Song 107: Big Star, “September Gurls” (1974)

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What songs do you listen to when the world is terrible? I tend to alternate between sad songs and midtempo ones that have a subtle kind of determination despite the bittersweet lyrics. I don’t often choose an outright happy (or happy-sounding) song, unless it’s “I Want You Back,” which never fails to make me feel better. Otherwise, if I’m not in the mood, happy songs just get on my nerves.

Even though there are only three Big Star records, there are so many good songs: “The Ballad of El Goodo,” “Thirteen,” “Back of a Car,” “Way Out West,” “Nightime.” But when I think about Big Star, I think of “September Gurls.” Its twelve-string wash always provides me with a sense of relief, even if I don’t realize I need it.

What’s interesting to me about this song is that it’s shimmery, shiny pop music, yet there’s so much that doesn’t make sense: what’s a September Gurl? What’s a December Boy? What does “I was your butch until we touched” mean? What was the end of “I loved you, well, never mind” supposed to be? It all makes just enough sense to work, the vague lyrics meshing nicely with the sharply focused instrumentation.

So what does it mean? I’ve always thought that the song was about two people who are a little colder and more bitter than everybody else (September and December), but the boy’s a little more cold and bitter than the girl he’s pining after. They’re out of step with everyone they know, but also with each other, and all the boy needs is to be a little more forgiving, a little more flexible.

I’m probably way off, but it doesn’t matter. That’s what I love about music: we can all be wrong about what the writer intended, but as long as it’s right to us, we’re doing it right. Which is what makes artists who are willing to be so abstract, so beautifully vague, so valuable.

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