Song lyrics have been on my mind a lot the last few days. I’ve told you about how my father could recite the lyrics of every classic rock song ever written, even if sometimes his interpretation of what was being sung was somewhat out there. In fairness to him, he certainly wasn’t unique in his lyric dyslexia, as anyone who’s ever scrunched their eyebrows to “Louie Louie” can attest. (The FBI investigated the song for several years in the 60’s to try and determine if it was obscene – your tax dollars at work, folks.) In an era where written verse has retreated to the obscure, impenetrable domain of the hipster, music lyrics are our most accessible form of poetry. The trouble is, the stuff that is the most popular tends to function on a level no more complicated than “Roses are red, violets are blue.” It is as though there has been a collective decision that nobody’s listening to what’s being sung, so it doesn’t matter what the words are. The trouble is, blandness and vapidity doesn’t just drag the song itself down – it diminishes all of music.
Recently, I was struck by a verse from a song that you’ve heard if you saw The Adjustment Bureau – “Future’s Bright,” by film composer Thomas Newman and Richard Ashcroft. Presented for your consideration: “When Icarus fell from the sky, the plough still turned the field and the child still cried.” The song isn’t the greatest ever written, nor is this the most inspiring lyric ever growled by a semi-obscure Brit alt-rocker. But it’s stuck with me regardless, I think because it is at the least an attempt at poetry inside a very commercial product. It’s plain language, but still evokes strong imagery and draws allusion to classical myth – challenging the listener, in effect, to find out who Icarus was and why his fall is significant, particularly in the context of the greater message about the optimism inherent in looking forward at a life filled with possibility. How refreshingly old-fashioned, when the lion’s share of popular music these days seems devoted to discussing the shapely undulations of a female’s hind parts in da club.
Elvis Costello said recently that his favourite couplet in all of music was Cole Porter’s line from “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”: “Use your mentality, wake up to reality.” My personal favourite is Paul McCartney’s famous closing statement, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make” – an incomparably beautiful, spiritual, philosophical reflection on the meaning of life, one whose genius even the compliment-stingy John Lennon was able to admit. Both songs come from an era where more was expected from music. There has always been an element of sales and the view of songs strictly as product, particularly in the halcyon days of Tin Pan Alley, but it seems to me that writers just used to try harder. These days? Three writers to declare “Pedicures on our toes, toes, trying on all new clothes, clothes, boys blowing up our phones, phones” and then misspell the Kesha song’s title, “Tik Tok.” (Were we under the mistaken impression beforehand that pedicures could be applied to the elbow?) It took nine writers – nine independent minds, collaborating, just ponder that for a second – to string together the pronouncement, “Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got, I’m still, I’m still Jenny from the Block.” Yet it only took Freddie Mercury to write all of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Whiskey Tango Foxtrot indeed. When did it become acceptable to settle for so much less?
Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of great songwriters out there still giving their all and trying desperately to earn space on the radio alongside Selena Gomez declaring over and over, in a blinding flash of self-referential insight, that she loves you “like a love song, baby.” No doubt in the classical music era there were a hundred failed composers for every Mozart or Beethoven. The difference between then and now, is that the democratization of media – as beneficial as it is in some respects – has led to the mediocre stuff attaining heights of popularity deserved only by the brilliant. The hacks of the 18th Century music scene are long and deservedly forgotten. Rebecca Black got a music career in spite of, and in fact because of being dreadful. We can’t blame the artists (or wannabes) for this, as much as we may feel like stabbing out our ears with icepicks rather than endure Bieber whining “baby, baby,” one more time. We’re the ones who decided to stop demanding better – we decided that French fries were preferable to vichyssoise, regardless that the musical equivalent of saturated fat does nothing but make our brains lethargic and stupid.
Part of the fun of trying to figure out the lyrics of some of those older songs was the premise that whatever was being warbled beneath overdubs of guitar and keyboard was something worth discovering. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” the gold standard for misheard lyrics along with Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” is a rollicking, foot-tapping number whose words, while straighforward, still manage to function on the level of metaphor. You can at least sense that there is an inquisitive mind behind the syllables, not a soulless, management-appointed committee more interested in demographics than saying anything substantial. That’s why no one really cares that much what “Hey Mister DJ, come pon de replay” means. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it, but it’s not one you’ll ever want to sing to yourself in the shower.