Personification is the name for a literary and poetic technique that assigns human characteristics to animals, concepts, and inanimate objects. The role of personification in songs is similar to its role in poetry and literature. It is a device that makes the unknown knowable by describing it in human terms. It is sometimes used for dramatic effect or to create a beautiful image. Other times, it provides a commentary on some aspect of human nature.
Personification, also called anthropomorphism, is an ancient literary technique that may have its roots in animism, a common spiritual belief among many primitive cultures. Animism is the belief that animals and inanimate objects contain spirits, with will and intelligence comparable to that of humans. Ancient storytellers such as Aesop and Homer assigned human characteristics to animals and natural forces such as the wind. This became a popular literary device in the centuries that followed. In modern times, poets and writers still employ this technique, including the use of personification in songs.
A common practice in art and literature is to give the concept of death human characteristics. This includes the American folk song “Oh Death,” an early example of personification in songs. The narrator of the song asks Death to spare him; in another verse, Death itself talks about how it often hears similar appeals. “Oh Death” is a traditional song dating to at least the 1920s, its author unknown. The use of personification is a way to assign human motives and sympathies to a concept that is essentially unknowable.
Personification in songs can also be a way to express a complex concept or emotion. In his song “Hungry Heart,” Bruce Springsteen is really talking about unfulfilled desire, something all people have experienced at one time or another. He borrows the concept of the “hungry heart” from Alfred, Lord Tennyson to symbolize this desire. In another classic rock song, former Beatle George Harrison discusses the sadness of observing a changing world. Transferring this emotion to his instrument, he called the song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Sometimes personification in songs has no purpose other than to create a beautiful or poetic image. In the Jimi Hendrix song “The Wind Cries Mary,” the wind is given a voice and a faulty memory. Hendrix was expert at creating nonsensical but memorable images and phrases in his lyrics. Some songs do not give up their secrets easily; the pop song “There She Goes” has long been believed to personify heroin, with lines like “there she goes again/pulsing through my veins.” The song’s authors dispute this interpretation, but offer no suggestions as to who or what the song’s title may actually be describing.