Musical Musing: Jonathan Coulton – “I’m Your Moon”

May 6, 2009

Jonathan Coulton is a musician. I like to call him a geek troubadour; I hope he’d approve of the moniker. He left a career in software programming to write music and now sings lots of songs on lots of topics, many of them near and dear to the hearts of geeks everywhere. It should be no surprise that this man struck a chord with my geeky little heart.

What is surprising is how deeply that chord is resonating. Sure, lots of his stuff is just silly fun (I’m not sure I can write anything of much depth based on Re: Your Brains, for instance, and if I ever do, I may just open the door and let the zombies in). But this man isn’t all fluff and nonsense, and if you dismiss him as such, you do him (and yourself) a disservice.

I will warn you, not all of his songs are “SFW”, or what the geeks call “Safe For Work”… there’s some, how did Star Trek put it, “colorful” language in there (though always in good fun, and I’ve never heard anything vicious). But the song I want to talk about today is completely clean, so you can follow all of my links without a shred of guilt. (It’s just if you continue to explore that you might find some of the more colorful material).

At his concerts, Coulton introduces “I’m Your Moon” with some backstory. You see, you and I grew up with nine planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. But in 2006, astronomers decided to officially define for the first time what it meant to be a “planet”… and in defining “planet”, they excluded Pluto. Pluto was redefined in a new category, called “dwarf planet”. There’s been an outcry and an uproar about the decision… but this isn’t about whether or not Pluto is a planet. There’s more science (stick with me). Pluto has three moons… two tiny little dust balls and Charon, which is nearly the size of Pluto. In fact, Charon’s “status” is up in the air… the same astronomers that labeled Pluto a dwarf planet may do the same to Charon, making Pluto and Charon a dual dwarf system. Neither one orbits the other, either… they orbit a point outside of them both. The two bodies dance around each other, orbiting one another. In a way, they are each the moon of the other. It’s in light of these facts that Coulton wrote the song “I’m Your Moon”; Charon is consoling Pluto after the declaration of Earth-bound scientists (who’ve never even had a satellite pass close enough to give them close pictures of the system), changing its identity.

At it’s heart, “I’m Your Moon”, the song about Pluto and Charon, isn’t about those two moons at all, though that’s the fun that makes me laugh. What makes me love this song, that makes me want to cry, and that made me write about it, is that it’s about being certain who YOU are. It’s about knowing not to define yourself by what others say about you, especially those who don’t truly know you. In the end, there is one voice who truly knows you… there is one voice who can truly define you… just as Pluto, orbiting out there in the expanse beyond what we are certain of, where light takes hours to reach, could, arguably, only be “known” by its moon, Charon.

I have this odd definition of existentialism: we are before we are anything else, and we are defined only by what can be observed by outsiders. It’s an odd pairing, and it comes into play in an odd way with the ideas in this song. We’ll start with the second idea first: as humans, we categorize. We tuck things into little boxes and folders and make order out of chaos. We even do this with people. We need to categorize things, or sort them out, or figure out the relationships so that everything fits. But the only way for you to do that with me is with what you can observe about me. There are physical descriptors that you can use to categorize me, and there are behavioral ones: I saw her clear the trash off the table in the restaurant. She goes to church. You can’t know why I do them, or don’t do them; that’s inside my head. I could tell you (ah, but how do you know I’m not lying?), but only what you can see for yourself is provable data. All of these things allow you to form some idea of who I am, what I am, and they let you categorize me for yourself. That’s basically all the scientists were doing with Pluto: based on the data they had, which box did Pluto fit best?

But there’s another side to my little definition of existentialism, the one that Charon reminds Pluto of in the song, the one we must all remember, even as we sort people into our boxes. Before we are any of the things we can be observed to be, we are. The essence of what we are, church goer, table clearer, tall, short, fat, thin, male, female… is all preceded by our existence. We exist. We are. There, Beloved, is the crux of the matter… and it is there that you and I must find our identity, and it is there that we must remember to love and respect others.

Now granted, the analogy falls apart: we’re assigning sentience to spatial bodies, and expecting scientists to love and respect them like living, breathing, knowing things? Not exactly. But if you take the same idea and apply it to your life… remember that who you really are, your own identity isn’t based on someone else’s conception of who you are… well, something strange happens. You begin to realize that no matter what someone thinks of you, says of you, there’s one thing they can’t change: who you are.

There is only one voice that has ever known you inside and out, who has ever seen your motivations and your actions. Pluto has Charon there to encourage it, to remind it who it really is, to affirm its identity when the definitions of others confuse. You and I have the same benefit… Someone who has been with us faithfully through all the ups and downs of life and doubt. When you find yourself confused by the definitions others have placed on you… when you aren’t sure who you are, and you’d really like to be the person you were born to be, the one He says you are… well, you only have to talk to Him. He’d be happy to lend an ear, to help you sort it out. Your Creator, the Intelligent Designer, wants to go ’round and round with you.

I’m not sure Jonathan Coulton found this in his song. I’m not sure he knew I’d find it in there. But down there, in the orbit of Pluto and Charon, as they go round and round, I found my God winking up at me. The Lover of your soul is waiting, arms wide, for you, and He’s asking you to remember who you are.


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