Is it hyperbolic to claim that everyone knows Malvina Reynold’s classic song, “Little Boxes“? (And if you don’t, you should check it out). Its charming and infectious stanzas stick in our brains like silly putty. I’ve caught myself mindlessly mumbling its lyrics, often trying (and failing) to imitate Reynold’s unique, raspy voice. One can’t help but acknowledge the song’s cheeky mockery of suburban, stereotypical families. Reynold openly calls upon the innate routine of the middle-upper class, whose lives balance upon the story her lyrics communicate.
These people grow up, go to good colleges, earn an (above par) income, get married, raise a couple of kids, then call it a day. They wipe the dirt from their precious palms as the cycle repeats itself. It’s all so easy, robotic, and habitual; a timeless tradition – carried on for generations. Reynold’s problem with this matter is quite apparent as she remarks, “they come out all the same… they all look just the same.” I’d like to suggest that the first verse of this song seems to carry something a little more existential. What’s going on with these “little boxes?” What are they doing on the hill-side? How can we relate this to contemporary identity crises? Let’s break this down.
The very first line of the song reads (or sings), “Little boxes on the hill-side.” My first question is, why the heck are these boxes so small? The song constantly repeats this line, “little boxes, little boxes.” Most are able to depict that these “little boxes” are stand-ins for societal roles. This repetition makes its point loud and clear, once assigned to a certain role in society, it’s relatively impossible to achieve any independent growth or wiggle room. Too bad, it only gets worse. Not only are these boxes little, they’re also “on the hill-side.” They’re not on the hill-top, let alone the mountain-top or the mountain-side. Alas, these little boxes are further cramped and compressed. These spaces are not only compact, but also low down, wedged into valleys, down in the crux of a relatively elevated point. Even worse, these little boxes reside in the lowness of a second-class mountain. We get it, monotony, routine, and a lack of options. Then, all of a sudden, this downward, spiraling trail of “little boxes,” entirely flips itself inside out.
“Little boxes made of ticky tacky… little boxes all the same.” After further investigation into the meaning of “ticky tacky,” the contradiction in this verse became apparent to me. “Ticky tacky” can be defined as, “inferior or cheap material, especially as used in suburban building.” We can read this in two ways. One is congruent with the author’s message. These boxes are not only compact and hanging out in the valleys, but are constructed of a feeble material which is evidently, easy to puncture, making them even more undesirable. The second way of reading this is by examining the first way. Look at these “little boxes.” Yes, they’re little and claustrophobic, however; they are also built from junky building supplies. This means that they are, in no way, of any high caliber. These boxes are flimsy and flawed. This means that breaking out of them is 100% doable.
I’ve stumbled upon so many wandering and wondering people (including myself), trying so desperately to choose their own “little boxes” to live in. They want structure, they want rules, and above all, an outlook, a perspective; a box, a safe place to look up at the mountains from. At the same time, we constantly grapple with the simplicity of these once-concrete structures. We are all many things. We pick and choose, we follow rules, and we break rules. We ask outlandish questions to individuals who can’t possibly give us the answers, yet the truth is in the ticky tacky. These boxes that we build are unstable and can so easily be deconstructed. Therefore, it’s our job to open the boxes and actively evaluate their contents.
This catchy, witty song shakes its fist at the stereotypical roles we often find ourselves fulfilling, sometimes against our own wills. We fall in line with the other walkers and talkers, as opposed to the movers and shakers. We feel obligated to squeeze ourselves into roles and classifications dictated by other people, with apparent, laughable landscaping abilities. Although some individuals may be perfectly cozy in their warm, confining boxes, we now know something they do not. The infrastructure of these “little boxes” is entirely unstable. We have the ability to push them the rest of the way down the hill-side.
Originally from small town Ontario, Emily Zimmer is a passionate creator with a love for writing music, poetry, and stories. She enjoys philosophy, coffee, and finding beauty in urban settings. Emily currently resides in New York City.