On first hearing, a calm love song – relaxing, gentle, a lullaby. Lights down low, romantic moonlight, no need to worry, no need to be afraid, secure, alone in each other’s arms. What more could they want? Ah, bliss! Even the mockingbird’s buggered off.
Well not quite. If it’s a lullaby, it’s a bit sinister. The baby’s singing it.
In fact the whole song is sinister. The narrator is far from being the ideal romantic lover. He’s domineering throughout. Just about everything he says is an instruction – ‘close your eyes’, ‘close the door’, ‘shut the light’, ‘shut the shade’, ‘do not fear’, ‘kick your shoes off’, ‘bring that bottle’. And when it’s not an instruction, it’s a statement of what he’s decided – ‘you don’t have to worry’, ‘we’re going to forget it’, ‘you won’t regret it’, and so on.
But more than that. One wonders what he means when he says ‘You don’t have to worry any more’. Why doesn’t she? After all, her personal problems are still going to be there in the morning, aren’t they? Perhaps he means a different worry. Him.
But it’s not just worry. ‘You don’t have to be afraid,’ he says’. Afraid of what? There’s nothing to be afraid of – again, except him. So can we trust him when, presumably in response to her spoken qualms, he constantly tries to reassure her? The door’s to be closed, and he tells her there’s no need to continue worrying. The light’s to be turned off, and he tells her she doesn’t have to be afraid. And when she’s kicking her shoes off (presumably), he tells her not to fear. There’s a progression. The door closed, the light out, no shoes. The chance of escape is steadily decreasing. And the more it does so, the more she moves from worry, to being afraid, to fear.
It would seem we can’t trust him. There’s more to be said about the woman’s chance of escape being cut off. The instruction ‘Close your eyes, close the door’ is bizarre if taken literally because it seems to mean close your eyes and then shut the door. This perhaps suggests something irrational about the narrator. Alternatively, though, it might be taken to mean that the woman’s act of closing her eyes will be the equivalent of closing the door. The eyes are the door. What door? The door to safety perhaps. If the woman obeys the narrator’s injunction to close her eyes, she ceases to see what’s happening and thus loses any control she had over it.
That we can’t trust the narrator becomes obvious in a number of other ways. ‘I’ll be your baby tonight’, he says. By ‘your baby’ he might mean something like ‘your lover’, but he might also be saying she’ll find him to be really docile. But why does that need saying? If it’s true that he’d be gentle, and she knows him, she’d know it anyway without being told. If he were a trustworthy character, the assurance would be unnecessary. The fact that he has to tell her he’ll be gentle is a sure sign that she has good reason to think he won’t.
His untrustworthiness becomes even more apparent when he again tries to reassure her, saying:
‘Well, that mockingbird’s gonna sail away’
Whatever the mockingbird represents, it’s clearly something he expects her to see as a threat. But it’s alright, isn’t it? It’s going to sail away. Phew! Except whoever heard of a mockingbird sailing? It’s a bird. And birds don’t sail, they fly. The misrepresentation alone suggests we should treat what this narrator says with caution.
And what is this threat which he calls a mockingbird? Again, the only candidate is the narrator himself. He is the one who is no longer going to be a threat to her, he’s saying. Not only does this imply that hitherto she’s been right to see him as a threat, but his denial makes his choice of metaphor all the more sinister. Mockingbirds are so-called because they take on the characteristics of other birds, as camouflage. And that suggests something Freudian about his choice of the term. ‘Mockingbird’ is appropriate because in trying to deceive her that he’s no longer a threat, he’s unwittingly making it clear that he is.
The title, thrice repeated in the song, requires further comment. First, the word ‘tonight’ provides some confirmation of our suspicions about him. It hints that the narrator has no intention of this being a lasting relationship. Once his desires have been satisfied, we can assume, that’s it.
Secondly, there’s something absurd about a man referring to himself as a baby. It’s hardly chimes with the machismo image of protector from worry and fear that he’s trying to present. It suggests weakness. One can see why such a man ends up imposing himself on the woman. He invites rejection. He comes across as thoroughly immature. And his referring to a threat as a mockingbird is also immature. It’s baby language . And so is ‘The big, fat moon is gonna shine like a spoon’. A very young child might appreciate the comparison, but it’s hardly going to impress an adult.
Quite apart from his immature language – ‘baby’, ‘mockingbird’, ‘big,fat moon’, ‘like a spoon’ – his description of the moon suggests another reason for not trusting him. If his aim is to appear romantic, he’s failing hopelessly. A fat moon shining like a spoon really isn’t the stuff of romantic poetry! But the description also suggests that creating a romantic atmosphere might be the last thing he’s bothered about. The same can be said about his wanting the light ‘Shut’ – when creating a romantic atmosphere would have required only that it be turned down low. One must conclude either that he is incompetent, or that he thinks that being romantic would be an unnecessary distraction on the way to his goal.
His attitude to the moon’s shining has an oddness which needs accounting for:
‘But we’re gonna let it
You won’t regret it’
Let it! Let the moon shine! Is there any option? He talks about the moon not as a heavenly symbol of romance, but as an unwelcome intruder they’re going to have to put up with. The expression ‘let it,’ then, suggests he’s prepared to put up with the intrusion. But why does he see the moon as an intruder? Because it produces light, when what he wants is total darkness?
‘You won’t regret it,’ he continues. Under normal circumstances one might wonder why on earth she should regret it. The moon shining is just not the sort of thing which occasions regret. Ironically, as it happens, it’s the one thing the woman needs to hear. Far from being a source of regret for her, the light from the moon is the one crumb of hope she has. It’s the one thing which might save her from his machinations. But perhaps he’s not thinking of her when he says ‘You won’t regret it’. It’s his own regret, not hers, he’s hoping to prevent. The moon is interfering with his plans.
There’s another possibility. If he’s fat and rotund, ‘That big fat moon’ could be a jokey reference to himself in a misguided effort at seduction. ‘You won’t regret it’, then, would show his mind slipping back to his main interest so that he’s telling her she won’t regret giving in to him.
The penultimate line of the song presents his final instruction, ‘Bring that bottle over here’. One might be forgiven for thinking this need for alcohol at just that point is a final confirmation of his unwholesome intentions. Not only a rapist, but a drunken rapist!* Or perhaps he thinks if he can get her drunk she might be a bit more compliant. A dark thought to end on, made lighter only by the absurdity of its continuing the belittling baby imagery. The baby wants his bottle.
*That might be a bit too condemnatory. The narrator comes across as a human being with human faults. He may well be convincing himself that his motives are genuine, and therefore not be fully responsible for what transpires.
Last updated 6.10.17