Songs that hinge on central metaphors typically fasten themselves to a familiar structure: the first verse introduces the situation, the chorus introduces or solidifies the metaphor, and further verses elaborate on the metaphor while further choruses act as a grounding device to keep everything safely within the bounds of the metaphor. Brick by Ben Folds Five is a terrific example of this.
Which brings us to Judy Is Your Viet Nam by They Might Be Giants, and the interesting way it approaches its central metaphor.
Broadly, the song uses the U.S. involvement in Vietnam as a metaphor for a long-term relationship that went bad a long time ago – and was maybe even bad from the beginning – but is nonetheless difficult to extricate yourself from. It‘s a perfectly sound little idea with the occasional truly great lyric like, “she‘s the storm before the calm,“ standing for the awareness that ending the entanglement would make you much happier, which leaves the fact that you haven‘t disentangled yourself to imply the idea that you can‘t.
But what makes the song distinctive is this: it doesn‘t introduce the metaphor until the very last line. They Might Be Giants realize that whatever the merits of their lyrical idea, it is a little idea. Small but significant details of the relationship under examination get introduced over the course of the song, but the central conceit gets introduced as a punchline at the end. What could have been an over-reaching and wearying metaphor in the traditional format becomes fun in this one.
Does this alternative metaphoric format have much outside application? Well, no. A mix of commercial demands, audience expectations, and semantic necessity require that the standard format remain the default, but whatever its instructive value, “Judy Is Your Viet Nam“ does illustrate that the standard format is not the only one available. It is a little trifle of a thing, but a fun and even valuable one. Now, if you‘ll excuse me, I‘m off to write a song about a messy one-night-stand called “Meredith Is Your Falklands.“