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Great Song, Awful Lyrics

October 12, 2010

My iPod is home to a large number of different songs that I am embarrassed to listen to. Sometimes I have an uncomfortable mental image of being hit by a car and dying almost immediately upon impact, and the paramedic who tried his best to save me pulling my iPod from the pocket of the jacket he had previously peeled from my mangled upper body and scrolling through, just out of curiosity mind you, he’s had a hard day, he has a job most of us couldn’t dream of doing so don’t you dare judge him, he’s human, anyway scrolling through and finding, for example, “C’mon and Ride It (The Train)” by the Quad City DJs, and then at the funeral, which he comes to out of pure niceness, he’s sitting there in his fine suit, with his paramedic jacket over it because he’s proud of his work, and someone from my life is up at the microphone commenting on how I touched everyone I knew but not literally, and the braver audience members are giggling at their recollections of me and how the microphone person has it dead-on and how I really would have appreciated that comment because the word play was right up my alley and in fact it was almost like the speaker had channeled me somehow, and the paramedic is trying gamely to pay attention but overriding all of his efforts is a single line from the song stuck in his head: “Ride that choo-choo. Wooo-woooo!”

Other songs in my iPod are only semi-embarrassing. One subcategory of these is the Great Song, Awful Lyrics collection.

Since the beginning of time, songs have had lyrics. Some of them are really good. Some of them aren’t. Most of them aren’t, if you think about them without the music. And some of these most are so bad as to be almost unforgivable. Written by people who compose a kickass tune and are often excellent singers as well, awful lyrics can ruin a song if you let them.

– Let’s let them! Can we? Please? Come on, Kate, you love pointing out the ridiculousness of things!

– Calm down. You know we’re going to; otherwise I wouldn’t have started writing this post.

Exhibit A: “Disarm” (The Smashing Pumpkins)

This song breaks my heart, it’s so fucking beautiful. When the cello comes in–forget it, it’s genius, you will never accomplish anything so harmonious, I don’t care who you are. Siamese Dream is a classic album and “Disarm” is the best song on it. But do not listen to the words. Don’t. Don’t, I said! Now you’re totally doing it.

Disarm you with a smile
And leave you like they left me here
To wither in denial
The bitterness of one who’s left alone

Goddamn it, Billy Corgan! Are you 14 years old? I can’t even begin to figure out how to punctuate this. Okay, imaginary blog post audience, don’t keep listening. Don’t keep–augh, you’re still listening!

What I choose is my choice.

One word: TAUTOLOGY.

Everything by the Pumpkins has this same problem. Great music, awful lyrics. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness? Why would you name your musically brilliant double album that? It’s not even word play, it’s just…bad spelling followed by hilarious teen angst. Infinite sadness, huh? Mystifying. And skip down to “Zero” (disc 1, track 4): “Emptiness is loneliness and loneliness is cleanliness and cleanliness is godliness and God is empty, just like me.” ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME, WILLIAM? MILLIONS OF SARCASTIC PEOPLE ARE GOING TO BE LISTENING TO THIS ALBUM FOR DECADES! REVISE THAT SHIT!

Okay, new topic before I bust a gasket. Wait, what’s a gasket? Let’s ask an online etymology dictionary.

1622, caskette “small rope or plaited coil used to secure a furled sail,” of uncertain origin, perhaps from Fr. garcette “little girl,” dim. of garce “wench,” fem. of garçon (q.v.). Sense of “packing (originally of braided hemp) to seal metal joints” first recorded 1829.

Um. That didn’t go at all how I expected it to. Etymology, ladies and gentlemen. It’ll be here all week. Tip your serving wench.

Moving on. Exhibit B: Everything by the Cranberries.

I discovered the Cranberries at a time when the music world was dominated by male singers. No, that’s useless, I’ll have to be more specific: it was the mid-’90s. I was just starting to realize that life might be unfair, from a gender standpoint. Hadn’t yet managed to articulate it in words, but the feeling was there. And in stepped the breathtaking lead vocalist of–I’m pretty sure this is accurate–Ireland’s second most popular band ever. She had a voice like nobody else had and was clearly a rockin’ and kickass human being. I have long since replaced her with Joanna Newsom, who is equally rockin’ and kickass, plus more vocally weird, on top of which she’s by far the greatest lyricist of my generation, whatever we’re called. But in 1995 I was all about Dolores from the Cranberries. That one video with the cat suit?

[awkward pause]

What kept me from full-on obsession with that band was my temporarily somewhat-beloved’s terrible, terrible lyrics. How much mileage does one person think it’s possible to get out of rhyming “sad” with “bad” (or “mad”)? Does it really belong / In every single song? “Here” and “near” is a close second, employed approximately 200 times within the discography. And then there are all the tracks with no discernible rhyme scheme at all, plus not a lot in the way of rhythm.The syntax is, at times, every bit as forced as that of notorious terriblawesome 19th-century poet William McGonagall. This is just a classic case of a person who should definitely be singing and writing tunes but should equally definitely not be writing poetry. One verse of “Ode to My Family” is enough to prove beyond a doubt that we couldn’t have made a go of it long-term:

Where’s when I was young and we didn’t give a damn,
‘Cause we were raised to see life as fun and take it if we can?
My mother, my mother, she’d hold me.
She’d hold me when I was out there.
My father, my father, he liked me.
He liked me.
Does anyone care?

I might be persuaded to care, Dolores, but first you would have to REVISE THAT SHIT!

This post is already over 1000 words long so I’m going to shut it down before I get to Eddie Vedder, another person with an amazing singing voice and obvious tunewriting prowess who should be leaving the lyricism to somebody else (go give a careful listen to any track from Ten, or nearly any track from any of the subsequent albums–especially that one song from No Code–I think it’s about a suicidal friend or something–where he sings “perfectly” as a four-syllable word to fit the metre).

Ride that choo-choo. Woo-woooo!

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