis of a song. I really enjoyed how it all plays beneath the over-arching theme that there are some songs that engage us to such a deep extent that the song itself becomes unsatisfying. No matter how many times we play the song, remix it, find other versions, etc., the song embeds itself in our psyche, creating an itch that even it can’t scratch.

    Story songs can be reprehensibly cliched, or in cases like this, engagingly well done. Good stuff.

  4. Good stuff, Tim. I like the lens of how much is revealed/concealed as a way to look at story songs…I’m always wondering what makes them work

    Aloha from your favorite southern state.

  5. Love this piece, Tim. It’s exactly how I first responded to this engimatic, odd, and wondrously cliched song. My first published story was inspired by it – it appeared in Mississippi Review’s online Music issue: http://writingoffisland.wordpress.com/2010/11/06/im-doing-nothing-wrong/
    I love her more than ever – Let England Shakes is simply amazing.

  6. Mia says:

    Is this a song about Nick Cave? He’s written a few about her.

  7. Julie says:

    Just like we will never know what Scarlett Johansson whispered in Bill Murray’s ear as she is leaving in the movie Translation. I feel your pain.

  8. Tim Anderson says:

    Thanks, all y’all, for the feedback! This song just slays me…

  9. dwoz says:

    And to add a little bit of habanero sauce to this analysis:

    The harmony of the song NEVER RESOLVES. The joke of the lyrics is mirrored in the chords. It centers on the dominant V chord of the key and never resolves to the I chord.

    That’s not coincidence.

  10. kristen says:

    Love this. Love the song. And, of course, after moving to NY/Brooklyn, it became all the more tantalizing.

  11. […] TIM ANDERSON cross-examines PJ Harvey. […]

  12. Hank Cherry says:

    So we were driving in the van, I wasn’t in the band, I wasn’t in any band anymore. After we stopped in a dry county on the way to Louisville, I’d had about enough. But the guitar player driving stuck in Pj Harvey. She has the kind of sound that can make inscrutability seem like an old friend, and a fun way to go through life.

  13. YRG says:

    I think it was “I love you.”
    Simple, but personal enough to write a song about.

  14. Derry says:

    …and who said P.J’s companion was a ‘he’ ?

  15. Dass says:

    First song I’ll hear when i get to a rooftop in Brooklyn and overlook Manhattan

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