Does an artist imbue his work with meaning, or can a work of art carry a meaning apart from the artist’s intent? This is a question that reveals more about the critic than the artist. Postmodernists argue that the meaning of art is entirely up to the viewer. The modernist argues that a piece only means what the artist intended it to mean. Henhouse by Jeremy Jack is a song that the artist claims to have written without any depth. It is simply about a man’s quest to find an egg for breakfast. However, Hen House is also a deliberation over capitalism, as can be seen by an explication of the lyrics.
From the beginning, the lyrics describe the story of a man seeking an egg from his backyard henhouse.
I went down to the henhouse, the henhouse
to see what I could happen to find.
There’s my old chicken, my chicken
good old Martha that hen of mine.
In this stanza, Jack lays out the groundwork for the story. Assuming Jack is the “I,” he travels to the henhouse seeking an egg. He names the chicken, Martha, and states her egg-laying reliability. Linguistically, Jack sets up a repetition at the end of the first and third line of each stanza.
Her nest was empty, it’s empty
there were no eggs to be found.
So I had to sit and wait,
wait for her to lay an egg down.
Jack continues by describing what he found at the henhouse. The nest was empty, leaving Jack with no eggs for his morning meal. This fact brings about a switch in both Jack and the structure of the song. In the second line of this stanza, though the repetition continues of a sort, the emphasis has shifted. Instead of the repetition existing solely on the third line, the repetition exists between the third and fourth. The lack of a transaction between Jack and the chicken causes the song itself to break down. Jack is setting up rhythmically what will be stated explicitly in the next stanza.
In this stanza, Jack presumably lays his cards on the table.
I sang to her this song,
and she gave one brown egg to me.
Just goes to show you, to show you
nothing in this world is free.
Jack enters the henhouse thinking he can get a free meal, but he exits finding that even his own property demands a transaction. The repetition breaks entirely in the first line of this stanza. However, after the transaction has occurred, the repetition returns. The transaction rights the rhythm.
Finally, Jack returns to his kitchen with his hard-earned egg.
I took the egg to the kitchen, the kitchen
and crack it in a hot frying pan.
This song now over, its over;
don’t ask for any bacon.
This stanza can be interpreted in two ways. The final line could be interpreted as Jack admitting his contentment with the egg, stating that he has no need to search for some bacon. However, the statement is more akin to an imperative sentence, commanding the audience not to ask for any bacon. Taken this way, Jack argues that he worked for his egg, so the audience is not getting any of it or any bacon. Again, the song fits into this capitalistic system of ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch.’ Everything that one wants, must be earned by working.
The music also implies an underlying inevitability of capitalism. From the beginning, the guitar drives in a continuous rhythm. Jack desires a free egg from his chicken, but the underlying capitalistic structures of the world deny him gifts even from his own property. Even when the lyrics break down, the strumming continues relentlessly. The system of supply/demand, purchase/transaction will never end. It is what society is built upon.
Therefore, is Jack arguing for the goodness of a capitalistic society? One could interpret it that way. Jack attempts to work in another system, a system without the need for payment, and his attempt fails miserably. However, the style of music has an underlying anger to it. One could interpret this story as Jack’s rebellion against capitalistic structures, only to finally succumb to them in the end. Alternatively, Jack could be lamenting capitalism, while admitting that this is the way the world works. In the end, I find it difficult to accurately pin down where Jack lands on the topic, which is why I consider the song a deliberation over capitalism rather than an argument for any specific side.
All of that is my interpretation of the song based on a straightforward interpretation of the lyrics and musical structure. The interpretation is not particularly ridiculous; it is pulled from the words of the artist. Now, however, I will indulge myself in a bit of ridiculous, subjective interpretation that requires a great deal of interpretive leaps.
One could also argue that this song is an internal satire of patriarchy. Jack, as a man, expects to freely receive the product of his chicken’s labor. The chicken, of course, is a female, ‘chick’ even serving as slang for women. In this fanciful interpretation, Jack is indignant that he has to pay for a product that should be his by ownership. No longer does Jack get to receive items merely because he is a man, but now he must work for what he gets. Here, capitalism could be considered beneficial for it levels out the playing field. Regardless of whether the customer is a human or chicken, all items must be purchased. This interpretation is by no means clear, and requires making a few fanciful associations, but it struck me on the fifth listen that one could interpret the song in this way.
Thus, one can understand Henhouse as a deliberation over capitalism, using evidence from both the lyrics and the music, or as a mild feminist satire. The former interpretation is much closer to the internal structure of the song, but the latter is also an interpretation at which one could arrive. The question still remains: if the composer states that the song has no meaning, is it possible to find meaning within the song? Is meaning dependent upon the creator or the recipient? I have my opinion, but I will allow the final interpretation up to you.
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