Bob Seger and the 'Ah-ness' of Being: Why 'Night Moves' is the Most Poetic Rock Song Ever

What does a quintessential heartland rock song have to do with a traditional Japanese aesthetic?

American rock roll legend Bob Seger isn’t Japanese. I’m not sure he’s ever even been to Japan. It makes it weird, then, that his music so perfectly captures a uniquely Japanese aesthetic, one infamously difficult to translate. What’s even weirder is that he can do this in a song about how he was constantly horny as a kid.

Of course, I’m talking about the mono no aware (物の哀れ) in his hit song, “Night Moves”.

Background

I can’t remember the first time I heard “Night Moves”. Like many children, my musical preferences traced an accelerated version of my parents’ own development–I was plunked down first into the music of the ’60s, and it took me 18 years to finally catch up to modern pop. Bob Seger had always been one of the nameless voices on the radio growing up with the oldies, so I guess it isn’t surprising that I never really listened to the lyrics.

By the time I finally got around to it, I was old enough to appreciate it, and knowledgable enough about art to connect it with something else I had heard about.

The most contact Westerners have with the term “mono no aware” is probably through the internet, where it draws its fame from being a particularly hard phrase to translate. Although Wikipedia probably sums it up the best, mono no aware roughly corresponds to an empathy and gentle sadness for the life’s ephemeralities. Some of the most quintessential instances are said to be captured in Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu’s movies, such as a loyal daughter being married off in the film Late Spring.

Setsuko Hara as Noriko and Chishū Ryū as Shukichi in Yasujirō Ozu'sLate Spring. (Taken from Wikipedia)

Mono no aware is also often linked to the contemplation of the beauty of cherry blossoms, which only bloom for a few weeks before falling. I should mention that I myself am not Japanese, nor am I a scholar on Japanese literature, but the feeling of mono no aware is something that I believe most people can connect to.

Imagine seeing the old elementary school you made so many memories in being torn down for modern expansions, knowing that although it will better serve the community, the halls you knew so well will be lost forever. Or imagine having the last of your children leave home to find their place in the world, knowing–and accepting–that your family can never quite go back to the way it was before. The transience of these things can evoke a sort of wistfulness and sadness, but at the same time heighten your appreciation of them.

So how does Bob Seger fit into any of this?

Well, I would argue that out of every song, poem, and movie I’ve come across, Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” is the closest I’ve ever seen anyone get to Yasujirō Ozu’s ability to portray the concept. What’s more, I’d say “Night Moves” goes beyond simply evoking the feeling in Western audiences, and actually preserves many Japanese literary devices that surround the concept, making it the most perfect translation of the broader concept to Western ears.

Let’s get started.

Analysis

To understand “Night Moves”, you have to realize that it is cleanly divided into two parts: the last stanza and literally everything else. You can find a full (mostly-accurate) version of the lyrics here.

The First Part

From the start, Seger seems to be setting up a song that plays straight into the most standard (and puerile) tropes of country-rock. He introduces himself as a scrawny teenager involved with an attractive girl, and even ends first stanza with a relatively crude joke about the girl’s breasts, luxuriating in the memory of past sexual conquests:

I was a little too tall
Could’ve used a few pounds
Tight pants points hardly reknown
She was a black-haired beauty with big dark eyes
And points all her own sitting way up high
Way up firm and high

From there, Seger goes on to hit all the notes of classic heartland rock pop:

Out past the cornfields where the woods got heavy
Out in the back seat of my ‘60 Chevy […]
In the summertime
In the sweet summertime

Horny teenagers out in the country? Check. Cornfields in the summer? Check. Making out in Chevies? Check check check. And lest we think that this could possibly be nostalgia for a young romance, he makes it explicitly clear that this is just about remembering how freaky he used to get:

We weren’t in love, oh no, far from it
We weren’t searchin’ for some pie in the sky summit
We were just young and restless and bored […]
And we’d steal away every chance we could
To the backroom, to the alley or the trusty woods
I used her, she used me
But neither one cared

Except for a few references to their awkwardness, inexperience, and their oddly desperate urgency, Seger paints a very one-dimensional scene. At this point, it is “obvious” that the titular “night moves” refer to sex.

So when the song begins to pivot, a new listener could be excused for thinking that nothing is changing.

And oh the wonder
We felt the lightning
And we waited on the thunder
Waited on the thunder

On the surface, this is nothing new–electric passion without any cares. But, Seger has now slid in a slightly “ominous” tone–now we have what could be an implication of consequences.

But before Seger sings even the first words of this next stanza, the music signals a change. The percussion and guitar riffs have fallen away, and his voice drops down from a throaty cry to almost a whisper. What comes next are some of the most poetically dense lines of rock ever recorded.

The album cover of Night Moves, which fortunately does not speak to Bob Seger's artistic ability. (Taken from Wikipedia)

The Second Part

I’ve heard that modern laptops have become much more difficult to customize. No longer can a hobbyist add extra RAM or swap out a graphics card–thinner cases have forced engineers to integrate the components as tightly as possible into one interwoven mass.

That’s kind of how I feel about this next stanza. I can pick it apart line by line, but there is so much going on at so many levels simultaneously, that I’d need to go over it at least a hundred times to capture all the nuance. There’s the fact that it turns everything else in the song on its head while building off it perfectly, that it says the most while saying the least, that–I have to stop myself at this point.

Instead, why don’t we talk about traditional Japanese literary devices?

The Kiru and Kigo in Haiku

The weird thing about “Night Moves” is that in addition to conveying the feeling of mono no aware, it unconsciously invokes certain elements that are celebrated in Japanese poetry–especially those related to the aesthetic. Now, Japan has a rich literary history that extends fifteen hundred years into the past, so that means there’s a lot of different literary devices and traditions one can draw from. For a variety of reasons, I’ll primarily focus my attention on elements from the form of poetry that Westerners are probably most familiar with: haiku.

Although most Westerners probably learn about haiku in middle school, a lot of the core elements are lost in translation. It is not just a poem with 5-7-5 syllables per line. In fact, most dialects of Japanese don’t even “use” syllables (they use on). The ever-useful Wikipedia has a decent page about what haiku really is.

Yes, haiku are characterized by a 5-7-5 pattern, but they are characterized by two other important elements as well: a “cutting” (kiru) and a seasonal reference (kigo).

Kiru

Similar concepts to kiru exist in Western literature–for example, the volta in the last two lines of sonnets, that often puts a twist on what was just read. For example, in Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 130 (My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun…), after seemingly bashing his mistress for the whole poem, he uses the volta:

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

to cleverly twist it into an affirmation of his love. Since kireji don’t often translate well, it can be hard to understand them in Japanese poetry. However, since a bunch of English-speaking poets decided to start a movement based off Chinese and Japanese poetry, we can use poems from the Imagist movement to help us get a feel for them. The semi-colon in Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” plays a role very similar to kireji:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Less explicit than a metaphor, the semi-colon and line break merely invite the reader to reflect on the relationship between the two, without demanding any particular interpretation. Often by saying less, a poet can say more.

These two aspects of the kiru–the sudden change or twist, and the ambiguous, understated conveyance of ideas–are not to the best of my knowledge inherently a part of mono no aware. However, they fit very well with the aesthetic. The association of the changing aspect of the kiru is obvious1: mono no aware is predicated on change. I don’t think mono no aware necessarily has to be understated and slightly ambiguious, but it almost always is conveyed in that manner (see Yasujirō Ozu). And when you think about it, it makes sense. Acceptance, wistfulness, and bittersweet sadness are all rolled into one emotion–perhaps not even the one experiencing it knows exactly what they’re feeling.

A portrait of Issa, whose (pen) name literally means "one [cup of] tea". (Taken from Wikipedia)

For example, in a haiku by the famous poet Issa:

In my old home
which I forsook, the cherries
are in bloom.

we see both elements at play2, heightening the gentle sadness of the ephemeral. The first two lines alone might evoke some level of contempt–a reference to a place the author purposefully abandoned–but the transition to the last line completely undercuts that interpretation. Note how Issa never says he regrets his actions, or that he misses home; he merely states that the flowers are blooming there. What exactly he’s feeling is left up to the reader, and this makes the poem much more powerful.

Or how about this one by another haiku giant, Bashō?

Nothing in the cry
Of cicadas suggests they
Are about to die.

Hhhhnngg! So good! Again, the break to the last line totally twists how the reader inteprets the poem, and notice there is no explicit metaphorical language here–the author is just stating something. How does he feel about it? He doesn’t say that his awareness of the ephemerality of the cicadas extends to all life, but we can feel it. In pondering this ambiguity, we ponder our own awareness of the transience of reality.

But both of these examples contain a key element of haiku–one that we haven’t discussed and one that might be invisible to most Western audiences.

Kigo

One of the things most middle-schoolers don’t understand about haiku is that a heavy emphasis on the seasons is almost always required–almost all haiku contain a kigo, a word from an agreed-upon list of words, each associated with a different season. For example, “cherry blossoms” (sakura) is a kigo associated with spring, as are “frogs”, “mist”, and the word for “spring” itself. “Cicada,” as in the Bashō poem, is also a kigo, one associated with the late summer. I was pretty surprised to learn about kigo–requiring poems to use specific words isn’t really heard of in traditional Western poetry, and I thought haiku didn’t have to reference the seasons.

The passing of the seasons is deeply connected to mono no aware, reminding us of the ephemerality of the world and featuring prominently in many depictions of the aesthetic.

The Poetry of “Night Moves”

I have to display this stanza in full first. Breaking it up, like I said before, ruins it.

I woke last night to the sound of thunder
How far off I sat and wondered
Started humming a song from 1962
Ain’t it funny how the night moves
When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose
Strange how the night moves
With autumn closing in

But since we can only address one point at a time, let’s move through it as best we can.

We’re at the second part. The instrumentation falls away. The pace slows.

I woke last night to the sound of thunder
How far off I sat and wondered

Boom. The reminiscence ends; we’re in the present moment. He hears the “thunder” he had been waiting on as a teenager. The other shoe has dropped, but what is it? What does it mean? Some sort of consequence has caught up to him in the present day.

Ostensibly, “how far off” would be referring to the thunder, but with the next line:

Started humming a song from 1962

we start to form a different picture. It seems that what he’s referring to is something in his adolescence. He’s wondering how long ago it was since the first part of the story took place–in the process, a song from back then gets stuck in his head. You quickly get the feeling that this is far, far different from the careless, crude remembrance that it first appeared. This an older man, alone in his room in the middle of the night, thinking about the consequences of his actions–how his life turned out like this.

Ain’t it funny how the night moves
When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose

Ho. Lee. Shit. Are you getting this? Bob Seger just changed the game here. “Night moves,” previously used as a noun, here takes on new meaning as a verb phrase. In this beautiful twist, Seger now uses it to describe the passage of time–the way you remember things–in essence, mono no aware. The line, “When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose” is slightly ambiguous as well here. Is it referring to his childhood, or does he mean he has less to lose now? Either way, it portrays him as a changed man, one who has seen more of what the world has to offer.

Strange how the night moves
With autumn closing in

Although Bob Seger was probably not aware of traditional elements of Japanese poetry, he seems to have a natural talent for using them. His use of seasons parallels the emphasis on seasonality in haiku, and the connection of the changing of seasons to mono no aware. Additionally, the terms for “lightning” and “thunder” are actually kigo!3

Compare the change between stanzas to the kiru in Bashō and Issa’s haiku. In just a few lines, Seger changes the way we interpret the previous lyrics. The summer of his youth is over, and as he turns to face the autumn of his life, a season typically associated with things getting old and dying, he reflects on his past. He doesn’t seem angry about this or particularly bitter. He has accepted the end of that chapter of his life, musing on how strange it is to go from one stage to the next.

But we don’t know exactly how he feels–like Issa’s poem mentioning the cherries blooming, Seger merely juxtaposes the hormonal teenager in lightning passion with the older man who has finally heard the thunder. We are left to fill in the blanks ourselves. Nostalgia, ruefulness, wry irony–it’s all there.

The shot of the vase in the famous scene from Ozu's Late Spring. Ozu hides the actress while she thinks about her future away from her father, avoiding melodrama and prompting the audience to participate in the thought process. (Taken from Wikipedia)

Compare this to Yasujirō Ozu’s famous film, Late Spring. In it, a widowed father makes the hard choice to convince his daughter to move out from his life to get married. In the film’s most famous scene, the daughter and father, on one last trip together, are in separate futons side by side. When the daughter realizes that her father has fallen asleep mid-conversation, she smiles, and the camera cuts to a vase in the corner of their room, without dialogue, for six seconds.

When it cuts back to her face, she now looks upset and sad. This is followed by another ten-second shot of the vase. Ozu leaves it to the audience to understand her feelings, heightening our contemplation by providing us with only short snapshots of her face.

Even the understated question, “Ain’t it funny how the night moves?” feels perfectly at home in a Ozu movie. Many of his films end with an older man alone in his house at night, reflecting on the past and considering the lonely years that lie ahead. The protagonist of one of his best works, An Autumn Afternoon, after having married off his only daughter in a situation similar to that in Late Spring, sits by himself in the middle of the night, humming a song from his younger days (notice any similarities?). The last words he speaks before the film ends are “Alone, eh?” Loaded, simple, but heavy with meaning.

Chishū Ryū, as Shūhei Hirayama in Ozu's An Autumn Afternoon, alone after marrying off his only daughter.

So yes, this is why I believe Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” is the most poetic rock song ever written. I don’t mean the most beautiful, or with the cleverest metaphors, or the most moving (to you), I mean the one that captures this level of poetry. If you honestly think “Thunder Road” does a better job, bite me, but everyone else should feel free to leave angry comments or yell at me on Twitter. After letting this stew for years, I just had to get it out on paper. Just please don’t get me started on Jackson Browne’s exploration of meaning in existential philosophy.

Footnotes

1. But also surprisingly deep and profound. I’m taking too long to write this analysis as it is, but I think it’s worth pondering further.

2. Correct me if I’m wrong here–since I can’t actually read Japanese, I’m not 100% that the original poems use kireji. But even if they don’t, they do display a twist in meaning between lines like the kind I discuss in “Night Moves.”

3. At first I was really excited because Wikipedia said that “thunder” (kaminari) was actually associated with autumn, which would have been incredibly apt, but every other source I could find suggests that it’s actually associated with summer. Alas.

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