Saturday, September 12, 2009

On Song Lyrics and Semantics

I just can’t make it work. “Slowly walking down the hall/ Faster than a cannonball.”

It isn’t that I don’t like Oasis. I do. The words may be a little clichéd, but surely that doesn’t matter in a song lyric. What does matter, at least to me, and maybe only to me, is that they work semantically. You just can’t walk slowly, faster than a cannonball.

Or maybe these two lines aren’t meant to go together. But surely “Someday you will find me/Caught beneath the landslide/In a champagne supernova in the sky” is meant to be listened to as a single image.

I like the imagery. Caught beneath the landslide is nice. So is a champagne supernova in the sky. I can picture both of them vividly. But not together.

The landslide is geographic and earthbound. The supernova is astronomical and as Gallagher rightly says, ‘in the sky.’ Perhaps they were inspired by U2’s “Elevation:” “Going down, excavation/High and high in the sky.”

“Supersonic” isn’t quite as bad, but it comes close: “I know a girl called Elsa/She's into Alka Seltzer/She sniffs it through a cane on a supersonic train.”

I'm trying to imagine sniffing Alka Seltzer through a cane (never mind the train) but it isn't working.

My husband tells me I’m just being stupid. No one listens to song lyrics. He even got angry when I suggested that Motörhead’s "Killed by Death" was a terrible tautology.

Unless, I mused, while his face reddened, it’s a personified death – like the grim reaper.

“Stop it!” he shouted. "It’s rock and roll, not poetry."

But the words are still there in front of me. I’m not talking about songs which are acknowledged as stupid.

This isn’t a blog about "Muskrat Love," "Afternoon Delight," "Kung Foo Fighting," or anything by Bobby Goldsboro. I’m writing about respected songwriters who can turn a phrase with the best of them.

Maybe it is me. Maybe people don’t even notice lyrics like “the heat was hot” (at least it makes sense), or “And cause never was the reason for the evening/Or the tropic of Sir Galahad.”

Hang on, I get it. It’s drugs. I don’t do enough to dull my sense of semantics. Otherwise I might find “an eagle in the eye of a hurricane that's abandoned” profound rather than confusing.

I know Kate Bush doesn’t do drugs though, because she says so. But my kids were listening to her latest the other day when they started laughing hysterically. "What’s so funny?" I asked, looking for camaraderie. She’s singing, rather seriously, about a washing machine, they managed to get out, between tears and hiccups.

Slooshy sloshy slooshy sloshy
Get that dirty shirty clean
Slooshy sloshy slooshy sloshy
Make those cuffs and collars gleam
Everything clean and shiny
Washing machine
Washing machine
Washing machine (Mrs Bartolozzi)

It isn’t just the lyrics. It’s Kate’s extended soprano during the chorus that gives the song an almost operatic feel. That’s obviously the impact of motherhood on her.

Or how about Dylan’s “Million Dollar Bash?”

“I looked at my watch, I looked at my wrist/I punched myself in the face with my fist/I took my potatoes down to be mashed, and I made it on over to that million dollar bash.”

Wouldn’t want to forget the mashed spuds now – the perfect party accessory.

I like Dylan. Even more than I like Oasis. And many of his lyrics are great, so I suppose a few duds are inevitable.

But what about “Follow me, don't follow me/I've got my spine, I've got my Orange Crush?" What about “Lights will guide you home/And ignite your bones/And I will try to fix you?"

Like Dylan, both REM and Coldplay are lauded for their excellent lyrics. But what's the relationship between spines and Orange Crush (presumably the soft drink). The lights guiding bones are presumably something like plane landing lights, and I can see them guiding home, but igniting bones? They must be pretty hot.

Maybe, as my husband keeps telling me, I’d better stop listening so carefully. The point isn’t to make sense, he says, and who cares about mixed metaphors? You’ve got to take the music as a complete package. Its purpose is to make people dance, sing along. So sharrup.

I’d better do like he says. Otherwise I’ll get put in the corner with a Roxette CD: “Walking like a man, hitting like a hammer, she's a juvenile scam. Never was a quitter. Tasty like a raindrop, she's got the look.”

Give me back Oasis, please. It’s only rock and roll, right?

Reprinted from blogcritics

1 comment:

  1. This is so cool Maggie; tell Martin it's not your fault. I started this in you early. I cannot not listen to lyrics. Silly is fine, but stupid nonsequitors and ridiculous imagery -not so fun.
    Otherwise better do it really well like "I Am the Walrus," by the Beatles.