Paul Simon's The Obvious Child--What does it mean?

I’ve been listening to this song over and over and over again today while I work. I love it, right now I feel like I could have this song play in the background for about a week without getting tired of it.

But…what’s it all about?

Full lyrics can be found at:

I kind of get the feeling this is just a typical Paul Simon word salad. It doesn’t have to mean anything specific, just create a mood or an image. Some sort of feeling of loss, aging, hope, missed opportunities…is there more to it? Is there a coherent story here?

Who or what is the obvious child? Why is the cross in the ballpark? Am I an idiot for even expecting that these questions might have answers?

It’s impressionistic song writing. The words don’t actually mean anything, but they’re chosen to seem meaningful. The listener attempts to discern that meaning, and in the process, reveals his own nature.

I’ve never heard the song, but maybe it should read, “why deny the obvious, child?” Is there a comma when he sings it (you know what I mean!)

The way he sings it implies no comma. Apparently he’s questioning denial of something called the “obvious child.” My guess is that the song is about being old. The cross in the ballpark could refer to how he will soon meet Jay-zuss.

Can’t really help you with the meaning of the song (I think I agree with Miller re: impressionistic song writing), but the phrase “deny the [child]” would mean to deny paternity.

When my son was a baby and I’d show people photos of him and myself at the same age, what I most often heard (I live in the south, btw) was “Aint no denying that child!”

Because he was obviously mine, y’see.

I’m no lit major, but I love this song too, so here’s my stab at analysis…

IMO the song as a whole is a mid-life reflection on a life rather easily, comfortably and thus somewhat quickly lived through.

Sonny is “accustomed to a smooth ride” – born to well-off parents and grew up happily enough, got a job and a family, etc., everything going according to plan and without a hitch. But now he finds that he can’t sleep through the night, as he feels age creeping up on him (feeling like “a dog that’s lost its bite”, with thinning brown hair), realizes that people he grew up with are starting to die off, and thinks about the meaning of it all (“wandering beyond his interior walls”).

His life so far has been a happy one, he really can’t complain, there are plenty who have it much worse. But he feels somehow constricted, like it’s all been lived within prescribed boundaries on a path set out for him. How it’s strange that some rooms are like cages… And is the only way out of this “room”, to walk through the shadowy door of death? Can one grasp for something more or different? (This is the classic “mid-life crisis”)

In this context “the obvious child” has religious or existential overtones, as a contradiction of the statement “the sky is just the sky”. To a child all things are magical, even things as mundane as looking up at the daytime or night sky. If it’s obvious to a child… Why deny it as an adult, especially when that magic would be so comforting?

As for “the cross is in the ballpark”, I always thought of it as “in the ballpark” meaning “in play” (as in baseball, for a ball that is hit but not out of the ballpark) and “the cross” would be an image of religious enlightenment.

“In the ballpark” is also used to mean “close enough to being right.” I always took this line to mean that while religion may be “a lie” (just a story) and that the sky is just that and not heaven, that the ideas represented by Christianity are nevertheless close to what he believes.

+1 - I popped into this post to try to articulate something like this but robardin has it down. The song is about Simon ruminating on life, and the more he considers the complexities, the more often he gets the sense that he should pull out Occam’s Razor and acknowledge simple truths - why deny the obvious…

The various puns don’t make it “word salad” or random nonsense (as a few above have noted.) Inserting a comma would take away one of the various double-entendres of the song. After all, he talks about his own son, demonstrates how he’s inherited all his comfortable middle-class angst, and makes it clear that he’s a chip off the ol’ block, thinning brown hair and all.

I like “the cross is in the ballpark” as in “the cross is a gross approximation,” particularly if you want to read his life as redemption by the following generation – an interesting point of view for a Jewish guy to take (certainly not saying he’d never use that symbol, since he’s obviously using it in the song.)

But apparently he and his wife prior to Sonny use to say “the cross is in the ballpark” to each other, and I’m thinking they mean (at least in that instance) that real religion is in having fun, replacing sunday services with a baseball game (whether at Yankee Stadium or in the back yard, ) blah blah blah.

We’re dealing w/double meanings throughout, so I’m sure both meanings were “in mind” when he wrote. When you write lyrics or poetry, often words bubble up from the subconscious and onto the page.

The title line makes me think there was some issue of paternity driving all this, and he’s looking back, seeing the kid age just as he aged, seeing the kid with the same kind of realizations and the same kind of angst he felt (not to mention the same thinning brown hair that he himself had), and answering the question appropriately. The hair could be coincidence, of course; the reality of paternity is the mark, for better or worse, that he left on the kid.

Back when Bob Costas had the talk show* Later*, he interviewed Paul Simon. As I recall, Simon explained that, “The cross is in the ballpark,” was inspired by something like a Billy Graham revival, and the oddity of a cross in a ballpark. The phrase seems to have been thrown in a bit arbitrarily, but it came to mean something else to him, using what seems to me a non-standard usage of “in the ballpark.” In effect, he admitted that it was random.

Oh, look, a link.

Oh, and Paul Simon said if you read another meaning into it, that’s fine.

I’ve never been a big Paul Simon fan, but I really do admire the mental pipe work he has that comes up from his subconscious and passes directly through the literate part of his brain.

FWIW, the OP was posted six years ago. There was an interview in which Billy Joel mentioned that Paul Simon had encouraged him to include lyrics that couldn’t be precisely explained. My memory is that Billy didn’t think that approach was right for him.

Upsteam** Robardin** says (and it sounds good to me): In this context “the obvious child” has religious or existential overtones, as a contradiction of the statement “the sky is just the sky”. To a child all things are magical, even things as mundane as looking up at the daytime or night sky. If it’s obvious to a child… Why deny it as an adult, especially when that magic would be so comforting?