Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
If you’re like me, there are songs you find so catchy you can’t stop listening to them, even when you hate the words and what the song’s about, and the message if any. A lot of rap music is like this for me—like Snoop Dogg’s “Step Yo Game Up” is so crude and dumb and sexist, but I can’t stop singing it. What are some songs you love even though you hate the lyrics? —Caitlyn
I’ve been thinking about this recently, ever since finally watching the first season of Glee meant getting exposed to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” over and over and over. Previously, I just hated that song. After Glee song-imprinted it on me, though, I hated it and couldn’t stop listening to it. And of course the more I listen to it, the more I hate the lyrics, from the smugly specific product-placement nod to Deréon jeans to that whole calling-herself-it thing. (When we kicked this song around in a recent Inventory, several people claimed “it” isn’t Beyoncé herself, it’s her finger. Uh-huh. And when she follows that with “Don’t be mad when you see that he want it”—and in the video, waggles and pats her ass meaningfully at the same time—is she still talking about her finger?) Ugh. Hate, hate, hate. I think I’ll go listen to it again now. Before this, though, my biggest hate-the-lyrics-but-can’t-stop-listening fixation was Toby Keith’s “Beer For My Horses,” which Nathan recently picked apart in his Nashville Or Bust column. He sums it up perfectly accurately: “In spite of—or because of—its bloodthirsty rhetoric and simplistic take on crime, it’s a hell of a catchy song.” Sadly, I’m a sucker for the kind of harmony Keith and Willie Nelson engage in in that song, even when the “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out” message makes me want to tear my hair. Or theirs.
The oeuvre of Neil Young offers so many loamy turds, it’s hard to pick just one. The casual sexism of “A Man Needs A Maid”? The groaning pun of “Like A Hurricane”? Surely the “Powderfinger” gem ”Big John’s been drinkin’ since the river took Emmylou” represents some sort of nadir in the annals of lyric-writing. But even among Young’s stinkers, “Cortez The Killer” shines out like a shaft of gold. Ostensibly an attack on Spanish colonialism, the song portrays the Aztecs Cortez conquered as naïve, peace-loving savages for whom “hate was just a legend, and war was never known.” Apparently under the impression that the Aztecs conquered most of present-day Mexico by way of moral suasion, Young reduces them to an idealized caricature every bit as reductive and dehumanizing as the Spaniards’ colonialist rhetoric. That said, when Young rips loose a 15-minute-plus version in concert, the words hardly matter. Being even a casual Neil Young fan means looking past his crude lyrics to the primal eloquence of his guitar playing, and prizing above all the moments when the simplicity of both works in perfect unison. “Tonight’s The Night” isn’t exactly poetic, but it hits home the way Young’s best songs do, favoring pungent detail over vapid universals.
Oasis was my favorite band in high school, in large part because Noel and Liam Gallagher openly celebrated aspects of the rock ’n’ roll style that made PC paragons like Eddie Vedder and Michael Stipe furrow their brows back in the mid-’90s. There was nothing pretentious about this band—every great Oasis song was a means to an end, and that end involved doing lots of drugs, shagging scores of groupies, and being in it only for the money. It’s no coincidence that Noel Gallagher promptly stopped writing great Oasis songs once he became rich; why bother at that point? But even when he was trying to be good, he never really cared about writing decent lyrics. Which brings me to “Some Might Say,” a top-five all-time Oasis song—and one of the great rock ’n’ roll anthems of its time—that has some of the most carelessly shat-out lyrics ever offered up for public consumption. The best that can be said of “Some Might Say” is that the words rhyme where they’re supposed to. Other than that, this song has lines that aren’t even worthy of being called dummy lyrics. Consider this immortal stanza: “’Cause I’ve been standing at the station, in need of education in the rain / You made no preparation for my reputation once again / The sink is full of fishes, ’cause she’s got dirty dishes on the brain / And my dog’s been itchin’, itchin’ in the kitchen once again.” For the record, that was 48 words and zero expressions of insipid-free lucidity.
The big open secret of pop music is that at least 90 percent of the lyrics are terrible. And that’s fine! The earnest claims of well-meaning high-school English teachers notwithstanding, song lyrics are not poetry, and shouldn’t be held to the same standard. They aren’t meant to be taken on their own; they’re meant to be experienced in the context of the musical framework in which they’re presented, and that’s their salvation. The musical context is what transforms deeply crappy lyrics into part of a wonderful song, from the functionally retarded lyrics of most rock songs to the misogynistic and/or materialistic lyrics of any number of rappers to the mawkish, deeply embarrassing twaddle found in a typical love song. Having said this, though, I would be remiss as The A.V. Club’s preeminent metalhead if I failed to point out that the lyrics to heavy-metal songs are, even more so than most rock ’n’ roll, profoundly stupid. It’s one reason I never understand the objection to the death-metal growl: Who on Earth wouldn’t think rendering metal lyrics into an incomprehensible roar was an improvement? From the day Black Sabbath rhymed “masses” with “masses” through decades of doltish Satan-glorification, asinine rhyming Dungeons & Dragons modules, and cut-rate would-be-offensive nihilism, metal lyrics have been where cleverness goes to die. As someone who loves metal beyond all reason, I say it’s a blessing that most metal albums don’t contain a lyric sheet, and that metal is something you enjoy in spite of the lyrics, not because of them. If I had to pick a single representative of this truth, it would have to be Venom’s “Black Metal”; the song was a tremendous gap-bridger between punk and metal, and it grandfathered the black-metal revolution, but the lyrics are dumber than a sack of wet rocks. Behold this cretinous quatrain from the second verse:
“Freaking so wild, nobody’s mild
Giving it all that you’ve got
Wild is so right, metal tonight
Faster than over the top.”
You could actually write a doctoral thesis on how dumb those lyrics are. The song absolutely kicks ass, but my IQ dropped 7 to 10 points as I typed them out.
As an avid and lifelong tea drinker, I ought to love the lyrics to Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf.” But the song, as I have come to find out, isn’t about tea at all—it’s about marijuana, an herb I can only assume would taste horrible infused with bergamot and mixed with milk. Of course, from a strictly musical viewpoint, “Sweet Leaf” is unimpeachable; featuring one of Tony Iommi’s most thunderous riffs, the song is another of Black Sabbath’s many enduring and indelible contributions to Western culture. But the song’s Geezer Butler-penned lyrics—including that telltale opening cough and couplets like “You introduced me to my mind / and left me wanting you and your kind” (emphasis on the “kind”)—laughably bulldoze over the whole idea of coded innuendo and lay the rolling papers right out on the table. It’s almost as if the man himself was high when he wrote them. Granted, Ozzy went along with it, and he’s also the one who felt the need to loudly whisper “Cocaine!” after the first verse of Sabbath’s “Snowblind,” just to make sure you know what kind of snow he’s so subtly discussing.
The Beatles tune “Hey Bulldog” has a lot going for it: a kick-ass piano riff, a nice jangly guitar solo, and what sounds like a lot of team spirit for a late(ish)-period Beatles song. It even has a few great lines, like “What makes you think you’re something special when you smile?” I like the chorus of “If you’re lonely, you can talk to me.” But the first two lines of each verse: “Sheepdog, standing in the rain / Bullfrog, doing it again” and “Big man walking in the park / Wigwam frightened of the dark” are what prevent me from saying it’s one of the most underrated Beatles songs of all time. They just sound like stand-ins for what were supposed to be more meaningful lyrics later. “It’s a good-sounding record that means nothing,” Lennon apparently later said of the song. But meaningless songs don’t have to be quite so meaningless, especially when you’re Lennon and McCartney.
Well, I could probably be flip and just say “every New Order song,” because in spite of the fact that I absolutely love that band, Bernard Sumner routinely wrote some serious, serious clunkers. Instead, I’ll focus on what was probably the last great song the band ever released (and probably will ever release): “Regret,” the single from 1993’s Republic. It starts out fine enough, with “Maybe I’ve forgotten the name and the address of everyone I’ve ever known / It’s nothing I regret,” but it eventually succumbs to Barney’s predisposition toward laziness—grabbing a phrase that kinda, sorta works in context, but just comes across as a weak-ass first try. Sing it with me: “I would like a place I could call my own / have a conversation on the telephone.” C’mon, man—“own” has plenty of potential rhymes, and it isn’t really tough to have a conversation in someplace not called your own.
My massive list of guilty pleasures surely suggests otherwise, but I’m really not an Alanis Morissette fan. I don’t own any of her records, I’ve never seen her perform, and I only know she’s still alive because I haven’t heard anything about her death. In fact, I remember truly hating “You Oughta Know” and wishing that whoever was singing that horrible, horrible song would swiftly become a one-hit wonder. But, alas, the singles from Jagged Little Pill kept coming, and that’s when “Ironic” got me. What’s left of the cool kid in me has always enjoyed pointing out that Morissette sounds a lot like Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser during the bridge, but the whole truth of the matter is that musically, I like the entire song. It’s super-catchy, and there’s something about Morissette harmonizing with herself during the chorus that used to stop me in my tracks every time I heard it in the grocery store. But man, those lyrics. Terrible. I’m certainly not the first person to point this out, but nothing that she’s singing about is ironic: Rain on your wedding day? 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife? Finding out that the dude you like is married? Those are all just examples of bad luck, generally illustrating that life just kind of sucks. As some comedian once noted, “The only ironic thing about that song is it’s called ‘Ironic’ and it’s written by a woman who doesn’t know what irony is. That’s quite ironic.”