Hit to left field

20 Mar

A late night, headphones on,  Spotify’s auto playlist generator running into uncharted territory. And suddenly, this comes on:

I turn my chin music up
And I’m puffing my chest
I’m getting red in the face
You can call me obsessed

Turn up? … What? … I don’t … hang on. Someone ought to tell Nick Jonas that chin music ain’t the kind of music you listen to.

After the Jonas Brothers broke teenage hearts by disbanding in 2013, Nick Jonas returned to the top 10 the following year with this: his first solo hit, Jealous. Lots of people like it, but not everyone is quite sure what he’s talking about.

“Chin music” has two generally agreed meanings, per the authorities: it is a US expression meaning “idle chat or empty talk”, or, specifically in baseball, “aggressive pitching aimed near the batter’s head”. But neither of those senses pairs very well with the song’s clear tunes-and-headphones metaphor. Idle talk is an odd thing to admit to when one is in the grip of strong emotions. And incidents of chin music, or “brushback pitches”, in baseball are sudden, unexpected aggressions that can lead to brawls or to pitchers being expelled from the game; they don’t fit easily with the metaphor of something that’s already “playing in the background”.

The song causes so much confusion that even the lyrics websites are unsure what to do. Lyricsmode.com thinks he’s saying “cheer music“. Google’s own version of the words at one point has Jonas sing

but also (in common with several other sites), this:

So is “cheek”, in fact, what he’s saying? That would make sense: evoking the feeling of a slap in the face or injured forbearance. No, apparently not: Flaunt Magazine actually sought chapter and verse on this in 2014, and got the man himself on the record:

“Prince’s drummer – name drop there – his name is Michael Bland. He was talking to me one time on tour, and I was telling him a story about something, and he was like: ‘Oh, he was giving you chin music?’ It’s like, what? What are you talking about? And he was like, ‘It’s when someone gives you attitude. They give you that chin music.’” At this point Jonas stretches his chin to the sky and pantomimes strumming his neck vertically with his fingers, chest to jaw, like an esoteric guitar. “I went online and there are like 50 different definitions. The most popular one is baseball: someone throws something high inside – it’s chin music. Kind of telling the batter to back up. I loved that as the best representation of the feeling in the song. You’re sorta like, hey, back up a little bit, when someone’s being too, you know, excited about your girlfriend.”

So he does mean it in the sporting sense. I’m not sure it works quite the way he wants it to, but this is hardly the first time that someone has taken a phrase from the game and forced it into a different meaning for everyday life. Sport is a rich field for metaphors, but the ones borrowed from baseball often seem to lose a lot in translation. For example:

“Touch base” (business) For years, this has meant to catch up with a colleague, even though in baseball touching a base – whether returning to it between pitches or stepping on it on your way round to home plate – is usually conducted without speaking to the only other player in the vicinity, who is in any event an opponent rather than a team-mate.

“Pinch hitter” (cricket) In baseball, a pinch hitter is a substitute brought in to bat in place of another player, who leaves the game. (The phrase is probably derived not, as British-English speakers might think, from the substitute “pinching” or stealing the other player’s spot, but from the sense of being brought in “in a pinch”, when the game is close and getting a hit would be vital.)

But in cricket, a “pinch hitter” is simply an opening batsman with a brief to take risks and score quickly at the start of a match, putting pressure on the other team. When this strategy emerged in the 1990s, it was true that the first “pinch hitters” were aggressive middle-order players sent in to bat early: but in cricket, unlike baseball, the starting eleven may shuffle around and bat in any order without losing their place on the field. Furthermore, the start of a cricket match, though important, hardly qualifies as the “pinch”, which, in cricket as in baseball, comes at the end of the game. The phrase has thus become laundered of any sense of “substitution” or “turning-point”, and now really just describes a style of batting.

“Out of left field” (general) Here the debate is not so much what the metaphor means (unexpected/unpredictable/unusual) as what facet of left field (the area of deep field to the batter’s left, as viewed from home plate) is so strange as to have given rise to the expression. The language columnist William Safire conducted an inconclusive campaign for an answer, the Out of Left Field Society offers a pleasing but disputed story about an old stadium with a mental hospital beyond the leftfield boundary, and the Wikipedia entry on the subject disagrees with itself furiously:

That may not be exactly three strikes and out, but the scholarship on the issue would currently seem to be a long way off base.

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