Earworm Weekly: Have You Ever Actually Listened to the Lyrics of “Norwegian Wood?”

It's not that I hate the Beatles, per se. It's simply that I've already heard the entirety of their extensive catalog enough to last the rest of my lifetime. This decision isn't about quality or significance: it’s about ubiquity. Everyone knows the Beatles. I don't need to seek them out, add them to my personal playlists, or dig out their CDs or vinyl albums to play. I have practically their entire catalog memorized against my will already. Up to and including this week's earworm, “Norwegian Wood.”

I won't deny that the song is both lovely and memorable. “Norwegian Wood” is popularly credited as the song that introduced the sitar to Western pop audiences. George Harrison didn't know how to properly play the instrument at the time; he just picked it up and strummed out the tune. Later, he would take lessons from Indian musician Ravi Shankar. Meanwhile, the success of the song would launch a mid-‘60s craze for sitar sounds and cement the single as a cornerstone of what would become known as “world music.”
[jump] The song itself has a compact structure with alternating melodies per each two-line verse; the entire song clocks in at only two minutes total, including an instrumental break. The title refers to a mid-20th-century vogue for decorating interiors with knotty pine. It was cheap, visually striking, it and easy to install yourself. In the United States, this pine could come from the Pacific Northwest, Idaho, the Upper Midwest, New England or Canada. In England, such pine was readily available from Scandinavia. Think of burnt-orange wood-paneled rec rooms and you get the picture.

When I was a younger, greener music reviewer, I would occasionally get chided for paying too much attention to the words of the pop songs I was writing about. At least one letter to the editor told me that nobody cared what the words were – especially if they were nonsensical or larded with cliches – as long as the song was a pretty tune you could groove to. If you are this kind of listener, it's probably best to click away from this column now.

The plot, as it were, of “Norwegian Wood” is completely straightforward. Girl invites guy back to her place. They stay up all night flirting and talking and drinking wine. However, she refuses to have sex with him. He sleeps in the bathtub instead of her bed. In the morning, after she goes to work, he burns her place down. The end.

It seems like a bit of an extreme reaction, don't you think? Let me repeat: Girl turns guy down for sex. Guy retaliates by burning her house down.

I couldn't believe it when I first parsed the lyrics as an adult. I immediately quizzed all my friends and loved ones. Have you ever really listened to “Norwegian Wood?” Does it mean what I think it means? That's appalling! Most of my friends admitted that they'd never really listened to the song that closely. A few tried to rationalize it for me. Maybe he didn't burn her house down — he just built a fire in her fireplace or something. Maybe it doesn't really mean anything at all, I mean, who goes to sleep in a bathtub? It's just a throwaway rhyme: “Isn't it good, Norwegian wood?” No need to get all worked up about it. It's probably nothing.

Except that Paul McCartney unhappily confirmed my reading of the song to an interviewer once. “It could have meant I lit a fire to keep myself warm and wasn't the decor of her house wonderful?” he said. “But it didn't. It meant I burned the fucking place down as an act of revenge.” McCartney also said the violence was “tongue in cheek.” Oh, ha ha. Isn't burning down a girl's house in revenge for her turning you down funny? No? What are you, some kind of humorless feminist? Cue eye roll here.

The only silver lining in regards to the narrative of “Norwegian Wood,” at least as far as I'm concerned, is that it proves that there can be violence in any genre of popular music, and not just, you know, hip-hop. And if the pundits start finger-wagging about misogyny in modern music, just ask them if they like the Beatles and bask in your sense of moral superiority if they say yes.

“Is that one of John's songs?” a friend of mine asked when I was discussing this week's potential column subject at a party. “I love John, he's my favorite Beatle. But he was kind of an asshole.” Lennon provides the vocals, but both he and McCartney claimed credit for the song, with Lennon telling Playboy that the lyrics were “completely his” and McCartney countering that he finished Lennon's two- to three-line rough draft. Picking the biggest asshole in the Beatles can be a bit of a challenge sometimes.

“Norwegian Wood” appeared on Rubber Soul, the Beatles' firth album, in 1965. 

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