Wednesday 16 June 2010

Where I come from 4: Words that pay the bills

There's a lady who's sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
When she gets there, she knows,
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for
Ooh, ooh, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven

Dear Freddie,

The words came to Robert Plant while he stood and listened to the other Led Zeppelin members who were trying to compose Stairway to Heaven – this contrast between how the music and the lyrics came about is relevant, by the way.

The first words that came to Plant still open the song and describe a woman in the third person. Plant calls her a lady, which means she's not just any woman, but a woman of superior social position. She is certain about something: namely that all that glitters is gold. This conviction makes this lady seem like a bit of a fool: everybody knows all that glitters is NOT gold! Even water, a slug or a fresh dog turd can glitter in the sun shine. (I wonder whether the social status of this woman has anything to do with the way she perceives valuable things.)

While the lady is sure about this falsehood, my first uncertainty crops up. What is the grammatical status of the next line, “and she's buying a stairway to heaven”? Is she sure that she's 'buying' this interesting stairway (just like she is sure about all glittery things being gold) or does Plant say that she's actually buying it?
Putting it like that brings forward another aspect of the word buying. When one teenager tells another how she lied to her parents about her nocturnal whereabouts so that she could stay out longer, it’s not unusual for the other party to ask: “Did they buy it?” to which the answer usually is: “Hell yeah, they bought every word of it!” When you buy a lie, it means you've fallen for it, you believe it. The lady, who is sure that all that comes across as valuable actually is valuable, is buying a “stairway to heaven”. She’s falling for this trickery too.

Only now, it occurs to me that Plant doesn’t describe what this woman looks like, nor what she does; he purely describes what we usually call her ‘mental state’. She is sure about something, she’s buying trickery, and in the next line she knows something. What does she know? That when she gets to heaven – whatever that may be – she can get what she came for with a word if the stores are all closed.

The first question I would like to ask is: what about if the stores are opened? But that would be a silly thing to ask. First of all: I don’t know what heaven is, nor whether there ARE shops there. What’s more: Plant doesn’t claim either that heaven exists, nor that there are shops there. Plant is only telling me, from a distance, that this lady ‘knows’ something. There’s no point in pretending to believe that there are shops in a place called heaven in order to investigate the imaginary opening hours, especially not when I don’t even know what they’re supposed to sell. For now, this line is a dead end street.

The second question I could ask is: what does ‘to know’ entail? During my first year of philosophy, I learned that knowledge is ‘justified, true belief’. This definition can lead to quite a lot of interesting debates – but I shouldn’t allow those distractions to lead me away from the lyrics. Plant says she knows that, WHEN she gets there, she can get what she came for. Even if Plant subscribes the aforementioned definition of knowledge, it’s not logically impossible that this woman knows she can get what she came for if she gets there, but also knows she’ll never get there because the place doesn’t exist. Plant doesn’t claim nor deny the existence of heaven and its local shops. Trying to determine which definition of ‘to know’ he had in mind would merely distract from the song – the more so because Plant didn’t cunningly compose the text, picking words because of their definitions. We don’t choose words because of their definitions – they just roll out of our mouth or fingers, present themselves. It often feels as if I don’t have much to do with which words I utter at all.

What I’m trying to do is trace the way the words presented themselves to Plant, in order to catch a glimpse of where they come from, what made them come forward, and hopefully learn something about my relationship with these words.

Now, the last thing I’d like to mention about this first paragraph is that – although I don’t know what she’s after – the woman knows she can get it with a word. She sees words as an economic currency with which she can pay, even when the stores are closed. This line has fascinated me ever since I first heard it, though I don’t know why exactly yet. It’s not a deep insight: of course words are a currency. Every toddler knows he has to say “please” if he want a sweet, and with the years we learn that other words can get us other things. (e.g. “you look lovely today”, “I’m so stressed!” or “your food smells delicious. What is it?”). It doesn’t matter what the words mean; we use them to get a specific reaction in return. Hopefully, the rest of the lyrics will make things more clear.

Best, Deborah

Read the next installment here:
Where I come from 5: Dead end routes

Or read the first posts in this series:

Where I come from 1: Pub Talk Philosophy


  1. But if words didn't mean anything they wouldn't get a reaction, no? Maybe their meaning is too dependent on context to be given a perfect definition.

  2. Wouldn't they?

    It often happens to me that colleagues or friends are using words I don't know (being a foreigner might help, but it happens in Holland too.) I don't ask what 'bare hoodrats' or 'toxic link' means - though I know both should be avoided - but don't shy away from talking about bare hoodrats and toxic links either. I pretend to know, copy what other do/say, get away with it. Same goes for "soul", "mind", "heaven" and "knowledge", by the way. I'll never be able to explain what they mean, whether I take context into consideration or not.

    I don't know - words might have meanings, but does it matter? Mostly, I don't think of their meanings when I uttering them at all. For examply, I'm ashamed to admit that, when I get upset, I tend to say 'fucking wanker' a lot. Someone recently pointed out that, technically, the first insult takes away the point of the second. I'd never thought of it that way before, but couldn't really argue. I don't think I'll start saying it less, though. I'd like to think that's because it's an efficient tool for insulting someone. But I'm afraid my personal aims don't really affect what words I utter when I'm angry.

    Another matter, which I'll probably have to address in my next installment, is whether currencies are language rather than the other way around. Money (coins, cheques, digital money) is a token for an immaterial value, it MEANS something. If it didn't, they wouldn't let me leave Tesco's with my groceries.


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  5. thanks, but it doesn't really work like that, Joven. If you would've read the post, you wouldn't have said 'god bless'.