Autonymous: Big Star, “O My Soul” (1974)

There ought to be an accepted Greek-based word for calling your own name.  How about “autonymy”?[1] Without such a word, how can we designate cases of  athletes referring to their own performance (“I feel like I’m a new Carlos Zambrano”) or corporations stating their policies (“That’s not what Wal-Mart stands for”) in the third person?

Despite this linguistic disadvantage we must proceed to explore the topic, which, as so often, is best addressed in music. My friend Allen Burrows is putting together a mix of songs in which the band refers to itself by name. Here you will find the unavoidable (and still delightful) Monkees theme, “In A Big Country” by Big Country, “Sweet Baby James” by James Taylor, Wang Chung’s “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” (“everybody Wang Chung tonight”), and . . . we’ll see how many others.

I lobbied for “In The Court Of The Crimson King” but Allen was too strict.

My own favorite hook of self-proclamation occurs in “O My Soul,” the stunning first track of Big Star’s main claim to fame, Radio City. It’s great because the “big star” reference registers a little late, en passant, eliciting a slight double-take, as pleasantly goofy lyrics go by sketching an adventure of relationship:

“O My Soul” 2:02-2:48

. . . Trying to see you
I knock off your doors
Dying to see you
I’m down on the floor

I can’t get a license
To drive my car
But I don’t really need it
If I’m a big star

The song is really all about the sound, mainly Alex Chilton’s Stratocaster guitar sound, and pretty much flaunts that the words could be any words at all, so why pay attention to them? But then this nonrandom phrase drops in. When the bell of significance rings, you may think first of The Beatles—the car/star rhyme in “Baby You Can Drive My Car”—and only second of the band that’s currently performing, the band that named itself for a regional grocery chain. This is way at the other end of the self-assertion spectrum from Bad Company yelling “Bad company!” In fact, Big Star might not even intend to say their name here—it could be a coincidence, a charming homonymous pseudoautonymy. (All right, I don’t believe that for a second. Only for a half-second.)

The Long Ryders deserve an honorable mention in this category for “Looking For Lewis And Clark” with Sid Griffin’s earnest self-calling onward to destiny:

“Looking For Lewis And Clark” Verse 2

I was standing alone in Mabuhay Gardens
I was thinking about the late Tim Hardin
Well, when Tim get to heaven hope he told Gram
About the Long Ryders and just who I am . . .

Additionally we need a category of Looped Self-Calling for Jefferson Airplane covering Donovan’s “Fat Angel” with the line “Fly Jefferson Airplane, get you there on time.” And then in an adjacent category we have the Rolling Stones hitching up thirty years later to Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” even though it wasn’t about them. And a Spell-It-For-The- Hell-Of-It category for Elastica’s “How He Wrote Elastica Man” . . .

Clearly, we live in a world of polyautonymy.


[1] Sounds too much like “autonomy,” one might object, and besides, there’s the problem that it might refer to the distinct act of legally changing one’s name to something like Voltaire or Sting.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
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4 Responses to Autonymous: Big Star, “O My Soul” (1974)

  1. Zach says:

    I don’t think Sweet Baby James counts. The ‘James’ he’s singing about is his nephew.

    Now, there are a couple James Taylor songs where he does sing his own name. Off the top of my head, there’s ‘Knockin’ Around the Zoo’ and ‘That’s Why I’m Here’, but I’m sure there are others.

  2. Steve Smith says:

    I didn’t know that.
    Do we get to count it because he knew the “James” would inevitably be referred to himself by all his listeners – to himself in addition to his nephew, by those who knew about the nephew? (Semiautonymy?)

  3. Love Big Star…doubt if this fits your criteria, but Old 97’s ‘The One’ mentions each band member by first name, and is perhaps the best, most fun song a band has ever written about itself.

  4. Worth says:

    There’s always Talk Talk by Talk Talk and Living in a Box by Living in a Box from the album; Living in a Box.

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