Issue #17, 2001
I’ll tell you ’bout the magic that will free your soul,
But it’s like tryin’ to tell a stranger about rock-and-roll.
–The Lovin’ Spoonful
Don the bartender has had it with rock-and-roll. After over 20 years of listening to it, studying it, performing it and promoting it, he’s sold most of his rock albums and since then purchased a handful of blues and piano jazz CDs – all instrumental. Now at 35 he’s too busy to keep up with pop anyway, what with pulling pints several evenings a week and going to college full time.
But if you see Don at the bar when he’s taking his break, chain-smoking in the way-back booth with a Milan Kundera novel, drinking whiskey camouflaged in a coffee mug, he’ll tell you stories about the days when rock songs were his life.
Back then Don had an extensive rock collection, records cared for like his babies, an alphabetized and attractively shelved library of his children (sorted by genre). He polished the vinyl regularly with special-order, lint-free cloths and kept the liner notes in protective plastic sleeves.
"I had close to a thousand albums, and I knew the words to nearly every one of those songs, I swear," Don says. From this room full of records, Don taught himself the art of songwriting. Every paycheck, he would head across town to Paul’s Records (now Paul’s CDs) for what both he and the store clerks called "tuition payments."
"I was obsessive, you know? Every time I heard someone do something new, I’d be like, ‘How did they come up with that? Why did they change? What does that mean?’ and I’d listen to the song over and over again till I got it." Don chuckles. "Then I’d steal it and say I came up with it first."
Things went like this throughout Don’s adolescence and well into his 20s. "You know what? I spent the past 25 years of my life trying to write the perfect song," he says. For a while Don thought he was getting close to his goal. For 12 years he was singer, guitarist and lyricist in Room to Move, a funk-rock band that earned significant regional attention, even got a few songs on the radio. "The best one I wrote was called ‘Sex Me Down.’ It was a slow jam about, you know, straight-up ‘bed fun,’ and people remembered it." Then, referring to a supermarket chain, he adds, "Once I heard a guy singing the words in the Giant Eagle, and I thought I was the shit."
According to Don, when Room to Move played "Sex Me Down" at the Decade (Pittsburgh’s premiere small venue, back then), "It was not uncommon for a half-dozen sorority girls to disrobe when my lyrics asked them to." But after nearly a decade of little more than gigs at the Decade, Don’s band dissolved to "get married, make babies, get real jobs," etc. – a decision Don regrets because he knows his songs could’ve hit big in the right market.
"I mean, my writing’s so much better than what’s out there now," Don says. "There’s no storytelling in pop music anymore. It’s all about figuring out a way to say ‘Fuck me’ and then singing it to the beat with a bare midriff." Don admits that songs of his like "Sex Me Down" deal with similar subjects, but his lyrics "brought in the whole experience: meeting someone, dancing all night, and then the different ways to ask for lovin’," he says. "And we didn’t use any of those silly clichés. I put my own style into it, you know? I told about how I like to do things, and the originality is what made it hit."
Don has never bared his midriff in a performance.
"You know what the problem is? Nobody writes songs about cars anymore," Don says. "When I was in high school, those songs about cars felt so good to sing, you could hear the excitement in their voices. That’s why I totally bankrupted myself on buying records." Don shrugs, takes a drag from his fifth cigarette. "I guess I just don’t get excited like that anymore."
I saw rock-and-roll’s future, and his name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the first time.– Rock critic Edward Hamm
The sixth-period acting class at Richard Turnbull School for the Performing Arts still gets really excited about pop music. Oldies, punk, rap, bubble-gum boy-band pop are all ripe for heated class discussions – some of which, according to the teacher, Ron McClelland, nearly come to blows. Just about every single kid in class has bought a CD in the past two weeks.
Ann, 14, visits the CD store with her dad every Friday. Last Friday they bought Macy Gray’s new release. This week she hasn’t decided – Patsy Cline, maybe. Ann is sixth period’s resident music expert; she has the biggest CD collection in the class (as well as the biggest grin). Of the 350 CDs in her collection, none overlap with her Dad’s collection of over 1,000 CDs, tapes and (snicker) records. The minute Ann gets a CD, she tears off that pesky cellophane wrapping, opens the jewel case, and pores over the lyric sheets. If a CD doesn’t come with lyric sheets, she gets really mad, even though usually the lyrics will turn up on the Internet.
Even though Ann hasn’t had a chance to listen to the Macy Gray CD all the way through, she’s read the liner notes a couple of times. "I always read the lyrics before I listen to the music," Ann says. Sometimes she takes the lyric notes to school so she can read them on the bus.
Toya, 15, is soft spoken but adamant about her love for boy bands – the newest breed of teenybopper singing groups in the style of the Osmonds and the Jackson Five. Toya just used her birthday money to buy tapes by Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync in one gigantic purchase. The boy bands’ songs are cool because the radio plays most of the songs from the album, so she knows the words to all the songs before she goes to the music store. "I like it when I can understand all the words, and I hate it when I don’t know what the story is," she says.
"What story? Ugh! I can’t stand that stuff," Lydia interrupts. Lydia is 17 and überhip – the type of girl who gets away with leopard-print jackets and combat boots in the 11th grade. "I mean, what are those people singing about? ‘Backstreet’s Back’ – what are they back from? Hel-lo! It’s fun for what it is, I guess, but you don’t need to know the words to understand it. So why did they write words for it in the first place?"
Lydia openly hates Top 40 radio, and she’s saving up for an import CD of her favorite singer, Bjork, since she already has all of Bjork’s major U.S. releases. "None of Bjork’s songs are just about love," Lydia explains. "They’re about love on top of a mountain or lovers pretending to be secret agents or … I don’t know, just cooool stuff!"
The biggest problem with the big pop bands, according to Lydia, is that they don’t write their own lyrics. "For me, the singer/songwriter connection has got to be there," Lydia says. "It’s okay if it’s simple, just as long as it’s their own, ya know?"
Armand and Justin, both 14, like "gangsta" rap best, especially the Puff Daddy song "It’s All About the Benjamins" ("benjamins" being gangsta slang for $100 bills). They’re sick of everyone in the class talking about music they can and can’t relate to. For Armand and Justin (who, according to Mr. McClelland, often speak as a team), lyrics don’t have to make sense; they just have to sound good. "And anyway, I can relate to talking about driving a Mercedes, and I can’t even drive," Armand says. "And if I had a coupla benjamins, that’s probably what I’d spend it on."
Justin says his mom gets on him about the Snoop Doggy Dogg CD he recently bought because of its sexually explicit, chauvinistic lyrics. "I don’t know why, but the first time I heard it, I was like, ‘Man! That’s tight,’ but it doesn’t make me want to go out and hurt women or anything."
Michelle, 16, lets out a snort. "What are you talkin’ about? You don’t even hang out with any women."
"Shut up!" Justin says. "I like it because it’s real and it’s funny. It sounds cool."
Michelle is a ballerina – all delicate lines and angles – who says she’s used to being the outspoken student. She can’t stand Justin and Armand’s "booty rap" or any other songs that are "down on women." She’d rather listen to Whitney Houston. "I love Whitney," she says. "I sing ‘The Greatest Love of All’ with my mom, and her other songs, too. Whitney’s lyrics mean everything, and they are meant to inspire people."
"Yeah, but at the dances, ‘Back That Thing Up’ comes on, and you’ll be the first person on the dance floor," Armand says.
Michelle interrupts Armand. "I like the beat! I dance to the beat. I don’t dance to the words!"
Armand interrupts Michelle. "It sure looks like you’re listening to the words, ’cause I seen you backin’ that thing up tons of times!"
Meanwhile, back at the bar, Don mentions one of the only rock artists he still keeps in his collection – Bob Dylan.
"Bob Dylan knows how to write a love song," Don says. "He would never sing something like ‘I miss your booty’ because that’s not how love feels. I know people who decided to spend their whole lives together because of Dylan."
Don refers to the same song Michelle and Armand fought over: Juvenile’s ‘Back That Thing Up,’ a Dirty South rap hit in 1999 that alternates between unintelligible and unprintable lyrics, most of which allude to a woman’s posterior:
Girl you look good, won’t you back that thing up,
You’re a big, fine woman, won’t you back that thing up,
Call me big daddy when you back that thing up,
Ho, who’s you playin’? C’mon back that thing up.
"It’s not that the music is sleazy; it’s just written so stupid." According to Don, even subjects of the most primal form – courtship and sexual longing – must be dealt with using lyrical artistry as well as honesty. Blunt as they are, songs like "Back That Thing Up" don’t accurately target human feeling.
"Every time I hear them, I want to vomit. I mean, they think they sound so cool." Don shakes his head in disgust, "Don’t make me laugh." Still, pop lyrics have been a joke since the day rock was born.
Little Richard gave me my first lesson in rock-and-roll. The lesson went: Awopbopaluwopawopbamboom! – Punk critic Nik Cohn
Case in point: April 1957, when Steve Allen worked a mock poetry reading into his shtick as host of "The Tonight Show."
"Ladies and gentlemen, I thought our more cultured viewers might enjoy a dramatic reading of this week’s number-one-ranked song," Allen announced. Clearing his throat and cocking his head slightly as if to summon the muse of recitation, Allen soulfully inhaled as an off-camera harp arpeggio cued him in. Then in a formal, totally square tone, Allen read aloud, "Bee … Bop, Ah Loo-lah / She’s my baby." Here Allen paused for the chuckles from the audience. "Bee … Bop, A Loo-lah." He grimaced academically into the camera. "I do not mean maybe!" He giggled to himself. "Bee, Bop, Ah Loo-Lah / She’s my baby love."
The audience howled. Allen smirked as if to say, "The second verse is even dumber. How stupid can all those youngsters be? It barely even rhymes. Ha! So there, Gene Vincent! Take that, teenyboppers! Put that in your pipe and smoke it, hipsters!"
Even though they might fail as poetry, these words in the context of the song explode. Under a low, waggling bass and soft, pelvic snare beat, Vincent hesitates, squeeeezing out every nonsense syllable as if the sexiness of the lady in question has left him short of breath. Then just when the listener is about to shiver from the rockin’ tension, the snare drum bursts into squad-drill, and Vincent’s bassist lets out a primal scream in the background. No wonder adolescent girls swooned, oblivious to the contradicting thematic imagery of a girl dancing in a store, screaming for more in a pair of red blue jeans. Separate the words from that music, that feeling, and it just doesn’t work.
Every time I tried to tell you, the words just came out wrong,
So I have to say "I love you" in a song. – Jim Croce
In the beginning, words and music were separate. Some anthropologists postulate that the two first joined forces as magical spells, rhythmic chants of words recited to ensure a good harvest. Eventually humans abandoned the magic and kept this new, fused form of song. The term lyric came later, from the Greeks, who accompanied their chants with a lyre, the instrument of persuasive lovers, fashioned by Apollo himself, the one item Orpheus took to charm his beloved Eurydice out of Hades.
In the Middle Ages, lyrics and lyric poetry became the wares of traveling troubadours, who peddled songs of legend or romantic love that sold on popularity and easy identification. The troubadours developed a system of contrived meter, heightened diction and sentimental images that were very different from everyday speech. From this list came a norm of pleasantries and sentiments – the most fashionable ways to tell tall tales or to express tenderness.
The basic concepts of today’s pop lyrics – simple structures, systems of clichés, lowbrow rhyming patterns – did not begin with "Rock Around the Clock." Ever since the invention of the lyric, catchiness – the ability to not just stick but cling to the listener’s brain – has been a part of its very definition. Contemporary lyrics have evolved from this ancient tradition, a practice as old as language itself. As listeners, we have evolved, as well, having sprung from a primal system of needs: for the chant, for the identifiable image, as well as for the basic, pulsing rhythm that will encourage our crops to grow.
When I first started hearing rock, pop and soul, it was the sound that really struck me.
The words were, for the most part, pretty stupid. – David Byrne of Talking Heads
In the mid-’50s, as Vincent, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley presented the rhyme-and-meter recipe for early rock-and-roll, the rest of radio stuck to standards, big-band and easy listening. Rock vanguards took the sweet, decipherable, figurative language in Nat King Cole’s "Unforgettable,"
Like a song of love that clings to me,
How the thought of you does things to me …
or the stretched metaphor in Perry Como’s "Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes,"
Don’t let the stars get in your eyes,
Don’t let the moon break your heart,
Love blooms at night,
Then in daylight it dies …
and eventually morphed them into the less wordy but just as squeaky-clean songs of early doo-wop, this one by the Crew Cuts:
Life could be a dream, Sweetheart
Sha-boom, Sha-boom again,
Plug in a couple of guitars, hire a vocalist who doesn’t mind yelling like a heathen, and these scat lyrics soon yield the indecipherable, sexed-up examples of early rock anthems, strains of which still pop up in heavy radio rotation today.
There’s no way Steve Allen could have known that, funny sounding as it was, "Be Bop A Lula" would become an inspiration for decades of well-respected rockers. The first record Paul McCartney ever owned was "Be Bop A Lula." He heard John Lennon cover "Be Bop A Lula" with Lennon’s first band, the Quarrymen, which begat the Beatles. Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis and Link Wray all have recorded covers, and the lyric reappears in songs by Van Morrison and Dire Straits. In interviews, musicians as diverse as Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats and Paul Simon cite it as a source of lyrical inspiration. Really? This little mess of trite rhyme and mixed metaphor shaped the lyrical sensibility behind "Mrs. Robinson" and "Imagine"? This two-minute tune recorded in half a day?
Gene Vincent came up with the chorus to "Be Bop A Lula" after Nashville records commissioned him to cover a sped-up version of "You Can Bring Pearl With the Turned-Up Nose, But Don’t Bring Lula" (a supposed "rockabilly standard"). Sometime during the recording session, Vincent marred the chorus, keeping only the lyrics "Lula likes to bop," which changed to "Boppin’ Lula," which evolved into the gold-selling single, ripe for instant success and parody. Most early rock was churned out of the studio, one album per working day. Either written fast or improvised in the studio, lyrics took a back seat to musical tightness and usually centered on one catchy slogan repeated over and over again.
When "Be Bop A Lula" was released, Lennon, McCartney and Simon were kids – smack dab in the middle of a new genre. This fresh way to write songs and tell stories, though simple, was completely different from the way stories were told in their parents’ music. The songs were easy to sing and, if you had a guitar, easy to play. So what if a lot of it didn’t make sense; it was exciting, and – as demonstrated by Steve Allen – it was a language no one older than they could understand.
I hear something new, with a new rhyme, and before I know it I’m looking for someone, and before you know it, I’ve found her. – Nick Hornby
Brianna, 15, is one of the quietest girls in Turnbull High’s sixth-period acting class, but when the conversation shifts to Lyrics So Good You Gotta Write ’Em Down, the other kids turn to her and smile. "Bri-an-na knows! Just look at her folder!"
Sure enough, her folder, notebooks, binders, and book bag are covered in scribbled lyrics. Rapper TuPac Shakur wrote most of the quotes, but Brianna also writes down folk sentiments by Jewel, lyrical epigrams from No Doubt, even the occasional boy-band lyric. Surprisingly Brianna doesn’t really consider herself a big fan of music and songwriting, like the rest of her peers.
"Most songs really don’t mean anything to me," she says. "I don’t hate them or anything; I just don’t care."
But when something in Brianna’s life goes wrong, everything around her seems to register a little more clearly. Take her favorite song, for example, "You Gotta Keep Your Head Up." "I heard it a couple of times – in a car or at my friend’s house, and I just didn’t pay attention to it. When I’m sad and going through a lot, all I want to do is listen to music, and when I heard TuPac again I just broke down crying." A little bit later, Brianna found herself scribbling the lyrics in her journal and on her school supplies. A stanza is written on the front of her fifth-period folder – her favorite song for her favorite class:
And since we all came from a woman,
Got our name from a woman,
Got our game from a woman,
I wonder why we take from our women,
Why we rape our women, hate our women,
I think it’s time to kill for our women.
"Those are the lyrics I want everyone to see," Brianna explains, but the chorus holds the most personal resonance:
When it seems the rain will never let up,
I still try to keep my head up,
And still keep from getting wet up,
Isn’t it funny how when it rains, it pours?
The way Brianna sees it, music is there when you need it. You don’t have to be a collector to seek its comforts. "A song is good when it shows you how to let it all out," she says. "Especially when no one else can help you: not other songs or your friends or your mom."
Don the bartender, now working on his second mug of whiskey, says of rock songs, "They may make teen-age girls scream or cry, but how do they expect to make adults feel better?" Don would probably tell Brianna to wait a few years, then see what pop music does for her. "They just perpetuate a cliché," he explains. "They’re not talking about real feelings or singing lyrics about ‘I want to raise my kids with you.’ Where are you going to find that in a hook or a snappy chorus?"
I’d like my life to be like a Bruce Springsteen song. I know I’m not Born to Run, I’m not even Born in the U.S.A., but feelings can’t be so different, can they? – Nick Hornby
Snappy choruses have perpetuated the past 50 years of pop lyrics; a silly song full of repetition, meter and trite rhyme goes double platinum, much to the protest of contemporary critics. The artists we now know as vanguards are deemed too young to be trusted, so folks play their records backward in search of Satanic messages, like "There’s no escaping it – aaaaaooooooh," a supposed anti-Christian password heard when playing "Stairway to Heaven" backward. People read weird lyrics as a code to be cracked (like the series of lyrics to "Sergeant Pepper" and "Magical Mystery Tour," which supposedly hinted at the death of Paul McCartney). They dismiss them as senseless doggerel (like "Louie, Louie" and "Wooly Bully"). Most insultingly – as seen with today’s manufactured boy bands and series of sugary, generic pop ballads – they deem them worthless, stagnant and unoriginal.
It happened to Vincent, to the Rolling Stones with "Satisfaction," to the Sex Pistols with "Anarchy in the U.K." and most recently to Nirvana with "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Despite snide parody, possible censorship and critical insult (Lester Bangs once called Iggy and the Stooges "a reductio absurdum of rock that might have been thought up by a mad D.A.R. general"), certain songs sell a particular attitude to their specific era. This attitude may have more to do with the drums or the guitar solo than what the singer is saying, but once it sticks, the lyrics are set in stone, like commandments.
No one really directly understands, for example, what Nirvana was talking about when they wrote "I’m a wino, albino, a mosquito, my libido." But the new, dissonant chord patterns, paired with dirge-like feedback and the telling, relatable chorus ("Here we are now / Entertain us") appealed to the subtext in the heads of an entire target audience. So "Smells Like Teen Spirit" became an anthem of the early ’90s. In a 1999 Spin article, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic admitted he’d never expected the song to become a rock milestone. "Hell, I didn’t even think it was one of the strongest songs on the album," Novoselic says. "It was our little attempt at a Pixies rip-off. Kurt [Cobain] wrote the lyrics in under an hour."
Twenty-six years earlier, the Who scored big with "My Generation," an unprecedentedly loud tune with forceful, adamant lyrics delivered in a fresh, defiant manner. The anthem screamed:
People try to put us dddddddown,
Just because we gggggget around,
The things they do seem awful cccold,
I hope I die before I gggget old …
After actually getting old, Pete Townshend confessed that his biggest hit was a happy accident. In the 1993 liner notes to "The Who’s Greatest Hits," he calls the song "The hymn, the patriotic song they sing at all Who football matches? I wrote it as a throwaway, naturally. … I had written the lines of ‘Generation’ without thinking, hurrying them, scribbling on a piece of paper in the back of a car. For years I’ve had to live by them."
Townshend said in a 1990 interview with Nik Cohn, "Sometimes the world just finds a bit of raw emotion that’s similar to what they feel inside, and they just run away with it, don’t they?"
The potency of lowbrow lyrics inspired Sting to write a song in defense of "Be Bop A Lula," "My Generation" and others like it. "Some of my favorite songs are meaningless," Sting told Bill Flanagan. "I was trying to figure out why I liked songs like ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ and ‘Do Wah Diddy’ and ‘Tutti-Frutti.’ There’s a whole list of songs with just garbage as words that seem to be able to communicate something without necessarily meaning anything."
Sting’s interest begat "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da," a Police hit that made the Billboard Top Ten in 1982:
Don’t think me unkind,
Words are hard to find …
And when their eloquence escapes me,
Their logic ties me up and rapes me.
De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,
Is all I want to say to you,
De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,
Their innocence will pull me through …
De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,
They’re meaningless and all that’s true.
"Songwriters can often use words to pervert, just as politicians and fundamentalist religious leaders do," Sting explains. "My song says that the reason ‘Do Wah Diddy’ is successful is because it’s not trying to subvert you. It’s purely innocent."
Like McCartney, Simon and other vociferous supporters of early rock lyrics, Sting has gone on to write some of the more lyrically complex hits of recent years. "People often come up to me and say, ‘Now you’re writing all these wonderfully serious songs. How could you have possibly written "De Do Do Do?"’ I give up and say ‘Well, I was young.’ I can’t be bothered to explain it."
People are always saying the words are banal and why doesn’t anybody write lyrics like Cole Porter anymore, but we don’t have presidents like Abe Lincoln anymore, either.
– Songwriter and producer Phil Spector
Literature scholar Ronald Judy spent three years in France as part of a literary think tank. The group devoted over 30 months to carefully analyzing the rhythm, meter and literary merit of thousands of poems in the Western canon. If you come to visit during office hours, Dr. Judy can show you how to do the same thing with rock music. For him the same assessments of merit apply to lyrics and "regular" poetry. He leans back in his office chair, staring past a set of overloaded bookshelves toward the window and smiles before reciting, "I may be numberless / I may be innocent / I may know many things / I may be ignorant." He recites these Sting lyrics as if they were by Yeats.
His lyrics of choice may be more complex than "Be Bop A Lula" (or even Sting’s "Da Do Do Do"), but Judy’s voice bears a striking resemblance to the mock solemnity of Steve Allen’s parodic recitation 40 years back. Judy’s top-notch "reading" of the lyrics also includes impressive commentary. "In this song, you have many devices at stake that are very interesting musically and at all times lyrically engaging. These devices play on each other concomitantly, speaking to one another to create a specific kind of emotional response."
Judy favors lyrics in which – as in a good poem – images, diction and rhythm all work together to create a specific response in the listener. "Oh, yes, Sting’s lyrics can be intensely literary," he says with professorial authority. "He often pushes non-pop ideas into songs that move just as adeptly in general pop circles." Judy recites another line from the same song: "‘A thousand times the mysteries unfold themselves like galaxies in my head.’ Again you have that rolling rhythm, paired with a repetition of words and syllables. This whole song seems to be about mortality and the aging process." With a smile he adds, "So maybe I just like it because I’m an old man."
A voracious pop-culture fan, Judy can play this sort of academic game with lyrics from all sorts of genres, pointing out structural irony in one, contradicting themes in another and traditional poetic roots in yet another. "This is the way that I listen to music," he says. "I try to figure out why certain pieces engage me while others do not."
According to Dr. Judy, lyrics of "lesser merit" – those minus any imagistic structure or heightened diction – can serve a poetic purpose, as well. Case in point: the lyrics of James Brown. Brown’s lyrics rarely contain complete thoughts, let alone figurative language, unless you count "Get on the scene / Like a sex machine" as a simile. However, Judy reads their purpose as "highly functional." "James Brown is dictatorial about repetition … He’s very disciplined, and he hits that downbeat and the lyrics fall in between. That’s why he’s accepted as a kind of dance musician." But Brown’s lyrics (repeated phrases like "Get up!" "I feel good!" or "Watch me!") are, according to Judy, "like dogma. They’re the bit of propaganda that you get to go with the beat – a pep rally."
So what would happen if the lyrics to, say, "Sex Machine" were replaced with others, like "What’s up!" or "Go home!" for the infamous "Get up!"?
Nothing would happen, according to Judy, "except that that phrase would come into the popular imagination, and it would sustain its livelihood or its memorability because of the music." Essentially Judy identifies these types of lyrics as martyrs, as kamikazes – words willing to pull back in potency in order to highlight the phat beats behind them.
I will write about anything people want to hear about. I would write about cocaine but only a few freaks would buy that. – Chuck Berry
Theater professor David Jortner likes to use pop lyrics to loosen up his Introduction to Performance class, a fun course that fulfills the "Creative Expression" requirement. It draws as many football players, science majors and introverts as it does budding thespians, all of whom find Shakespeare more daunting than challenging.
"Lyrical monologues are a pretty traditional exercise," Jortner says. "It puts the actor’s focus on intention; if the lines are banal, then the actor is forced to create the intention emotionally. There is no text or traditional interpretation to hide behind; he has to figure out a way to get across the things he’s saying because there’s no way the words will do that for him." Jortner’s exercise is so silly that students don’t feel embarrassed to throw themselves into it; they’re not afraid to take risks and get showy. "Plus," Jortner adds, "it’s more fun than showing a bunch of 18-year-olds how to do Chekov."
Brad is a freshman, a pre-pharmacy major on the wrestling team. Today he’s a little nervous. Brad must deliver a memorized pop song to his performance-class peers – monologue style – in the same fashion as Dr. Judy and Steve Allen, only for a grade. He grins sheepishly, gives his shoulders an athletic shake, and takes a deep breath before attempting to passionately convince his audience just how fun it is to stay at the YMCA.
Dave stops Brad. "That was good, but we need to see you mentally picturing just how fun this place really is. Let that come out in your delivery."
Brad stares upward, pondering this advice. Then he arranges his face into a game-show grin and giddily exclaims, "You can get yourself clean! You can have a good meal! You can do," he laughs whimsically, "whatever you feel!"
"Good job," Jortner says, once the laughter has died down. "Now try it as if this were the most tragic thing in the world, like the Y.M.C.A. was a place for severely depressed old men."
Brad takes another deep breath, screws his face up again and doubles over, nearly vomiting the words in a desperate, plaintive tone. "You can …" (sniff) "get yourself …" (choked sob) "clean. You can have a" (gasp) "good, good, meal" (doe-eyed look to the audience). "You can do" (sob) "whatever you f-e-e-l!"
The class applauds. "Excellent, Brad," Jortner exclaims. "Now, try to do it like you’re about to have an orgasm."
Dumbstruck, Brad blinks twice at Jortner.
"Doing this with my students shows how banal lyrics really are," Jortner says. "The pop songs they pick are memorable (it’s required that most of the class knows the words beforehand), but after they present them without the music, you see how the lyrics aren’t what makes them memorable." Jortner attributes that to sentimentality and pop-culture knowledge about the arts, and – of course – the music. "You couldn’t do this the other way around," Jortner says. "If you take the lyrics out of a sad song, the song will still be sad."
If you’re going to communicate a socio-political statement and want to reach the largest number of people, the best way to do that would be to put it in an ordinary rock song. Actually, to reach the largest number of people, you probably better make it sound like Julio Iglesias. – Elvis Costello
Jortner isn’t the only educator preaching that pop lyrics can be a teaching device. "Lyricists of popular songs derive their ideas from every imaginable source," says B. Lee Cooper in the International Journal of Instructional Media. Cooper stresses that pop music, rather than being forbidden from the classroom as a "distraction from learning," should be treated as a supplement, the sugar coating around the less-tasty medicine of general education. For example, elementary school teachers can supplement fairy tales with Aretha Franklin’s "This Is the House That Jack Built" or "Hey, Little Red Riding Hood" by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Health teachers can speak more freely to their students about drugs by playing songs like "Cocaine" by Eric Clapton or "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane (here Cooper suggests bringing up drugs’ effect on the writing of the lyrics).
"Blowin’ in the Wind," "Abraham, Martin and John," and "We Are the World" can be study aids for history classes. Pop music can even be a sex-ed teacher, an accessible, less embarrassing way for kids to talk about more explicit issues. Cooper encourages presenting the lyrics to "I Want Your Sex," "Wild Thing," "You Can Leave Your Hat On" and – perhaps most shockingly – "Hot for Teacher" in the classroom to "create a debate on morality and the limits of free speech in respect to youth-directed commercial broadcasting."
Above all, Cooper insists, "Music educators should not view the recordings favored by their students as either evil or unworthy of classroom investigation. The mark of a learned person is the ability to perceive universal questions in all forms of human endeavors. The realization that all music has some historical or cultural meaning is a lesson in itself."
I never wrote a love song that didn’t have an escape clause in verse three.
– Morrissey, the Smiths
In the culture of female dorm life, pop-music lyrics are a collective soundtrack, a scrapbook, as well as an extension of moods and behavior ready to broadcast via stereo. Each of the sorority sisters living on the Delta Delta Delta dorm floor can remember her high school prom songs ("Wonderful Tonight," "Set the Night to Music," "Celebration"). The sisters with sweethearts share a special song with their boyfriends ("My Funny Valentine," "Brown-Eyed Girl"). Most have already picked out the music for their wedding day ("Because You Love Me," "Cherish") and/or funeral ("Imagine," "The Greatest Love of All," "I Will Remember You").
Jackie, a freckled senior, likes to group and re-record her favorite songs onto tapes: getting-ready-on-a-Saturday-night tapes, tapes for driving, tapes for being pensive. "I have one for when I am super-depressed, and it is so sad. I know every word to all the songs, and I just sing along and cry," she says.
Tapes of songs in which the words don’t matter at all, like Jackie’s boy-bands tape, are usually played "to rev up before a date or something." That’s for when she just wants something fun and loud with a beat, not when she wants to really hear what the artists are saying.
Ziggy, president of the Tri-Delts, agrees. "You come up here right before a party or something, and every room will be blasting the Backstreet Boys." The girls love boy-band ballads, as well. Ziggy was recently in a situation similar to 98 Degrees’ "The Hardest Thing," a boy-band song that breaks the lyrical mold with a Hamlet / Boris Pasternak double-allusion: "I’ve got to be cruel to be kind / Like Dr. Zhivago /All my love I’ll be sending/ Though you will never know." Ziggy points specifically to the lines "It’s the hardest thing I ever had to do/ To try to turn around and walk away/ Pretending I don’t love you."
"I mean, he has feelings for this girl, but he’s gonna stay with his girlfriend, and it really hurts him to do that. I think they express that well; I can hear in his voice how he’s feeling," she gushes.
Others outside the sisterhood associate the Tri-Delts with boy bands, too. "At frat parties, they play whatever the girls want to hear, and whenever the Backstreet Boys come on, the girls go crazy." Courtney rolls her eyes.
Ziggy stops Courtney – "But then after midnight, they start playing booty rap and freak-me music." The sisters groan and list examples of songs lyrics about wet bodies, screams of pleasure, bumping and grinding, and one ditty called "Put It in Your Mouth."
Ziggy laughs. "Those sex songs, I mean, sometimes those lyrics are just unnecessary. Stop taking away all the mystery! We get your point."
According to the Tri-Delts, smoother, sweeter rhythm-and-blues lyrics are a better soundtrack if their favorite boys (the brothers of Sigma Epsilon, Delta Tau Delta and Pi Kappa Pi) want to pitch some woo. Ziggy suggests Maxwell, a ’90s cross between Prince and Barry White.
"In that song, ‘Whenever, Wherever, Whatever,’ he just totally gives himself to this woman," Ziggy sighs. Maxwell wrote the song for "Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite," a concept album that suggestively sings the praises of monogamous partnership. Maxwell croons sotto voce, pledging not only all his affection but also his devotion to his lady’s every physical, financial and emotional need. "I mean, they put something that smooth on and you’re just like – Ummmmnhhhh!" The other Tri-Delts giggle. Courtney gushes, "That song is the sweetest thing. If any man ever said that to me … woooo!"
"Sometimes you’re just like, ‘Jeez! When are the boys ever going to learn?’" Becca says. Three or four of her sisters chime in, "Never!" before collapsing into giggles. In high school Becca was the senior class officer in charge of planning the prom. She suggested the Police’s "Every Breath You Take" as prom theme because of the song’s soft-rock feel and the lyrics’ lovelorn tone. All at once the girls agree that that song is one of the all-time greatest ballads.
"It’s not overly sappy, more kinda upbeat sappy."
"Yeah, the tune’s too catchy for it to be too depressing. It’s quiet. He doesn’t sound depressed enough to be, like, really hurting."
"I think the song is about wanting to spend the rest of your life with someone. He wants the girl to feel protected. I would use it for my wedding, too."
"You could make it your song. Those lyrics are so romantic. I’d love a boy to sing that to me someday."
When Sting wrote the song (a No. 1 hit for the Police in 1984), his inspiration lay far away from the sweeter side of romance:
Every breath you take, every move you make,
Every vow you break, every claim you stake,
I’ll be watching you …
Since you’ve gone, I been lost without a trace,
I dream at night, I can only see your face,
I feel so cold, and I long for your embrace.
I keep callin’ you, Baby, Baby, please.
The song is actually about stalking, as Sting explained to critic Bill Flanagan. "It’s about surveillance and owning, controlling someone, but the reaction," Sting says, "has been one of seduction. They [audiences] want this feeling." In live performances Sting has been known to ad-lib "Hurt me, Baby" into the traditional lyrics. The crowd goes wild every time. "It’s the same idea of sadism, of masochism in a romantic relationship," he says.
To me, [Bob Dylan’s] "The Mighty Quinn" is about the five perfect masters of our age. Of course to Dylan it’s probably about gardening or the joys of putting dog shit in the garbage or something like that. – Pete Townshend
The Tri-Delts aren’t the only ones who misinterpret Sting’s lyrics. In 1997 rap mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs re-recorded a hip-hop version of the song in tribute to his dead cohort, rapper Biggie Smalls (Puffy changed the chorus lyrics to "Every single day/ Every time I pray/I’ll be missing you.") The song recently underscored Keanu Reeves’ love scene in "The Replacements."
"I’ve had so much feedback from people," reports Sting. "‘Dear Sting, My wife and I love "Every Breath You Take." We got married to it. We think of it as our song.’ Well, if that’s your relationship, good luck!"
The same thing happened to Elvis Costello’s 1983 single, "Shipbuilding," which Costello wrote in response to the slanted coverage of the Falklands conflict. Due to a dreamy sax solo and soulful piano accompaniment, the song hit it big in the United Kingdom as a soft-rock ballad. According to Costello on his official Web site, "Somebody wrote me a letter because it was such a nice song about couples going boating. Hmm … I guess I hit a bit off the mark with that one." Costello, however, isn’t bothered. "It’s all part of the fun," he says. "You’ve got to give them enough rope to hang themselves."
Rock-and-roll? Well, its not about getting the chords right, for starters.
– Joe Strummer of the Clash
In other cases, listeners actually mis-hear the lyrics – an understandable mistake, since rockers have never really prided themselves on intelligibility. These lyrical casualties just happen. On the Go-Go’s first tour of Australia, the band quickly realized an entire country had understood their song "Our Lips Are Sealed" to be "Alice the Seal."
On the "Compendium of Misunderstood Lyrics" Web site, Internet surfers can post their own rock malapropisms alongside the original (and quite often equally obscure) lyrics. Users can also try to justify their misinterpretations, as in "I heard it on a bad tape player" or "If you sing it a few times, it really starts to sound culturally relevant." Entries include:
"The Ballad of Davy Crockett": "Killed in a bar" instead of "Killed him a bear."
Genesis: "She seems to have an invisible touch, yeah," bungled into "She seems a half-wit, easy on the top shelf."
The Beatles: In "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," "the girl with kaleidoscope eyes" becomes "the girl with colitis goes by." Also: "Take a bike ride, sir" for "Paperback Writer."
The Beach Boys: "Kokomo" originally included "Martinique, that Monserrat mystique." One user marred the lyric into "I want to eat that mound of rotten steak."
"Jet Air Liner" by the Steve Miller Band has acquired the most crimes against its original lyrics, by a landslide. The simple phrase, "Big ol’ jet air liner," has been fricasseed into "Bingo Jeff had a lion," "Big ol’ Jeff had a rhino," "Bring-o me that-a lighter" and "There go Jed and Delilah," to name a few.
Popular misinterpretation has probably done the most damage to Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 hit "Born in the U.S.A.," written as a satire but canonized as a patriotic rock anthem. Pop fans can repeat the lyrics to the chorus (the same as the title) verbatim, without fail. However, the song’s unintelligible verses, its upbeat musical accompaniment, its jubilant video and an album cover featuring Springsteen’s blue-jeaned backside before an American flag skew the actual lyrics’ meaning far past reclamation. The lyrics read:
Born down in a dead man’s town,
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground,
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much,
’Til you spend half your life just coverin’ up …
Born in the U.S.A., I’m a cool rockin’ daddy in the U.S.A.,
Got in a little hometown jam so they put a rifle in my hand,
Sent me off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man.
The song has been a broadcast favorite every July 4th despite its decidedly un-American lyrics and even became part of the Reagan/Bush re-election campaign as a youthful affirmation of the idyllic America protected by the 1984 Republican ticket. Springsteen tried to counteract such misinterpretations by playing the song only after mentioning various (anti-Republican) labor and civil-rights organizations, but the false patriotic messages stuck, leaving the true lyrics (save the chorus and the originally ironic "I’m a cool rockin’ daddy in the U.S.A.") to fade into obscurity.
Let ’em sing about going steady on the radio. Let them run their hootenannies. But it’s holes like these where the real stories are being told. – Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground
Miki, a local folk singer, didn’t learn the real words to the song till college, and she was a music fan who listened. "Yeah, my sister and me used to put up the hatchback to the car. Then we’d sit in the trunk part and watch the boys go by. I remember listening to it then." Miki laughs hard. "How funny is that? Bruce Springsteen’s singin’ about getting your legs shot off in ’Nam, and my sister and I are trying to pick up guys in our cut-offs."
Miki’s career as a songwriter consists of a few monthly gigs around Pittsburgh with just her guitar. "When you’re the only one out there, you better be saying something important," she notes. Most of her songs play with language and cultural perception, like a plaintive love song in which the speaker begs her boyfriend, "Stay for breakfast/ I don’t got much / Have some sentimental toast," and a country tune about being lonely in Akron, Ohio: "I spent the last hour in the rubber capital without you / Thinking about you."
Playful lyrics like these keep the audience on its toes, especially at a folk show, where song lyrics mean everything. "Damn you, Bob Dylan!" Miki says with a snigger. "If he didn’t write such meaningful stuff, I could get away with sounding like the Backstreet Boys." Miki has a Dylan cover in her acoustic solo repertoire, as well as several by Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, both acknowledged poets of rock. Then "just to screw with people," she’ll do her favorite cover: "Eeeep Op Ork Ah-ah (And That Means I Love You)," a mock space-age song – in the alien language of love – by "The Jetsons" cartoon heartthrob, Jet Screamer.
"The audience always goes ‘Wha?’ ’cause I’m singing nonsense," Miki says. She chose the song because most tunes close to people’s hearts are nonsense. "The first time I heard that part of ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ that went ‘Doo de doo, de doo, doo de do,’ I was blown away. Like those are even words," she exclaims.
Miki points out, however, that nonsense words packed with feeling are far from new. "People in church sing ‘Alleluiah’ and ‘Amen,’ which don’t say anything. They have vowels in them so you can hold the notes out for a long time." However, these lyrics have become words of reverence – accurate depictions of the way hymns make someone feel. "The music becomes the way you worship, instead of just the words to God," Miki says.
According to Miki, the English language is weak. Diverse as it is, sometimes it can’t go places music can. To keep them paired in song, pop music or otherwise, something must express the inexpressible. And in the pairing, though without any literal definition, lyrical jabberwocky takes on a significant meaning of its own so that one cannot separate it from its accompaniment.
Shakespeare knew this centuries ago – in a song from "Much Ado About Nothing," he begs women to stop singing lovelorn songs and instead sing nonsense: "Sigh not so, ladies, Sigh not so," he writes. "And be you blithe and bonny/Converting all your sounds of woe / Into hey nonny-nonny." The same goes for jazz musicians, who invented scat as a way to fuse words and music. The same goes for Van Morrison, who wrote several lofty, descriptive verses to immortalize his mythical brown-eyed girl, only to make the all-important chorus a defiant "Tra-la-la-la-ti-dah." The same goes for Gene Vincent, who could only effectively combine the feelings of sexual glee, youthful exuberance and primal energy into a string of babble. And the same goes for Miki, sitting cross-legged on the floor of her basement apartment, picking through her repertoire on the frets of her guitar, defending her choice of playing animated-cartoon gibberish alongside "Blowin’ in the Wind" and "Both Sides Now."
"So many people have said ‘I love you’ to each other, it’s kind of lost its meaning," Miki says. "Not that any words could ever really talk about love. At least, with ‘Eeeep Op Ork Ah-Ah,’ you get points for being more original."
"It’s more specific that way. Do you know what I mean?" Miki lets out a belly laugh, as if words can’t even help her finish her point. She strums her guitar – a definitive full stop where her words left off …Tra-la-la-la-ti-dah.
When "Ramalamadingdong" was first published, Elena Passarello told Creative Nonfiction that her favorite lyricists were... read more
I came late to writing about food. As I settled in, I read a lot of A.J. Liebling, who, in “Between Meals,” savaged Proust and... read more
I’ve been asked to write about fictive techniques and how they have informed my creative nonfiction, and now that I have begun, the... read more