In middle school and high school, my two self-proclaimed favorite bands were Guster and CAKE. I didn’t know why I appreciated these bands, exactly, but along with the “alternative” likes of Coldplay, Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, Sufjan Stevens, and the Weepies, they did something to my adolescent mind. Something I liked, something that quickly released dopamine through my brain cells to create contentment and relaxation. Part of it was that these bands reminded me of my older sisters, who would play their music. But once I decided I liked the music for its own sake, there was a reason behind it.
I never sought to actively place my finger on why one of my favorite Guster songs, “Ramona,” worked so well to create a sense of nostalgia and loss. Over time, I came to see why, and I would now like to break it down in a post for others to experience and share. I think that this is appropriate for a poetry blog because I see “Ramona,” as well as lots of other music, as poetry, and because music so often shapes poetic decisions. I would highly recommend listening to the song if you are interested in my analysis! It’s very beautiful and serene.
Part of what makes “Ramona” work so well to create a sense of sorrow and loss is certainly the musicality of it; the soft electric guitars, gentle and slow drumming, and sweet harmonies create a sense of nostalgia and longing. In terms of the lyrics, the band members intentionally use a lot of empty language to help the listener understand the emptiness of the relationship between the speaker and Ramona. These lines characterize this emptiness: “Ramona, you’re Miss Oklahoma / And you miss Oklahoma / I’ll get you what you want.” These lines characterize Ramona as physically beautiful, as she won a pageant, and from somewhere foreign to the speaker (Oklahoma). When he says, “I’ll get you what you want” this implies that the speaker will somehow seek to return Ramona to Oklahoma. This creates a sense of foreshadowing in which we sense issues in their relationship from the start. In addition, rather than characterizing Ramona in a way that is specific to her, the speaker first discusses her beauty: “You’re Miss Oklahoma.”
These empty words continue throughout the song, both in the chorus and in the next verse, which eventually work to create a sense of discomfort and uncertainty. The chorus croons: “‘Cause there were days when a refrain / Would brighten our corner of Hickory Lane / When you would sing that song for me / Just like your favorite singer.” The intentional vagueness of “that song” continues to reveal the superficiality of the relationship. It’s not “Sixty-Four” by the Beatles or “Halo” by Beyoncé; instead, it’s “that song” which Ramona sings, just like her favorite singer. “Hickory Lane” is invoked to represent a surreal, perfectionistic utopia that is just as unreal as it is perfect. This”perfection” in the relationship masks what is beneath–a lack of intimacy and a desire for this same intimacy.
This uncertainty shifts to discomfort in the next verse–“And why’d you have to be so nice? / A wink and a girly smile / And why’d you have to punch my eye? / That was something.” The speaker clearly has nothing substantial to say about Ramona, so he delves into random anecdotes about things that used to happen. “That was something” is the culmination of everything the speaker has tried to say, cannot say, and ultimately, has no reason to say, because he knows that there is nothing between him and Ramona, though he wishes it weren’t so.
Perhaps the greatest risk this song reveals is in the bridge: “When I was younger and thought of myself / I never dreamed I’d become like this / A snap of your fingers, an end to the argument / Anything for you, love.” In this moment the speaker reveals his devotion to this empty relationship in a way that he never thought he would be when he was younger. After a repeated (empty) interlude, this “refrain” crashes into a slightly altered chorus, in which the speaker finally admits that the relationship is falling apart and begs Ramona to “come and sing that song for me / just like your favorite singer.”
This song is so powerful because it reveals, through empty language and barspace in the music, a speaker’s longing for true intimacy, which he allows to be replaced with a superficial relationship, for which he ultimately gives himself away. This speaker has lost himself for something he never wanted, and that is the loss that this song records and understands.
I think that this song meant so much to me in high school because I so deeply longed for intimacy in my relationships, but I was too young to understand healthy, sustainable intimacy. So I often substituted intimacy for superficiality, and lost myself in the process: “So come and sing that song for me / just like your favorite singer.”