Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Convenient Call to Action: Fantasy-Theme Criticism of Melissa Etheridge’s “I Need to Wake Up”

(Paper number 2 for Methods of Rhetorical Analysis. I wrote on this song for its topic, not for my love (or even like) of the song.)

When Al Gore paired up with David Guggenheim to produce the 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth, their hopes were to inform the world about the impending threat of global warming through a filmed version of Gore’s informative and chilling slide show. Structured in a straightforward, documentary format, Gore lectures the on- and off-screen audience and, accompanied with stunning charts, graphs, and statistics, attempts to spread his message worldwide, targeting mostly an adult audience and those who might understand the rhetoric of numbers and foresight. This film won the Best Feature Documentary Oscar for 2006, and Melissa Etheridge’s song that plays over the ending credits, “I Need to Wake Up”, also captured the hearts of the Academy, winning the Oscar for Best Original Song. Summing up the zeitgeist of the nation (and possibly the world), Etheridge’s song functions as a literal wake-up call, placed in juxtaposition with different ways, presented textually, we can conserve energy and make this planet a greener, healthier, more sustainable place to live.

I will attempt to analyze “I Need to Wake Up” utilizing the guidelines of fantasy-theme criticism in order to look at the ways in which the rhetor attempts to call a nation to action through the themes of inclusive and identifying characters, inspirational and isolated settings, and clearly defined actions, ultimately coming to a cohesive rhetorical vision based on the patterns found in these fantasy themes.

Character Themes

The song “I Need to Wake Up” is sung in first person while still attempting to be a call to action for the listening audience, and therefore functions on two levels. The lyrics of the song include the characters I, mine, youth, and child, and at the basest level are all self-referential to Etheridge herself. The I character is woven repeatedly throughout the lyrics, emphasizing the personal importance of the actions of the character in the song. However, as Etheridge also encourages others to sing her song (i.e. through repetition on the radio as the film, and consequently the tune, gain more popularity), the first person I and possessive mine characters become not just Etheridge herself, but also the singing audience member. When the chorus states clearly I need to move / I need to wake up / I need to change, Etheridge is using very simple language with which her audience can relate, stopping just short of explicitly stating what she and her audience need to move towards or what they must wake up to. If the audience had seen An Inconvenient Truth or was even slightly familiar with the context of the lyrics, they should understand clearly what Etheridge believes need[s] to change.

The other character present in the lyrics of “I Need to Wake Up” is the child/youth character, one that appears in only a singular verse of the song but is nonetheless integral to the rhetor’s story and message of change. One of the biggest motivating reasons most purveyors of sustainable energy cite to underscore the importance of green living is most often future generations or our children’s children. By stating that she remembers dancing as a child but now knows she must be rid of the carelessness of youth, Etheridge reminds us that there are real troubles to face in this world, troubles that we never could have recognized as children and troubles that will one day be facing our children if the calls to action cited in the action themes are not taken. Since the action themes are so dense and many, I will save them for last, first moving on to a brief description of the setting themes Etheridge employs throughout her lyrics.

Setting Themes

All of the setting themes employed by the rhetor’s lyrics evoke places of aspiration, or places that contain a certain element of personal isolation and therefore ignorance (one of the two action themes. Keep in mind that all of the setting themes in the lyrics of this song are very much in tune with and connected to the myriad action themes expressed in the lyrics). These themes of aspiration and isolation are also in conjunction with the setting of the present.

When Etheridge mentions this new world and somewhere where [she is] supposed to be, the rhetor is speaking of places where she longs to be, and therefore places where the song’s audience should also aspire to be. This could be argued to be now, yet another specified setting that comes up several times in the song; at the end of each chorus, she ends her list of things she needs to do with the word Now, a place which becomes a temporal setting in the song that is equivalent to the present. Especially since the song was written to be played during the final credits of An Inconvenient Truth, the audience is aware that this “place of longing” setting can only be achieved now if the audience decides to become aware of the problem addressed in the song (awareness being an action theme specified below) and commit to the actions that will move toward fixing the mounting problem of global warming.

The setting themes that suggest a certain level of personal isolation include an island and the rhetor’s dreams. These dreams are in connection with the other setting theme of this new world, expressing a certain imaginary space that is very personal to the rhetor and includes prospects for the future that most of the audience once envisioned as hopeful children. The song reminds its audience through the negation of the isolating image of an island (Etheridge states: I am not an island) that we are indeed not alone in this world. The rhetor, the audience, and indeed the nation are not in isolation when it comes to the issue of climate change. Etheridge conveys to her audience that in standing alone as an island one does not stand in solidarity with anyone, but in fact stands outside the popular and necessary actions that must be taken to solve the problem.

Action Themes

Since the rhetor’s lyrics and ultimately the song (and the film, for that matter) can basically be seen as a call to action, it makes sense that the majority of the words in the song are based around actions that Etheridge employs the audience, through herself, to take. I have divided these words into two prevalent action theme categories, including 1) initial ignorance of the problem of global warming, and 2) eventual awareness and acceptance of the problem.

The first set of words to be analyzed involves actions that refer to the rhetor’s ignorance of the dilemma of global warming; the terms sleeping/asleep, been still, been careless, dismissing, dancing, and (can’t see what to) comprehend all refer to actions the rhetor describes that lend to her (and the audience’s) former unawareness of the topic at hand. Etheridge uses the action of sleeping or being asleep as a metaphor for literally being ignorant to the prevailing issue of global warming. The audience is reminded that by sleeping through the current debates surrounding the topic they have been careless and been still on the issue, not progressing the dialogue further and therefore not making conscious changes. By dismissing all the distant rumblings and not understanding what to comprehend about the situation, the rhetor calls attention to her audience’s ignorance and inability to grasp the weight of the problem. And by suggesting the imagery of a child dancing, Etheridge is reminding the audience of the naivety they too experienced as children in believing that the world would be forever beautiful regardless of how it was treated.

There is a shift, however, from this ignorance of the problem to the action theme that represents awareness and acceptance of the problem, especially when one analyzes the oft-repeated chorus of the tune. By bringing to bear the fact that the audience need[s] to move, wake up, change, shake up, and listen, and that something’s gotta break up, the rhetor moves away from the unawareness involved with the ignorance of the problem and moves into terms that should inspire change and awareness of the problem. The rhetor directly addresses the action of sleeping by commanding I need to wake up, a line that she employs at the beginning and end of every chorus. She also dismisses having been so still by forcefully reminding the audience that they need to move, that staying so still is no longer an option. In addition, the audience is told that they need to listen in order to stop dismissing all the distant rumblings that forced them to adhere to the passivity of ignorance, and hopefully their listening will allow them to become aware of the crisis at hand.


Melissa Etheridge is essentially putting forward two different rhetorical visions in her song “I Need to Move” but is hoping that her audience will listen to the more important of the two. She presents the characters that act in conjunction with ignorance of global warming as persons that, in comparison to the characters that come to awareness and acceptance of the problem, are blind, are in her eyes asleep to the subject. She compares those ignorant characters to herself as a child, characters who have no regard for all the distant rumblings that those characters who realize they need to move see so clearly as setbacks in the environment’s future. These characters that realize what they need to do will indeed no longer be asleep, will have woken up to the reality of the dangers that face the environment if we as a human race continue living the way we have been living. The characters that have been careless can no longer afford to live their life this way, and really need to change the way they live. In the end, Etheridge presents the audience with only one rhetorical vision: that of waking up to reality.

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