From childhood, I have appreciated and enjoyed the music of Howard Jones, and not coincidentally he is among the long list of names that I plan on writing about concerning his deserved place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which has so far not been kind to 1980’s music. That said, among the songs of Howard Jones, some of which I have talked about before , both this song and the other song that has served as a blog title come from the same Howard Jones album, called “Dream Into Action” The single “No One Is To Blame” itself was a top 10 hit, is my favorite song from Howard Jones (which is saying something, as I like many of his songs), and was co-produced by Phil Collins (yes, that Phil Collins ).
It is perhaps ironic that I appreciate this song so much, although my appreciation of this song, and the many hours of deep reflection I have spent on it, are perhaps not so ironic at all when one examines the lyrics of the song closely. Given my own personal experience, I have been forced to wrestle with questions of blame and responsibility from the earliest moments of my life, and I am (perhaps understandably) one of those people who has taken more responsibility for myself than is my share and been somewhat harsh and self-critical. Certainly other people consider me as a rather critical and demanding person of others, but what others often do not realize is that I am far more generous and merciful to other people than I am of myself, which is one thing that prompted me to reflect on the way in which I was a bit too hard on myself.
One of the main lessons of this particular song, if you can call it that, is that sometimes in life no one is to blame. The song speaks primarily of romantic love, which is the general context in which I ponder the song, but the song deals with a much broader context as well that is deserving of mention that I often find of personal relevance as well. Often life is not about trying to figure out who is to blame for a given situation, as many times there is shared responsibility, but rather about trying to make the best of what is. This is especially true in matters of the heart, where we may be led into complications because of our feelings and the feelings of others, and how they relate to other relationships with friends and family. It is in this context that I write about this song of insecurity and acceptance.
The first verse of “No One Is To Blame” reads as follows: “You can look at the menu, but you just can’t eat. / You can feel the cushion, but you can’t have a seat. / You can dip your foot in the pool, but you can’t have a swim. / You can feel the punishment, but you can’t commit the sin. / And you want her, and she wants you. / We want everyone. / And you want her and she wants you. / No one, no one, no one ever is to blame .” The song has a pretty conventional verse-chorus structure (with no bridge), with a lengthy instrumental closing, and a generally melancholy tone. The song begins by talking about sort of frustrations that Alanis Morissette would later talk about in “Ironic:” often in life we see what we want but are unable to participate in it, which increases our frustration and unhappiness. We can go into a restaurant without being able to eat (this is not a pleasant occurrence, given that I generally like to eat). Sometimes we can feel the cushions but are unable to sit down, unable to really belong or relax. Sometimes we can dip our feet in the pool but are too afraid to take a swim. Sometimes we can feel the punishment for sins we have not committed. I can particularly relate to this problem, as several times in life I have felt punished for sins that not only I did not commit but that I had no interest whatsoever in committing, a situation that I found particularly galling and unjust.
I often reflect on this particular matter especially as it relates to romantic love and attraction (which is the general context of the song). This is an awkward matter for me to discuss not only because of my own complicated feelings and history but because of the fact that this problem has a lot of layers and it is engangled in our general societal attitudes towards romantic love and the laws of God and man. In general I am a person with a high degree of respect for law, even if I have rather ambivalent attitudes toward authority by nature (and that is putting it mildly). Likewise, I am also a very stubborn person (if generally quietly so), which means that in those occasions where my stubbornness leads me into delicate situations, I am generally perceived to be a bit more rebellious than I really am. In our civilization, we basically enshrine romantic love as a high ideal and have little regard or respect for those who would place any barriers between lovers. There are all kinds of barriers that could be and have been placed in love–barriers of gender, ethnicity, religion, or age. Some of these barriers have been placed by God’s law, and some have been placed by the laws and social mores of man. We foolish human beings tend to feel caught between social standards (whether they are godly or human) and the pulls of our own heart, feeling condemned no matter which way we go. Especially for those of us who are a bit timid when it comes to intimacy in general, we may feel harshly judged and condemned without having enjoyed the fruits of “sin.” Of course, for those of us whose longings would be in line with the laws of God if not necessarily the social mores of man, it is little comfort to us to reflect on the fact that we feel the same sorts of tensions as those whose longings are not godly or proper in nature.
The chorus of the song straightforwardly deals with the subject of responsibility and romantic love, from the perspective of a young man (like I am and like Howard Jones was when he wrote this song). When one likes a girl and when the girl responds to that interest no one is to blame. In that particular situation the problem is not blame, but rather what one is going to do about the mutual interest in light of the complications and difficulties that it brings. Of course, this song presumes that there is mutual interest, which has admittedly been more rare in my romantic life than I would wish to be the case. But where there is mutual interest in light of concerns or pressures from others, there remains a difficult question of what one is going to do about it that this song shows considerable interest in.
Continuing on, the second verse reads as follows: “You can build a mansion, but you just can’t live in it. / You’re the fastest runner but you’re not allowed to win. / Some break the rules, and live to count the cost. / The insecurity is the thing that won’t get lost. / And you want her, and she wants you. / We want everyone. / And you want her, and she wants you. / No one, no one, no one ever is to blame.” These are also ironies that I can relate to. As a civil engineer who spent four and half years reviewing building plans, I saw many a fine building that I was helping (in some small way) to construct that I would not have the chance to live in, nor was my salary for helping others to build buildings enough to enjoy the fine life myself. At other times, especially nowadays, the fastest runners are not allowed to win in the interest of forcing an equality of results, a problem that some people feel very sensitively about. At other times, people break the rules in order to persue their own self-interest because they are insecure in their abilities to prevail in an honest and fair contest. Sometimes these people live to count the costs of their rash and immoral deeds, whether that is broken relationships, prison time, or a loss of one’s good reputation, all because they were insecure. We have to be careful not to let our longings and desires lead us into behavior that will destroy the happiness we seek.
The third verse reads as follows: “You can see the summit but you can’t reach it. / Its the last piece of the puzzle but you just can’t make it fit. / Doctor says you’re cured but you still feel the pain. / Aspirations in the clouds but your hopes go down the drain. / And you want her, and she wants you. / We want everyone. / And you want her, and she wants you. / No one, no one, no one ever is to blame. / No one ever is to blame. / No one ever is to blame.” I often think of Moses when it comes to the sad state of one who can see the summit but not reach it, given that he is the prototypical example of someone who was able to see the destination without being able to reach it. There is a certain sort of sadness in being denied what one has worked for and sought for one’s entire life. In a lesser way, as a fan of putting puzzles together (one of my many and odd interests), it is also frustrating to put together literal or metaphorical puzzles and just not be able to make all of the pieces fit. I know, at least from family members, that the frustration that results from not being able to feel better when doctors say one should be fine. Also, being a melancholy person by nature, I know all too well the wide gap between one’s ambitions and dreams and one’s hopes and confidence, and the gulf between the two can be quite tragic in nature.
This is a melancholy song, but not a dismal one. One can hear in the repetition of the chorus as well as the line “no one ever is to blame” in particular that the song is attempting to calm either the singer or the audience (or both!) so as to reduce the sort of excessive responsibility and unhappiness that is being felt. One of the resaons why the song resonates with me so much is because I have a tendency towards feeling overly responsibile personally, which is a rather overwhelming position to be in at times and because I too have a complicated and often unpleasant history as well as very intense romantic longings for enjoying relationships with sweet young women that have not often been realized. This song is a reminder, and a reminder is often necessary, that love and romance are not matters of blame where one ought to feel guilty, but are matters of responsibility where one has to deal with frustrations and insecurity and work on doing what is right by God and by others as well as for ourselves. The tension between all of these matters, between behaving honorably and decently, pursuing one’s deep personal longings, and respecting the feelings of others, is a tension that is serious and one that will not go away as long as we are human beings. And no one is to blame for that either.