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Memory: Night Songs


The composition and rhetoric courses I studied during my University of Iowa post-doctorate year led me to write conference presentations about popular culture and preoccupied me as I settled into teaching at Central Michigan University. Eventually, long after I'd published my first book, drawn from my Restoration drama dissertation, I pieced together a completely different second book, published about ten years after I became a fully employed scholar/teacher. The chapters of The Rhetorics of Popular Culture: Advertising, Advocacy, and Entertainment are now between thirty-five and forty years old.


I revisited the book recently, after inadvertently finding an online video of "Night Moves" by Bob Seger, a favorite song of mine. It's not a good video but I listened to it twice, the second time singing softly along with Seger. Each time, I reached moments when I started to choke up, almost moved to tears. The song had affected me that way in the past, and hearing it opened the door to connections to Seger's songs lurking in memory.


I usually collected albums by singer/songwriters, first on LPs and eventually on CDs. Seger was a Michigan songwriter, and he was invited to share a Detroit concert stage with Bruce Springsteen. My students celebrated having purchased tickets—my class that evening was sparsely populated—and later let me know how great it was watching Bob and Bruce together. Some had attended my rhetoric class where I compared two thematically linked songs to help them appreciate familiar cultural elements as a way to consider what makes one song profoundly moving for someone and another, similar song seem irrelevant and unaffecting.


Together the class read the lyrics and heard recordings of Bob Seger's "We've Got Tonight" and Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night," examining the rhetorical angle in both: how the narrator portrays himself and presents his case to his particular listener, in either song a potential lover. Both songs were recorded in 1976 and eventually examined in a chapter in my popular culture book a decade later. They are essentially seduction songs, each centering on a man's attempt to talk a woman into bed, but differing notably in the presentation of the speaker's persona and the sense of who might be in control of the situation.


In "Tonight's the Night" the man prepares a younger woman to be initiated into sex, emphasizing his expectations ("Don't deny your man's desire"), his control of the situation ("Don't say a word, my virgin child"), and his semi-veiled explicitness ("Spread your wings and let me come inside"). Melody and arrangement reinforce a seductive rhythm running through the song and the lyrics center on the man's anticipation. The title is essentially a pronouncement of what is imminent for her. (In class we focused on the words and music, but a video I didn't show focuses on the man's leering persuasiveness—we never see the girl's face.)


In "We've Got Tonight" the speaker appreciates the woman's position, expressing a sense of their mutual needs ("both of us lonely, longing for shelter"), explaining his own situation frankly ("Deep in my soul I've been so lonely/All of my hopes fading away"), and offering the woman the chance to make the decision ("We've got tonight. Why don't you stay?") The song concludes with the repetition of earlier lines, the chorus heightened in intensity, the resolution open-ended.


Clearly the songs make a different impact. I prefer Seger's recording because of a certain individual literary quality in his songs. Compare "We've Got Tonight" to "Night Moves," where the narrator recalls experiencing robust sex with an avid and unsentimental partner ("We weren't in love, O, no. Far from it/We weren't searching for some pie in the sky summit"). There's a celebratory nature to the narrator's reminiscences of energetic and exploratory youthful sex and the verses rise to a crescendo ("Felt the lightnin' and we waited on the thunder"), but then the music grows calmer and the lyrics become a quiet epilogue that moves the speaker forward in time, into more remote and contemplative circumstances, where he wakes to the sound of distant thunder, starts humming a song from a much earlier time, and ponders:


Ain't it funny how the night moves

When you just don't have as much to lose

Strange how the night moves

With autumn closing in.


Unlike other popular sexual initiation songs, Seger's "Night Moves" ends on a mature perspective, adopting an older man's persona and asking listeners to identify with and accept its unromantic view of sexual initiation and the changes in self-awareness that come with maturity. I appreciate the perspective. But I should also acknowledge that my preference for Seger's "Tonight" song over Stewart's is more philosophical than musical, a judgement based on their rhetoric—the speaker's persona and perspective—rather than on their poetry or melody or orchestration.



Note: Root, Robert L., Jr. "A Listener's Guide to the Rhetoric of Popular Music," The Rhetorics of Popular Culture: Advertising, Advocacy, and Entertainment. Contributions to the Study of Popular Culture, Number 16. (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987): 105-116.


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