As my regular readers may recall, I have a (not so) secret soft spot for music of the 1980's. I trend more to New Wave, the New Romantic movement, Ska and a little of this and that. When listing my favorite bands from the 80's, The Police certainly figure near the top of the list. I am still impressed by the pure musical talent these guys had - and likely still have. Sting so overpowered everything that it was easy to miss the subtle guitar mastery of Andy Summers and the unbelievable drumming prowess of Stewart Copeland.
Wrapped Around Your Finger is not at the top of my all-time favorite list of Police songs though. Not that it's bad, there are just so many other tracks that I enjoy(ed) more. But I heard this one on the radio while driving home the other night and really listened to the lyrics for maybe the first time ever - or at least since the 80's. There are references to Greek mythology (caught between Scylla and Charybdis) and Faust's tale (Mephistopheles). The former idiom was reported to be used frequently back in the day when classical education was the norm.
Or as the Stones sang, "Between a rock and a hard place..."
The first thing that struck me was, "What does that say about the type and quality of education our children receive today?"
I would hazard a guess that, these days, not too many kids in America would have a clue about this song's idiomatic references. Granted, Faust is probably a tad heavy for anything before high school English, but I remember reading Homer's Odyssey in late elementary school, or perhaps early junior high. I likely had minimal understanding about most of it, but it was not beyond my reading ability. In fact, while reviewing the Odyssey as part of writing this blog, I was able to download a copy for free to my Android Kindle app (Shameless product plug: Kindle rocks!). Thanks to the good folks at Amazon, I was able to confirm that Odysseus was rent by the choice between sailing too close to the Charybdis whirlpool and risking his entire ship or daring the six-headed serpent Scylla, who could only eat six crew members at a time. Alas, for the crew...
So what does that say about the meaning of the song? The sheer number of opinions available on the Internet would have us believe that there is great import ascribed to the unknown meaning behind Wrapper Around Your Finger. One could argue Sting is singing about the choice a young man makes to consort with a married woman. The second verse:
I have only come here seeking knowledge,
Things they would not teach me of in college.
I can see the destiny you sold turned into a shining band of gold.
...has the distinct feel of the 1967 film The Graduate. Farther along, the Mephistopheles reference seems to speak of the lure of lust. Although interpretations of this Faustian character's intent differ, I like the one that proposes, "...he does not search for men to corrupt but comes to serve and ultimately collect the souls of those who are already damned."
Sting wraps up with another mythological reference concerning turning his erstwhile master's face to alabaster. This could be a nod to Medusa, or not. At the end of the day, you can take the song as just a catchy melody, or a paean to overcoming that which has control over your existence. But you will never get that from the video unless breaking free from a cage of candlesticks is your cup of tea.
Homer's illustration seems to show that, in life, there are no clear moral choices. In effect, the end justifies the means. Charybdis destroys the ship and kills the entire crew, but Odysseus is saved. He is forced to live in physical relationship with Calypso despite the fact that his overriding purpose is to return home to his wife Penelope. I can see how that would go over today..."Sorry honey, but that thing with Calypso...the gods made me do it; I didn't love her."
Yet what choices do we have today? Are our lives so different from the mythic struggles of Odysseus? Would modern society forgive the loss of a ship's crew and years of adultery as long as our motives were pure? That is a question that appears to bedevil us. In my opinion the struggle comes because, for the six billion-plus inhabitants of planet Earth, there is no one standard, no single moral compass to which we can all look.
Or is there?
One thing that myth and religion have in common is the recognition that there are things which happen that are bigger than we are. Whether you believe in the God of the Bible or not, there is no way you can ascribe history to a random mixture of human strength and blind luck. It is the interpretation of cause - the source of the supernatural - about which we argue. Followers of Christ do not see evil on both sides of life. Ours is not a struggle against Scylla and Charybdis. Others who deny the deity of Jesus see the battle as between humanism and religion; one side insanity, and the other reason. While modern life is not truly a choice between Scylla and Charybdis, we still face epic battles of moral import.
In which direction will you sail?