Glass Onion: Breaking the Fourth Wall

There’s a scene in The Empire Strikes Back (when C-3P0, Han, Leia and Chewie are escaping Hoth) where C-3P0 looks at the camera and says “how typical”. Who is he talking to? Certainly not the scruffy nerf herder (sorry) who just went into another room and closed the door (could have said: into the Hoth Echo Docking Bay but I didn’t) along with her worhipfulness and the walking carpet. Threepio is talking to us: the audience. Film aficionados call it ‘breaking the fourth wall’. The term originates from plays with three walled sets, with a fourth imaginary wall separating the audience from the characters. To ‘break the fourth wall’ is to talk to the audience directly. It allows the characters to draw attention to the fact that they are characters in a story, creating a ‘meta-fiction’. It seems to me that John Lennon breaks the fourth wall in “Glass Onion”, the earliest example I can think of this happening in a popular song. And what’s more, he breaks it speaking specifically as himself.

First lets take a look at “Glass Onion”, the third song on the wonderful carnival of quilted oddites that is The White Album.

I told you about strawberry fields,
You know the place where nothing is real
Well here’s another place you can go
Where everthing flows.
Looking through the bent backed tulips
To see how the other half lives
Looking through a glass onion.

I told you about the walrus and me-man
You know that we’re as close as can be-man.
Well here’s another clue for you all,
The walrus was Paul.
Standing on the cast iron shore-yeah,
Lady Madonna trying to make ends meet-yeah.
Looking through a glass onion.
Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah.
Looking through a glass onion.

I told you about the fool on the hill,
I tell you man he living there still.
Well here’s another place you can be,
Listen to me.

Fixing a hole in the ocean
Trying to make a dove-tail joint-yeah
Looking through a glass onion

In this song John Lennon addresses the person listening to the song directly when he says “I told you about strawberry fields”, and again at the beginning of each of the next two verses. This of course isn’t the first time a singer has said ‘I’ and ‘you’ in a song, but this is unique for two reasons.

i) The person saying ‘I’ is John Lennon the songwriter, not a character in the song. He establishes that it is him by referring to things that he, John Lennon, has done in the past. In other songs, when a singer uses the word ‘I’, it could be anyone really. For example:

“I give her all my love,
that’s all I do.”
The Beatles – And I Love Her

Here there is nothing about the ‘I’ that tells you it is specifically Paul McCartney; he doesn’t mention any characteristics that define him specifically. In Glass Onion John talks about songs that he himself has written. Even among other cases where the singer talks about things that are personal, Glass Onion stands apart. For example:

“Let me take you down, ’cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields.”
The Beatles – Strawberry Fields

I would argue that Glass Onion is a different case because in it John is talking about specific and actual events that apply specifically to him. Other songs have obviously been in the first person, but here John explicitly defined the fact that the ‘I’ is him by listing qualities that apply only to him, not a vague narrator. This is helped by the fact that he and his history are so well known that he is able to refer to that history to define the narrator as himself.

ii) In other cases where bands have said ‘you’, they weren’t referring specifically to the person listening. They may have been referring to a character in the song. For example:

“You think you lost your love,
Well, I saw her yesterday.
It’s you she’s thinking of
And she told me what to say.”
The Beatles – She Loves You

Or they may have been referring to a general other, which the listener may interpret as being them. Again:

“Let me take you down, ’cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields.”
The Beatles – Strawberry Fields

In Glass Onion John clearly identifies ‘you’ as the person listening to the song. He (again specifically John Lennon) mentions things that he’s done to you in the past. Having told you about strawberry fields, the walrus and the fool on the hill. He isn’t speaking to a ‘you’ in the song, or to a ‘you’ in general. It is very obvious that he is speaking to a ‘you’ completely removed from the world of the song. This ‘you’ is specifically defined as the people listening. (1)

So John is speaking directly to us, this allows him to break down other walls. He actually mentions other songs he’s written, in a song. In this way Glass Onion implies a reality that exists outside of it: both the reality of the songwriter above the song; and that of other songs horizontal to it. They all come to be present at the same time. The insular worlds of other Beatles songs are suddenly combined with that of Glass Onion. In this way all of those other songs also break through the walls separating them from us. The song is ‘aware’ that they are all songs in the Beatles canon, and attention is called to that fact. When this is done in comedy (like when Stewie says “I thought we had a clip there”), the result is called meta-comedy. It is part of the general concept of metafiction: fiction that calls attention to the fact that it is fiction. It exists on two levels, the fiction itself, and the worlds outside of it that it alludes to. Maybe this is called a meta-song? While here the song doesn’t explicitly comment on itself, it comments on other songs, and the songwriter’s world, which I would argue makes it just as ‘meta’. It breaks the song out the insulated world it would usually live in; existing on different levels of ‘real’. As far as I can tell this is the first song to ever do something like this; yet another boundary that The Beatles crossed. Literally ground breaking. (2)

It reflects John’s love of wordplay. He was a big fan of Lewis Carrol’s, who played with the boundaries of reality using words. It also exemplifies John’s tendency to write from a very personal and real place.

This sort of thing is quite rare even today in rock songs, I can’t think of any off the top of my head. But one genre that makes use of it very often is rap. In rap there is often no character in a song, there is only the rapper talking as themselves. The subject matter almost always makes reference to the rapper’s world and other songs/albums. The breakdown of boundaries between the real world and the song allows the rapper to boast about themselves specifically. For example:

“I drop that Black, Album then I back, out it,
As the best rapper alive ***** ask about me.”
Jay-Z ‘Dirt off Your Shoulder’

They’ll also sometimes speak directly to the listener:

“Look what you made me do, look what I made for you
Knew if I paid my dues, how will they pay you
When you first come in the game, they try to play you
Then you drop a couple of hits, look how they wave to you.”
Jay-Z – Encore (Interestingly enough…)

Sometimes they’ll comment on the current song itself;

“How u wanna do it? We can do it like we late ah wait dezzle let me get the 8 o 8
As I hit the kill switch
Now that’s how u let the beat build b*tch.”
Lil Wayne – Let the Beat Build

When you think about it, it’s impossible to picture a rap song not doing this. Most rap songs aren’t separate from the real world, they are usually the rapper talking as themselves, about themselves. The song exists in the rapper’s reality, and that allows them to brag, and do creative things like in the Lil Wayne example. Does this blending of song and reality trace its inspiration back to Glass Onion? Is Jay-Z talking about making “The Black Album” a result of John Lennon thinking freely enough to talk about making “Strawberry Fields”? We can’t establish a causal link, but it’s possible.

It also provides us with a glimpse of something I’ve always thought about. It’s a fundamental part of the genre for rappers to brag about their accomplishments, talent and innovation; imagine for a second what the Beatles would be able to brag if they had been so inclined.

We taught you how to backwards loop guitars,
And we introduced you motherfu*kers to sitars.
So you dropped a joint and it went platinum?
Check Sgt. Pepper’s, we invented the album.

Yikes, that didn’t come out as cool as I’d hoped, but you get the idea. Anyway my point is that hearing John coolly recollect that he told us about Strawberry Fields, may be the closest we’ll ever come to that. Maybe that’s for the better.

When you think about it, the approach taken in Glass Onion really is ground breaking, smashing the imaginary confines of reality a song usually lives in. No divide between the voice singing and the singer himself; talking directly to the listeners. The song not existing on its own in isolation, but aware of its membership, and commenting on other songs in the Beatle’s canon. Listen to it again, and hear John looking through the bent backed tulips.

Footnotes:
1 – So just to sum up. I argue that while this isn’t the first song in the first person to talk to another person, it is there first time where the first person character is specifically defined as being the real life singer of the song based on listing things that they’ve done in real life that only apply to them. (Not just saying I wrote you a song, but saying that he specifically wrote “Strawberry Fields”). And that this is the first time that has happened in conjunction with having an explicitly defined audience, by listing something he has done specifically to us in real life (previously telling us about Strawberry Fields).

2 – This probably wasn’t John’s ‘goal’ in writing this song, it may have been playful fodder for those trying to interpret The Beatle’s lyrics. But that concerns the content of the song. What we’re in interested in here is the form Lennon used to express that content.

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