By Eric J Baker
Song lyrics are not poetry. Alone, they are paint in search of a canvas. They are clingy lovers who insist on doing everything with their partners. They gaze longingly into the eyes of music and say, “You complete me.” Music grits its teeth and thinks, why are you so goddamn needy?
Yet who gets all the glory?
When Americans OD’d on Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill in 1995 (in those ancient times when record stores existed outside of Nick Hornby books), pretentious music writers held a “praise art” orgy in her honor. Her shatteringly awesome lyrics regaled us with the story of her breakup from a boyfriend who turned out to be a cheating jerk. It was so edgy, so intense, so cutting that…
Wait. Back up a second. Men are two-faced jerks who don’t appreciate women? Apparently, these folks were stunned that a rock artist discovered a topic county singers have been beating to death since the 1940s. In fairness to pretentious music writers, they have to rave about the lyrics. It’s job security.
But it was not Alanis’s words that sold us, peeps, it was her delivery. She’s so earnestly pissed off, she’s hyperventilating. She may indeed be brilliant, but not as a lyricist. Maybe, when she’s not singing rock songs, she’s on the cusp of unlocking the secret to cold fusion. That would make her a brilliant physicist. There’s a slight distinction.
Pop lyricists don’t need to be brilliant, just earnest. Whether Chris Martin of Coldplay is telling the tale of a washed-up king who one ruled the world (?) or Chris Brown is crooning about the best way to punch a woman without leaving a bruise, the words merely allow the instrument we call the human voice to invite us in and introduce us to the complete artwork, the song.
Lyrics are dependent on the music they serve. When Bob Marley sings, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds,” in Redemption Song, you might be moved to epiphany, suddenly realizing you are not meant to manage the toy department at Target but, in fact, need to audition for Cirque Du Soleil right now. Or train for the next season of Ninja Warrior. Whatever.
With apologies to your true destiny, it’s just the chords screwing with your emotions, with help from Marley’s impassioned delivery. Look at the line again, without thinking of the melody. It reads like something from Karl Marx Jr.’s Manifesto, Better Living Through Mangled Syntax.
Similarly, when little Jackie Paper dies and Puff the Magic Dragon finally gets to rip his mottled corpse apart and devour the entrails, it’s the minor chords that make you cry, not the splatterpunk lyrics.
No doubt many will argue, what about Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Justin Bieber, John Lennon, et al.? I say even the best lyricists know words are subservient to music. Before you add voice, rock and pop music is two things, a drum beat and chords. Solos, riffs, bass slaps, and samples are just accessories. Accessories must fit the chords and the beat, and so must the words.
Imagine I want to sing:
If you came here for Amanda’s breasts, you’re in for a surprise
Indeed we all go topless, but we’re just a bunch of guys
If the chord changes don’t coincide with the inflections, I can’t use these words. And I thought Haiku was a bitch.
Poetry can touch the heart, stir the soul, and send people on flights of imagination (I guess). Rock lyrics, on the other hand, fight the good fight against literacy. I’m talking about the ubiquitous double negative. It pains me, as a moderately educated human, that I willingly resort to this “technique” to make words fit my music.
But what would we, as music lovers, be left with if our heroes cared about grammar and syntax? What if Mick Jagger, instead of singing, “I can’t… get no… satisfaction,” had tried to cram, “I am… unable to… achieve satisfaction” into a 4/4 beat? You’d have a Viagra commercial. Perhaps “satisfaction eludes me” has poetic grace as a diary excerpt in a Victorian novel, but it don’t fit no three-chord rock song.
At best, song lyrics are clever, but corny lurks in clever’s shadow. The safe choice, in my view, is to be nonsensical. You can’t go wrong with nonsense, as long as you sing it like you mean it. It worked for Jim Morrison. Thanks to hallucinogenic drugs and at least three generations of willing abusers, he’s considered a brilliant poet for saying things like, “He took a face from the ancient gallery, and he WALKED ON DOWN THE HALL!” Remove Ray Manzarek’s moody keys and John Densmore’s jazzy ride cymbal, and you’ve got a crazy, fried alcoholic shuffling around the stage in a stupor, performing pretty, but meaningless, spoken word.
Speaking of Jim Morrison, I never met a woman who didn’t get turned on by his scream. You know, the “mmmmmmrrrrraaALLRAHT YE-YAH!” he’d bust out just before an interminable keyboard solo at least three times per album. Jim Morrison, dead, gets more women in one day than I’d get if I lived a thousand years.
I gotta work on my scream.
To illustrate that good nonsense is better than failed art, compare the best opening lyric in the history of music to the worst (as determined by an exhaustive 10 seconds of thinking while driving).
The best opening lyric in recorded music belongs to They Might Be Giants, from the track, “Nothing’s Going to Change My Clothes,” off their 1986 self-titled debut, which goes:
All the people are so happy now; their heads are caving in
I’m glad they are a snowman with protective rubber skin
You almost don’t need the music to appreciate such genius-grade nonsense.
The worst opening is Iron Maiden’s “Quest for Fire” from Piece of Mind (1983):
In the time when dinosaurs walked the Earth…
Like a great novel, it sets the time, place, and mood in one simple phrase. An economy of words that Steinbeck would admire. Unfortunately, the five guitars and galloping drums mean that it’s not one of the great dinosaur novels of our age but, rather, a really dumb-ass heavy metal song.
But something more sinister is afoot here than merely the worst lyrics of all time. Later in this song, Iron Maiden sings, “So they [cavemen] ploughed through forest and swamps of danger, and they fought the cannibal tribes and beasts…”
Hold on… Dinosaurs. People. Living together?
I knew it! Iron Maiden are creationists. Just as Jake and Elwood Blues hate Illinois Nazis, I am not big on east London creationists.
Normally, I’d transition to a paragraph mocking creationism, but since this is about art, I admit creationists have some pretty good material. Indeed, the single greatest artist in history (an admittedly audacious statement), Michelangelo Buonarroti, painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which literally is about biblical creation.
Or is it?
No. It’s actually a massive shrine to the joy of homosexuality. The biggest, gayest artwork in the world, almost as gay as Adam Lambert’s stage show. And it has been pissing on creationists’ oblivious heads since 1512, with its army of 15-foot-tall nude gay men lounging mere yards from the God they so offend, who’s too busy whipping up a universe to notice. Ah, Michelangelo. You had balls the size of your David’s head.
So my rant today will instead be about the perpetual and stupid myth that Michelangelo painted the ceiling while lying on his back. First, the Sistine Chapel ceiling is concave and scaffolds are flat. On your back, you’d need 12-foot-long arms to touch the ceiling’s surface with your brush. Second, it’s a fresco, which is watercolor on moist plaster. The paint must go on very quickly and very wet (insert your own “losing virginity” joke here), meaning M needed to, I don’t know, see the paint. Trying choosing the right color while flat on your back and tell me how it goes.
You know, if people applied logic, they wouldn’t walk around thinking artists paint lying down or planets are 6000 years old. Sometimes I get so earnestly annoyed I could… I could…
I could write a song about it! You ready for this, music writers?