In 1987 an animated movie came out about an odd but loveable family of Russian Jewish mice seeking a better life in the United States called An American Tail. They have visions of streets paved in cheese (instead of gold) and dreams that the United States is a place without the cats like those in the Czarist Russia that they left behind. And while they find that the United States is a better country than they left behind, they find that life does not go entirely as they expected. For me, both as a six-year old and today, the most poignant part of the film is in its plucky hero, who gets separated from his family and during that part of the movie there is a song played that is the first “favorite” song that I can remember.
In looking at this song I find it deeply ironic that I could relate to the song as a six-year old. Perhaps just as ironic is that I relate to this song just as deeply as an adult a quarter of a century later, and that the song still reflects the state of my life. One would think that twenty-five fairly eventful years of life would change a lot, and in some ways much has changed in the twenty five years since I first fell in love with this song. When it comes to the core essentials of who I am as a person, I do not think I am far removed from the boy for whom the melancholy longing of the song “Somewhere Out There” still resonates. And whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is hard for me to decide; it is what it is.
“Somewhere Out There” is an immensely simple song lyrically, with a long first verse that is repeated in a shorter second verse with a repeated chorus. The song is sung slowly and sung with a particularly dramatic effect, as a Grammy-winning sentimental duet between Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram. As is often the case with sentimental ballads that I happen to be fond of, a great deal of the resonance between the song and the audience comes from the fact that the song seems to speak simultaneously about different kinds of love, different kinds of love that for me all revolve around the same set of feelings and concerns, which this song, as simple as it is, manages to capture well.
“Somewhere Out There” begins as follows: “Somewhere out there beneath the pale moonlight, / Someone’s thinking of me and loving me tonight. / Somewhere out there someone’s saying a prayer / That we’ll find one another in that big somewhere out there. / And even though I know how very far apart we are, / It helps to think we might be wishing on the same bright star. / And when the night wind starts to sing a lonesome lullaby, / It helps to think we’re sleeping underneath the same big sky .” Like many of the most deeply moving songs for me, this song is definitely a night song (this is not coincidental), with its romantic but melancholy images of wind and a dark sky with stars and pale moonlight. At its core, this verse (most of which is repeated in the second verse), this is a song about the longing that memory and thought transcends the distance between people.
I feel rather sad that I understood on some level this distance as a six-year old. By that ripe and mature age, though, I understood distance in both an emotional and a geographical way, given the distance between my parents and my own struggles with intimacy that I had an inkling of even at that young age. Even at that age I had the longing for connection beyond that distance, and over time I have realized that this sentiment is an exceptionally common one. The reason that sentimental ballads like this about lonesome lullabies win Grammy awards is because there are a lot of people who can relate to them. It is probably true that the world would be a lot better if fewer people could relate to the longing and isolation of this particular song (and others like it), but at the same time it is that longing that draws people together, to understand that maybe we are not so different after all, if we want the same things, and that our thoughts can not only prey on us in the darkness but that we can think of the fondness and affection that we have for others and that others have for us. And expressing that longing and sharing it with others makes us feel less alone.
The chorus of “Somewhere Out There” is as follows: “Somewhere out there if love can see us through, / Then we’ll be together somewhere out there, / Out where dreams come true.” In an elegant way, this song reflects both hope and realism. First, there is the knowledge that our deepest dreams and longings are about love and connection–with God and with other people. Then, there is the realism that those dreams may not necessarily come true, but the hope that they will. Of course, in the context of life, often we find that some dreams happen and others do not. Our lives have cats and other predators that seek our harm, and the streets are not paved with either gold or cheese (as much as we may like cheese), but we can still find that love and connection and still find that our most important dreams can come true, if we are fortunate enough. Plucky young Fievel (or Feivel, depending on the spelling) was fortunate enough for his dreams to come true, and perhaps the same will be true of me someday.