Monday, May 13, 2013

The Incredible Sound of Silence

            “The Sound of Silence” is a song released by Simon and Garfunkel in 1964. It was a turbulent and revolutionary time for a new kind of generation to be coming of age. The history of the United States from the early 1960s to around 1980 included many dramatic events which forever changed the American lifestyle. The 1960s were marked with protests for African-American civil rights, the end of the Vietnam War, feminist activism, a revolt for political change, lifestyle security and pleas for peace. There is a more complete reference page for history from 1964 through 1980 available on Wikipedia based on the depths of each one of these individual and important revolutions ( At the young age of twenty-one, Paul Simon took six months to write the lyrics to a song that has become intrinsically linked to decades of people and American culture. “The Sound of Silence” has not only sealed its position as a piece of American classic rock but also continues to attract and promote its message to new generations in order to continue its legacy. The song has transcended almost 50 years through its use of imagery, structure, meaning and artistry.
            The song begins with an apostrophe, a rhetorical device to address something real or imaginary. “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again,” immediately sets a tone of alienation for the speaker. By saying “my old friend” suggests this is not the first time he has found himself alone without the comfort of communication with another person. There is no specifically addressed reason as to why he feels isolation. This vague idea of being caught feeling alienated is likely to be felt relevant by a majority of people. The verse continues with “Because a vision softly creeping, Left its seeds while I was sleeping. And that vision that was planted in my brain, still remains, within the sounds of silence.” The “vision” is still only referred to as a “seed” so it is not yet any sort of complete thought; however, it is still trapped “within the sound of silence.” The silence can be seen as amplification to the idea that the thought is not only incomplete but also completely absent of a function. His “vision” is still in an imaginative space where it can express a power to serve many functions, including the ability to open new possibilities among people, but it is caught within his mind and not shared with others.
            The first verse opens the song and introduces the feeling of isolation despite being around others. The author of the words is aware of his alienation from others like he is waking from a dream. In the third verse he attempts to summarize his ideas about the people around his life and in society. “People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening.” The repetition of these two short phrases immediately following each other highlights the meaninglessness of words when nobody cares to pay attention. The weight of a life-changing “vision” cannot serve any function if it is not openly expressed and then openly accepted by others. If “people are talking without speaking” or “hearing without listening,” they are no longer balancing their ideas against the influences and lifestyles in society. Paul Simon has always claimed this idea seems to be a “young thought” but that does not remove any importance or sophistication from the concept. It is more likely to be considered a “young thought” because of the activity systems influencing younger generations.
           All generations of youths experience a time of learning, experiencing and testing of boundaries. Exposure to the luxuries of college, or even just time to grow and come of age, makes a generation optimistic in their ability to create change. This was immensely true for the generation creating change in the 1960s and 70s. Between war, racial and sexual discrimination, and the need to create change, it can often feel like no one is listening. These ideas remain current throughout generations because life is hard. Fifty years later, all generations have war, discrimination, inequality and challenges. No one wants to settle for only what may have been predestined for them in life. Generations rebel against the systems of inequality they do not agree with in their lives. The feeling of alienation comes from the sense of people’s lack of communication and their own feelings about the inability to change an already created system. If everyone shared their experiences and were open enough to rethink through them, it would become more possible to create focus and change the nature of society. He closes his third verse with “And no one dared, disturb the sound of silence.” It gives more meaning to the difficulties facing the creation of change if no one is willing to be the change they want to see.
           By the fourth verse, the anger and the frustration facing the “vision” begins to show. “Fools, said I, you do not know, Silence like a cancer grows.” Beginning this verse with the expletive of “fools” details the frustration of how it feels for him to want to give people an understanding but it is blocked by an inability he cannot control. Blender Magazine puts this song at number 60 on a list of worst songs ever because they feel the lyric is too self-important. This is the exact ability of creative rhetoric because the value of the finished project can be weighed and criticized like art. Saying “silence like a cancer grows,” is another use of creative rhetoric by making the simile between silence and cancer. He feels if the silence is not addressed then it will continue to spread and disease the society. The verse flows with rhyming words, also called homoioptoton, for creating lyrics with similar sounds ending in parallel words. I will highlight the rhymes in color for my reader to reference.
"Fools", said I, "You do not know
Silence like a cancer
Hear my words that I might
teach you
Take my arms that I might
reach you"
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed
In the wells of silence

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they
And the sign flashed out its
In the words that it was
And the sign said, "The words of the prophets are written on the subway
And tenement
And whispered in the sounds of silence
The continuing repetition of the word silence is used in every verse and is of greatest importance because it is the key idea for purpose in this song.
            The final verse creates a strong metaphor about the people’s behavior at the time. It says “And the people bowed and prayed, To the neon God they made.” This illustrates a population’s dependence on everything new, shiny and of commercial value only. Even in 1960, corporations and marketing were beginning to create and influence the culture of America. However, this lyric from almost 50 years ago could almost be given a higher value today than in the past. Our American culture is obsessed with commercial consumption. Our reliance on all things technological creates even more problems with communication when it comes down to a group already being together socially and still having the need to check on their own technology links. This sort of communication keeps everyone busy, but never really burrows into the depths of true balanced thinking and listening. The future should have made communication easier with convenience and accessibility. Instead it almost seems to be a downfall of constant distractions keeping the population’s thoughts occupied with trivial matters instead of revolutionary work. Paul Simon was trying through art to make an acknowledgment between what is said and what is experienced. This level of truth continues to resonate with any listener fortunate enough to find themselves on the receiving end of the speakers for “The Sound of Silence.”
Keeley McConaughey