Study Guide

Sometime Around Midnight Meaning

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The story of "Sometime Around Midnight" actually starts months before the band that would become The Airborne Toxic Event even existed. Like many good stories, it started with a series of very unfortunate events. Even more intriguing is that lead singer Mikel Jollett was a freelance writer long before he became the front man of a band and was in the middle of working on a novel at the time. As he recalls, it was quite possibly the worst week of his life:

Mikel Jollett: I had a really bad week. So I was always staying home, working on a novel, which was tedious, and my mom got cancer, my girlfriend and I broke up, and I got diagnosed with this disease that can make you lose your hair or make your skin look patchy, and apparently the condition is made worse by smoking, and I smoked two packs a day. Oh yeah, I got pneumonia, too. So, yes, it was a rough week.

Noah Harmon (bassist): You had pneumonia?

Jollett: Yeah, and then a bum threw up on me and a truck ran over my cat [laughs]. Okay, maybe not those last two. But for about one month, I just walked around in a haze, really depressed, just trying to get through the day. But then I started to come to. I remember it really clearly – it was January 3 – I came home and picked up the guitar and just started playing for five hours, and the next day, eight. I couldn't even really sing that well, but I would try to, every single day, just sing and play and write. And ever since then – I guess that was a year and half ago – that's all I've done. (Source)

Not sure what it is about writers, but when it rains, it pours, and these periods of depression and pain can inspire some of their best work (Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath were some pretty tortured souls/amazing writers, to name just a couple). Soon after Jollett started writing songs and playing guitar, he realized he wanted to get a band together and about six months later the band played its first show in Echo Park, an enclave of Los Angeles.

In an interview with a blog that specializes in indie music, Mikel explained how "Sometime Around Midnight" was created and why the band chose it as a single:

"We actually didn't choose it as a single – it was kind of chosen for us. I wrote that song after seeing my ex-girlfriend. It's a true story. It happened one night. I went home, spent three days locked in my apartment and wrote the song. I brought it to the band, we started playing it and we recorded it. And then people just started sharing it on the web; it got posted on blogs and played on local radio stations. We didn't have a record label at the time. We didn't have a manager. It was just the five of us, and the radio station in town called me up and said, 'We're gonna start playing this song.' It was KROQ. I was like, Really? [laughs]."

KROQ is L.A.'s biggest Alternative/Rock station, so when they call, you know you've made quite a splash. Something about that track was so powerful that it got airtime without the band even being signed to a label – something that almost never happens these days.

Like many great pop songs, "Sometime Around Midnight" is a classic story of love lost. But what makes it special is its literary bent; the entire track is jam-packed with literary devices (simile, metaphor) and vivid imagery. It is also loaded with all the structural hallmarks of poetry: internal and external rhyme, consonance, repetition, parallelism, and so on. Not to mention the rare second-person narrative (the whole song is written through the lens of "you"). It feels more like a poem set to music than your standard disposable pop/rock song. We'll get into all this fun literary stuff if you click on the Technique Tab, but for now, let's take a closer look at the interplay of the lyrics and music video and see how it influences the story. In the end, what we have is a very interesting examination on the nature of time.

Time and literature have been strange bedfellows for quite awhile now, with one always trying to usurp the other one in a timeless (ha!) and epic battle for dominance. Time is one of the trickiest and strangest concepts we have, because it is at once entirely invented by man but still one of our only tools with which to perceive our world and the universe itself. We take the ticking clock for granted; believing that time will always go on at its steady pace forever unchanging. When Einstein proved in 1915 that time is, in fact, not a constant and can speed up or slow down according to how fast we're moving through the universe, well, that just about blew everyone's collective mind.

Modernist and postmodern literature, especially, are obsessed with the concept of time: how humans perceive it, whether it is linear or cyclical, what role in plays in our lives, and, most importantly, how to break it up with creative wordplay and writing styles. While many, many authors and poets have focused on theories of time in their work, there are some who have made the destruction of linearity an ongoing theme: Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, Maxine Hong Kingston, e.e. cummings, Tom Stoppard, and Thomas Pynchon, to name a few.

Mikel Jollett and company are no strangers to postmodern literature: the name of their band itself comes from a famous experimental novel called White Noise by Don DeLillo, in which a radioactive spill produces a cloud that the government calls an "airborne toxic event." The novel examines dystopian themes of destruction, the media, time, technology, and mortality. When an interviewer asked Jollett what book he was reading at the moment, he answered: "I'm currently reading The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera. I love his books. It's a novel, it's an essay, it's first person, it's third person, it's present tense, it's past tense, it's narrative, it's commentary. He just breaks every rule. Plus there's a lot of freaky sex. But, you know, among Czechs living in Paris, so it's sort of civilized."

Hmm. Sounds a little bit like this song, doesn't it?

First and foremost, the song plays with notions of time and space through its lyrics. Its setting is not really the bar, its setting is not really the speaker's apartment, but the entire song is an encapsulated memory of seeing his ex that night. Memories are funny things because they exist completely separately from clock-time: when you recall that awesome vacation you took with your family, it doesn't take you a week to think about the entire trip, it only takes you a few minutes. Conversely, you could stretch out that time you tripped in front of the whole school (two seconds of actual humiliation) into an entire day of worrying about it and reliving it. In essence, we actually create new experiences as we use our memory since it functions completely independent of our everyday reality. Given the inherent flexibility of memory to collapse and expand time, it follows that when faced with a series of extremely powerful memories, our perception of time gets even crazier.

So let's look at it this way. Our speaker loses himself "sometime around midnight" (already an ambiguous temporal period) "for a minute or two" but in those two minutes manages to recall not only a very vivid evening, but specific moments spanning an entire relationship. Not to mention he writes the entire thing in second-person, in the present tense, describing the scene at the bar as it happens yet also managing to implicitly conjure up the past. He's also "lost in the haze of the wine," but is he drinking alone at home or is he only drunk in his memory?

Now we can take a look at what the music video accomplishes cinematically to further dramatize the incongruity between time, space, and memory. The video begins and ends using time-lapse images of the freeway (probably the 405 or 101 since we're in L.A.). Time-lapse is a technique of cinematography in which the camera uses about half the normal number of frames per second (don't worry if that doesn't make sense to you) in order to visually "speed up" time. The cars flying past each other on the freeway appear that way because the image is being captured much less frequently than normal vision, giving the effect that the car zipped instantaneously from point A to B. Along with time-lapse, the video also switches between black and white and color film, yet another visual distinction between past and present (we associate black and white with bygone eras) and weird lens angles and shapes which distort space (a property that is inextricably bound to time). He is literally haunted throughout the entire video by his ex-girlfriend as well as members of his band who appear and disappear in the walls and spaces of his apartment through the use of computer graphics and special effects. We dive into pictures, go through peep holes, and freeze images onto the wall, all in the space of three minutes.

Finally, there is a constant slow "spinning" motion. This is accomplished with a SteadiCam that rotates around in the center of the room, and each time it goes around, the band members playing their instruments are in different locations than before, although it looks like it was all taken in the same shot. So in effect, it appears that space is somehow disrupted while time remains constant. And then there is that one moment where his ghostlike ex suddenly becomes "real" and sits down at the piano next to him. He smiles at her, so this is probably a memory, although he could also be imagining her guiding his songwriting in the present. Next thing we know she's yelling at him and leaving, only to return a few seconds later through a brightly lit doorway. All of these effects together combine to infuse us with the crazy, mixed-up feeling that the song is trying to invoke: the utter confusion, devastation, and disconnection from reality that happens when you see the person you love with someone else. Your past invades the present and telescopes your perception so completely and jarringly that you barely have time to think.

And here's the kicker: all of this is taking place in his head: the human brain; the thing that invented time and has the power to twist it and disrupt it. And you thought this was just a cheesy breakup song!

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