The libidinal economy of "Simon Says"

by Rob Horning

29 January 2007


Even though it borders on imbecilic, I have long been a fan of the song “Simon Says” by the 1910 Fruitgum Company. I used to think this was because the song resisted any kind of interpretation, and thus hearkened back to a time before the pain of metaphor, which is always a way of inscribing absence. Consider the lyrics:

I’d like to play a game
That is so much fun,
And it’s not so very hard to do,
The name of the game is Simple Simon says,
And I would like for you to play it too.

Put your hands in the air, Simple Simon says,
Shake them all about, Simple Simon says,
Do it when Simon says, Simple Simon says,
And you will never be out.

Now that you have learnt
To play this game with me,
You can see its not so hard to do,
Lets try it once again,
This time more carefully,
And I hope the winner will be you.

Lots of bubblegum songs employ pretty obvious double entrendre: “Chewy, Chewy” and “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy”; “Wig Wam Bam” and “Little Willie”—even prepubescents can probably decode these. But as far as I can tell, Simple Simon is not a metaphor for anything; the song is just about playing Simple Simon, and it gives you the directions. I used to marvel at the restraint the studio musicians who made up this band must have exercised to adhere to such a risible premise and how this restraint translated into a high formalist art—“Simple Simon” as a pop-music Rothko. But now that friends of mine are having babies, I realize that all music made for infants exercises this kind of literalist restraint, so there must be something more that makes “Simple Simon” stand apart from, say, the songs Barney the purple dinosaur sings. Perhaps it is this: by avoiding any kind of metaphoric possibility, “Simple Simon” wants to absolve you of any ambiguity, any chance of misinterpretation. There is no space between desire and action for anxiety to develop. This suits the subject matter of the song perfectly, as it’s about a game that glorifies the art of taking orders, that rewards blind obediance to authority, that structures one’s actions as someone else’s desire, thus resolving us of responsibility. It promises a world of perfect order, in which one’s responses can be completely controlled, in which nothing is involuntary. “Simple Simon” then is about that simple pleasure of total submission, which makes it far kinkier than “I’ve got love in my tummy.” Deleuze would perhaps note the fact that the winner of “Simon Says” is the person who submits most perfectly, not the person issuing the orders, who in this arrangement is deprived of all possibility for joy and reduced to performing rote bureaucratic functions. “Do it when SImon says and you willl never be out”—does this extend the promise of jouissance to the perfect masochist? Perhaps I need to rethink “1, 2, 3 Red Light” along these lines as well….

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