When I was in high school, Bon Jovi had song called “Wanted Dead or Alive.” I’m sure you know it: “I’m a cowboy. On a steel horse I ride…”
Even when I was seventeen years old and spang in the middle of the target demographic, that claim always struck me as odd: Jon Bon Jovi, this Jersey boy with enormous, teased hair, announces that he’s a cowboy. It seems to me a person should have to choose: you can either be the front man for New Jersey’s greatest glam rock band, or you can be a cowboy, but you can’t be both.
But that’s not even the most remarkable claim in this remarkable song. In the last verse, Jon Bon Jovi sings,
I’ve seen a million faces,
And I’ve rocked them all.
That first line uses a figure of speech known as a synecdoche (suh-NECK-duh-KEE), as well as a possible hyperbole. I say “possible” hyperbole because as of 1985 or 86, when the song was written, I don’t know that the band had literally played for a million fans.
But that’s neither here nor there. More interesting is that synecdoche faces. A synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of a thing is used as a stand-in for the whole thing. When a friend drives up in a new car and you say, “Nice wheels!” you are using synecdoche. You aren’t really congratulating your friend on the acquisition of four wheels, but on the acquisition of the car to which the wheels are attached. If you are a loan shark and you hire some muscle to intimidate your debtors, you aren’t actually hiring muscles, but people who possess muscles. And if you call your father a graybeard or your brother a bonehead, you are indulging in synecdoche. So “I’ve seen a million faces” is a synecdochal way of saying “I’ve seen a million people.”
So far, so good.
But let’s have a look at that second clause, “I’ve rocked them all.” What is the antecedent for the pronoun them? The only possible candidate is faces. Which is to say, in this clause Bon Jovi is claiming to have rocked a million faces. This is a remarkable claim indeed.
We have here a situation in which the grammar of a sentence is misaligned with the logic of the sentence. The logic works something like this:
I have seen a million people [at my concerts].
I have rocked all of those people.
A reader has no trouble with the synecdoche equating faces with people. But just because the equivalence works in one clause, that doesn’t mean it will work in all clauses. “I’ve seen a million faces” works just fine. “I’ve rocked a million faces,” not so much. The pronoun in the second clause–“I’ve rocked them all”–drafts the synecdoche faces for a second tour of duty, and that’s where things start to get squirrelly.
Any time you use figurative language–synecdoche, hyperbole, simile, metaphor, personification, allusion, etc.–consider what would happen if your reader took you literally. If they would laugh (and you’re not trying to be funny) you might want to reconsider that figure of speech. The idea of Bon Jovi rocking a million faces is hilarious to me. Truth to tell, I have only a general idea of what it means to “rock” a million concertgoers, but I don’t think the phrase was meant to be funny.
If the idea of rocking a million faces is ludicrous, it’s no more ludicrous than my devoting this many words to analyzing the grammar of a couple of lines from a 1980s pop song. I feel it is my duty to quote Flannery O’Connor here: “You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much.” It seems safe to say that Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora got away with their squirrelly pronoun reference, and in a very big way. I am a middle-aged man, graying at the temples, but I still love this song. Thirty years on, “Wanted Dead or Alive” makes me remember what it was like to be a seventeen-year-old boy at Warner Robins High School. It makes me wish I had a Camaro. That’s what I call getting away with it.
Bonus Literary Term
Synecdoche is often paired with metonymy (met-AHN-uh-mee). Whereas synecdoche uses part of a thing as a stand-in for the whole thing, metonymy uses one thing as a stand-in for a thing that is closely related to it. The Netflix series The Crown isn’t about a crown, but about Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family, who are closely associated with the crown. That’s metonymy. When you talk about Hollywood, you usually aren’t talking about the city of Hollywood, California, but about the movie industry and/or the celebrity culture that are associated with that city. And when I sat down to watch Alabama play Georgia in the SEC football championship last December, I realized I wasn’t going to see the whole state of Alabama play the whole state of Georgia, but rather two teams associated with two universities associated with those two states (metonymy within a metonymy! Metametonymy!).
Which reminds me of a joke that relies on the ambiguities that always lurk in metonymy (as in all figurative language). This joke was going around years ago when the Rolling Stones played a concert at Vanderbilt’s football stadium:
Hey, did you hear the Rolling Stones are playing Vanderbilt?
Yeah, the Stones are favored by two touchdowns.
photo by James Anderson, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=986618