Paul and Paula – Hey Paula

The real names of Paul and Paula are actually Ray Hildebrand and Jill Jackson, but their duo was named after the song. The melody and lyrics are simple, yet contain clever tricks that make it memorable. For example that repeated “Hey hey hey Paula” in the second line, an emphasis that is gentle yet creates a feeling of urgency, how “Paul” really has something important to say. Naming the characters Paul and Paula also creates a sense of unity, as if they’re almost the same person.

As such it represents a feeling that is common when a relationship is young, sometimes called limerence. It’s a feeling that you have found someone so special and complementary that you’re melding together. Some people find the emotion extremely distressing, because it also implies losing control and the sense of one’s boundaries. In fact, if one of the partners has a poor sense of boundaries it may feel like drowning or disappearing into the lover’s overwhelming presence. It’s one reason for fear of commitment, which manifests by creating distance to the object of love, constantly wanting someone, yet pushing them away.

But no such things here. Instead, we’re given a glimpse of a dream in which everything is resolved once people get married. In the song it’s a vision of people still at school, presumably high school, but often it’s people who are much older who find the song inspirational. It may be unrealistic to expect that life could be so simple: that there is this true love you find at school, then get marriage and share your life every day, and everything’s just swell forever. Yet growing older I’ve learned that unrealistic dreams are important. They’re visions that make us strive toward a future that wouldn’t be possible at all without the dream. No, everything will not go as planned, such is life, but without the dream things could be much worse.

The simple message may thus seem superficial, but I don’t believe cynicism would be any more profound. It’s just a different viewpoint in which such daydreams are given little significance. The claim of superficiality is rather based on the assumption that people aren’t rooted in reality, that they let fluffy dreams dictate everything they see. But that’s not self evident. Daring to dream of happiness can be a choice, it’s not a sign that one is incapable of other kinds of thoughts.

There’s also certain charm in the song not beating around the bush. We get straight to the point in the verse, whereas most songs defer the enunciation of the main idea until the chorus. This kind of song structure declined in popularity in the early 60s. It has a clear A and B section, but it’s not obvious whether there’s a chorus at all. The message and main desire is commitment, and it’s hard to find a modern song that would extol marriage as the highest desire.

I’m reminded of another song that also was a no. 1 hit in 1963: I Want to Hold Your Hand by The Beatles. On the surface it sounds just as innocent, but comparing these two songs, how they’re sung and how the argument is presented, it becomes obvious that The Beatles is a lot raunchier. They’re singing: “I think you’ll understand when I say that something: I want to hold your hand”. I don’t know how the contemporaries heard it, but to me it sounds like: “You must understand that holding hands is just a veiled reference for sex”. It’s so suggestive that it’s no wonder people had extreme reactions to it. And also it’s a part of the change in pop music, how first the veiled references were presented as the highest point of human experience, and then later some sexual act itself.

What’s fascinating about the age of innocence in pop music is that there was so much extolling of holding hands and slight kisses on the cheek, and the rest of it was just implication, so depending on your age and mindset you can interpret it however you like. It also would have been an age of censorship. But a song about marriage is undoubtedly wholesome although it also implies sex. It’s almost like sex is not mentioned, not because it would be wrong to sing about it, but because it’s a small thing compared to the feeling of unity that this song praises. It’s such a rare topic in today’s pop music that it feels almost rebellious despite being conservative.