Why rock 'n' roll songs have such silly lyrics.

I’ll tell you ’bout the magic and it’ll free your soul,
But it’s like trying to tell a stranger about rock ’n’ roll.

—The Lovin’ Spoonful

Don the bartender has had it with rock ‘n’ roll. After over twenty years of listening to it, studying it, performing it, and promoting it, he’s sold most of his rock albums and since then purchased a handful of blues and piano jazz CDs—all instrumental. Now at thirty-five, he’s too busy to keep up with pop anyway, what with pulling pints several evenings a week and going to college full time.

But if you see Don at the bar when he’s taking his break, chain-smoking in the way-back booth with a Milan Kundera novel, drinking whiskey camouflaged in a coffee mug, he’ll tell you stories about the days when rock songs were his life.

Back then, Don had an extensive rock collection, records cared for like his babies, an alphabetized and attractively shelved library of his children, sorted by genre. He polished the vinyl with special-order, lint-free cloths and kept the liner notes in protective plastic sleeves.

“I had close to a thousand albums, and I knew the words to nearly every one of those songs, I swear,” Don says. From this room of records, Don taught himself the art of songwriting. Every paycheck, he would head across town to Jim’s Records (now Paul’s CDs) for what both he and the store clerks called “tuition payments.”

“I was obsessive, you know? Every time I heard someone do something new, I’d be like How did they come up with that? Why did they change? What does that mean? and I’d listen to the song over and over again till I got it.” Don chuckles. “Then I’d steal it and say I came up with it first.”

Things went like this throughout Don’s adolescence and well into his twenties. “I spent the past twenty-five years of my life trying to write the perfect song,” he says. For a while, Don thought he was getting close to his goal. For twelve years, he was singer, guitarist, and lyricist in Room to Move, a funk-rock band that earned significant regional attention, even got a few songs on the radio. “The best one I wrote was called ‘Sex Me Down.’ It was a slow jam about, you know, straight-up ‘bed fun,’ and people remembered it.” Then, referring to a supermarket chain, he adds, “Once, I heard a guy singing the words in the Giant Eagle, and I thought I was the shit.”

According to Don, when Room to Move played “Sex Me Down” at the Decade (Pittsburgh’s premier small venue, back then), “It was not uncommon for a half-dozen sorority girls to disrobe when my lyrics asked them to.” But after nearly a decade of little more than gigs at the Decade, Don’s band dissolved to “get married, make babies, get real jobs”—a decision Don regrets because he knows his songs could’ve hit big in the right market.

“I mean, my writing’s so much better than what’s out there now,” Don says. “There’s no storytelling in pop music anymore. It’s all about figuring out a way to sing Fuck me to the beat with a bare midriff.” Don admits that songs of his like “Sex Me Down” deal with similar subjects, but his lyrics “brought in the whole experience: meeting someone, dancing all night, and then the different ways to ask for lovin’,” he says. “And we didn’t use any of those silly clichés. I put my own style into it, you know? And the originality is what made it hit.”

Plus, Don has never bared his midriff in a performance.

“You know what the problem is? Nobody writes songs about cars anymore,” Don says. “When I was in high school, those songs about cars felt so good to sing, you could hear the excitement in their voices. That’s why I totally bankrupted myself on buying records.” Don shrugs, takes a drag from his fifth cigarette. “I guess I just don’t get excited like that anymore.”

I saw rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.
—Jon Landau

The sixth-period acting class at Richard Turnbull School for the Performing Arts still gets really excited about pop music. Oldies, punk, rap, and bubble-gum pop are all ripe for heated class discussions—some of which, according to teacher Ron McClelland, nearly come to blows. Just about every single kid in class has bought a CD in the past two weeks.

Ann, fourteen, visits the music store with her dad every Friday. Last Friday, they bought Macy Gray’s new release. This week, she hasn’t decided—Patsy Cline, maybe. Ann is sixth period’s resident music expert; she has the biggest CD collection in the class (as well as the biggest grin). Of the 350 CDs in her collection, none overlap with her dad’s collection of over one thousand CDs, tapes, and (snicker) records. The minute Ann gets a CD, she tears off that pesky cellophane wrapping, opens the jewel case, and pores over the lyric sheets. If a CD doesn’t come with lyric sheets, she gets really mad, even though usually the lyrics turn up on the Internet.

Even though Ann hasn’t had a chance to listen to the Macy Gray CD all the way through, she’s read the liner notes a couple of times. “I always read the lyrics before I listen to the music,” Ann says. Sometimes she takes the lyric notes to school so she can read them on the bus.

Toya, fifteen, is soft-spoken but adamant about her love for boy bands— the newest breed of teenybopper groups in the style of the Osmonds and the Jackson Five. Toya just used her birthday money to buy tapes by Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and *NSYNC in one gigantic purchase. The boy bands’ songs are cool because the radio plays most of the songs from the album, so she knows all the songs before she goes to the music store. “I like it when I can understand all the words, and I hate it when I don’t know what the story is,” she says.

“What story? Ugh! I can’t stand that stuff,” Lydia interrupts. Lydia is seventeen and uberhip—the type of girl who gets away with leopard-print jackets and combat boots in the eleventh grade. “I mean, what are those people singing about? ‘Backstreet’s Back’—what are they back from? Hello! It’s fun for what it is, I guess, but you don’t need to know the words to understand it.” That makes her wonder, “So why did they write words for it in the first place?”

Lydia openly hates Top 40 radio, and she’s saving up for an import CD of her favorite singer, Björk, since she already has all of Björk’s major U.S. releases. “None of Björk’s songs are just about love,” Lydia explains. “They’re about love on top of a mountain or lovers pretending to be secret agents or … I don’t know, just cooool stuff!” The biggest problem with the big pop bands, according to Lydia, is that they don’t write their own lyrics. “For me, the singer-songwriter connection has got to be there,” Lydia says. “It’s okay if it’s simple, just as long as it’s their own, you know?”

Armand and Justin, both fourteen, like what they call “gangsta rap” best, especially the Puff Daddy song “It’s All about the Benjamins.” They’re sick of everyone in the class talking about music they can and can’t relate to. For Armand and Justin (who, according to Mr. McClelland, often speak as a team), lyrics don’t have to make sense; they just have to sound good. “And anyway, I can relate to talking about driving a Mercedes, and I can’t even drive,” Armand says. “And if I had a coupla benjamins, that’s probably what I’d spend it on.”

Justin says his mom gets on him about the Snoop Dogg CD he recently bought because of its sexually explicit, chauvinistic lyrics. “I don’t know why, but the first time I heard it, I was like, ‘Man! That’s tight,’ but it doesn’t make me want to go out and hurt women or anything.”

Michelle, sixteen, lets out a snort. “What are you talkin’ about? You don’t even hang out with any women.”

“Shut up!” Justin says. “I like it because it’s real and it’s funny. It sounds cool.”

Michelle is a ballerina—all delicate lines and angles—who says she’s used to being the outspoken student. She can’t stand Justin and Armand’s “booty rap” or any other songs that are “down on women.” She’d rather listen to Whitney Houston. “I love Whitney,” she says. “I sing ‘The Greatest Love of All’ with my mom, and her other songs, too. Whitney’s lyrics mean everything, and they are meant to inspire people.”

“Yeah, but at the dances, ‘Back That Thing Up’ comes on, and you’ll be the first person on the dance floor,” Armand says.

Michelle interrupts Armand. “I like the beat! I dance to the beat. I don’t dance to the words!”

Armand interrupts Michelle. “It sure looks like you’re listening to the words, ’cause I seen you back that thing up tons of times!”

Meanwhile, back at the bar, Don mentions one of the only rock artists he still keeps in his collection—Bob Dylan.

“Bob Dylan knows how to write a love song,” Don says. “He would never sing something like ‘I miss your booty,’ because that’s not how love feels. I know people who decided to spend their whole lives together because of Dylan.”

Don refers to the same song Michelle and Armand fought over: Juvenile’s ‘Back That Thing Up,’ which is a re-written-for radio version of his “Back That Azz Up.” The Dirty South rap hit alternates between unintelligible and unprintable lyrics, most of which allude to a woman’s posterior:

Girl you look good, won’t you back that thing up. You’re a big, fine woman,

won’t you back that thing up. Call me big daddy when you back that thing up.

‘Ho, who’s you playin’ with? Back that thing up.

“It’s not that the music is sleazy; it’s just written so stupid,” Don says. According to him, even subjects of the most primal form—courtship and sexual longing—must be dealt with using lyrical artistry as well as honesty. Blunt as they are, songs like “Back That Thing Up” don’t accurately target human feeling.

“Every time I hear them, I want to vomit. I mean, they think they sound so cool.” Don shakes his head in disgust, “Don’t make me laugh.”

But pop lyrics have been a joke since the day rock was born.

Little Richard gave me my first lesson in rock ’n’ roll. The lesson went: Awopbopaluwopawopbamboom!
—Nik Cohn

Case in point: September 1956, when Steve Allen discussed the poetry of early rock in the opening monologue of The Tonight Show.

“The men who in other days would be writing epic poetry are occupied today writing the lyrics to popular songs,” Allen said. He was holding a large paper folio. “And I think, therefore, that if we look into these popular tunes, we can very often find true beauty.” Then, clearing his throat and cocking his head slightly as if to summon the muse of recitation, Allen soulfully inhaled as xylophone arpeggio tinkled off-camera. In a formal, totally square tone, Allen read aloud, “Bee . . . Bop, Ah Loo-bah / She’s my baby.” Here Allen paused for the chuckles from the audience. “Bee . . . Bop, Ah Loo-bah.” He frowned academically into the camera. “I do not mean maybe!” He almost giggled to himself. “Bee, Bop, Ah Loo-bah / She’s my baby love. My baby love. My baby love.”

The audience howled. Allen closed his pages and smirked as if to say, “The second verse is even dumber. How stupid can all those youngsters be? It barely even rhymes. So there, Gene Vincent! Take that, teenyboppers! Put that in your pipe and smoke it, hipsters!” And then he crossed the stage and graciously introduced the evening’s musical guest, Fats Domino.

Even though they might fail as poetry, these words in the context of the actual song explode. Under a low, waggling bass and a soft, pelvic snare beat, Vincent hesitates, squeeeezing out every nonsense syllable as if the sexiness of the lady in question has left him short of breath. Then just when the listener is about to shiver from the rockin’ tension, the snare drum bursts into squad-drill, and Vincent’s drummer lets out a primal scream in the background. No wonder adolescent girls swooned, oblivious to the contradicting thematic imagery of a girl dancing in a store, screaming for more, in a pair of red blue jeans. Separate the words from that music, that feeling, and it just doesn’t work.

In the beginning, words and music were separate. Some anthropologists envision the two first joining forces as magical spells, rhythmic chants of words recited to ensure a good harvest. Eventually, humans abandoned the magic and kept this new fused form of song. The term lyric came later, named after the Greek instrument of persuasive lovers and fashioned by Apollo himself. The one item Orpheus took to charm his beloved Eurydice out of Hades.

In the Middle Ages, lyrics and lyric poetry became the wares of traveling troubadours, whose songs of legend or romantic love depended on popularity and easy identification. The troubadours developed a system of contrived meter and sentimental images that were very different from everyday speech. From this list came a norm of pleasantries and sentiments—the most fashionable ways to tell tall tales or to express tenderness.

The basic concepts of today’s pop lyrics—simple structures, systems of clichés, lowbrow rhyming patterns—did not begin with “Rock Around the Clock.” Ever since the invention of the lyric, “catchiness”—the ability not just to stick but to cling to the listener’s brain—has been a part of its very definition. Contemporary lyrics have evolved from this ancient tradition, a practice as old as language itself. As listeners, we have evolved as well, though we cannot forget the parts of us that sprang from a primal system of needs: for the chant, for the identifiable image, and for the basic, pulsing rhythm that will encourage our crops to grow.

Darling: Bomp-uppa-bomp-buh-bomp-buh-bom-bom. And my honey: ramalamadingdong forever. And when I say dip-de-dip-de-dip-de-dip, you know I mean it from the bottom of my boogedy, boogedy boogedyshoo!
–Barry Mann

In the mid-’50s, while Vincent, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley peddled the rhyme-and-meter recipe for early rock ’n’ roll, the rest of radio stuck to standards, big band, and easy listening. Early rock radio took the sweet, decipherable, figurative language in Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable”

Like a song of love that clings to me,
How the thought of you does things to me. . . .

or the stretched metaphor in Perry Como’s “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes,”

Don’t let the stars get in your eyes,
Don’t let the moon break your heart,
Love blooms at night,
Then in daylight it dies. . . .

and eventually morphed them into the less wordy but just as squeaky-clean songs of early doo-wop, this one by the Chords:

Life could be a dream, sweetheart—
Hello, hello again! Sh-boom and hopin’ we’ll meet again!
A-dongy ding dong, ga-lang-a-lang-alang,
Boom-ba-dom, A-doo-ba-doo-ba-day.

Plug in a couple of guitars, hire a vocalist who doesn’t mind yelling like a heathen, and these scat lyrics soon yielded the indecipherable, sexed-up examples of early rock anthems, strains of which still pop up in heavy radio rotation today.

There’s no way Steve Allen could have known that, funny sounding as it was, “Be-Bop-A-Lula” would inspire decades of well-respected rockers. The first record Paul McCartney ever owned was “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” He heard John Lennon cover “Be-Bop-A-Lula” with Lennon’s first band, the Quarrymen, and thus begat the Beatles. Buddy Holly, Foghat, Queen, David Cassidy, and even punkers like Suicide and Beki Bondage all have recorded covers, and the lyric reappears in songs by Van Morrison and Dire Straits. In interviews, musicians as diverse as Brian Setzer and Paul Simon cite it as a source of lyrical inspiration. Really? This little mess of trite rhyme and mixed metaphor shaped the lyrical sensibility behind “Mrs. Robinson” and “Imagine”? This two-minute lump nonsense lyrics and a hazy origins story?

Either Gene Vincent invented “Be-Bop-A-Lula” in the midst of covering “You Can Bring Pearl with the Turned-Up Nose, But Don’t Bring Lula,” or he gibbered out the chorus while drunk and reading a Little Lulu comic book. Or he and a fellow patient co-wrote the tune in a VA hospital while recovering from a motorcycle accident. No matter how it began, “Be-Bop-a-Lula” was recorded in less than half a day, as the B-side to a tune called “Ride with the Devil” in 1956. Most early rock was churned out of studios that charged by the hour. Either written fast or improvised on site, lyrics took a back seat to musical tightness and usually centered on one catchy slogan repeated over and over again.

When “Be-Bop-A-Lula” was released, Lennon, McCartney, and Simon were kids—growing up smack dab in the middle of a new genre. This fresh way to write songs and tell stories, though simple, sang of newness; it differed from the way stories were told in their parents’ music. The songs were easy to sing and, if you had a guitar, easy to play. So what if a lot of it didn’t make sense; it was exciting, and—as demonstrated by Steve Allen—it was a language no one older than they could understand.

I hear something new, with a new rhyme, and before I know it, I’m looking for someone, and before you know it, I’ve found her.
—Nick Hornby

Brianna, fifteen, is one of the quietest girls in Turnbull High’s sixth-period acting class, but when the conversation shifts to Lyrics So Good You Gotta Write ’Em Down, the other kids turn to her and smile. “Bri-an-na knows! Just look at her folder!”

Sure enough, her notebooks, binders, and book bag are covered in scribbled lyrics. Tupac Shakur wrote most of the quotes, but Brianna also writes down folk sentiments by Jewel, epigrams from No Doubt, even the occasional boy-band lyric. Surprisingly, Brianna doesn’t really consider herself a big fan of music and songwriting, like the rest of her peers are. “Most songs really don’t mean anything to me,” she says. “I don’t hate them or anything; I just don’t care.”

But when something in Brianna’s life goes wrong, these lyrics register a little more clearly. Take her favorite song, for example, “You Gotta Keep Your Head Up.” “I heard it a couple of times—in a car or at my friend’s house, and I just didn’t pay attention to it. But when I’m sad and going through a lot, all I want to do is listen to music, and I heard Tupac again and just broke down crying.” A little bit later, Brianna found herself scribbling the lyrics in her journal and on her school supplies. One stanza is written on the front of her fifth-period folder—her favorite song for her favorite class:

And since we all came from a woman,
Got our name from a woman,
Got our game from a woman,
I wonder why we take from our women,
Why we rape our women, hate our women,
I think it’s time to kill for our women.

“Those are the lyrics I want everyone to see,” Brianna explains, but the chorus holds the most personal resonance:

When it seems the rain will never let up,
I still try to keep my head up,
And still keep from getting wet up.
Isn’t it funny how when it rains, it pours?

The way Brianna sees it, music can just be there when you need it. You don’t have to be a collector to seek its comforts. “A song is good when it shows you how to let it all out,” she says. “Especially when no one else can help you: not other songs or your friends or your mom.”

Don the bartender, now working on his second mug of whiskey, would probably disagree. He says songs like those by Brianna’s pop and rap idols “may make teenage girls scream or cry, but how do they expect to make adults feel better? They just perpetuate a cliché,” he explains. “They’re not talking about real feelings or singing lyrics about ‘I want to raise my kids with you.’ Where are you going to find that in a hook or a snappy chorus?”

I’d like my life to be like a Bruce Springsteen song. I know I’m not Born to Run, I’m not even Born in the U.S.A., but feelings can’t be so different, can they?
—Nick Hornby

Snappy choruses have perpetuated the past fifty years of pop lyrics; a silly song full of repetition, meter, and trite rhyme can easily go double platinum, much to the protest of its contemporary critics. When the artists we now know as vanguards are deemed too young to be trusted, folks play their records backward in search of masked messages, finding I sing because I live with Satan embedded in the grooves of  “Stairway to Heaven.” Zealots read weird lyrics as codes to be cracked (like how Sergeant Pepper and Abbey Road told people Paul McCartney was dead). Others dismiss lyrics as senseless doggerel (see: “Louie, Louie” and “Wooly Bully”). Most insultingly—as seen with today’s manufactured boy bands and series of sugary, generic pop ballads—they deem them worthless, stagnant, and unoriginal.

It happened to Vincent, to the Rolling Stones with “Satisfaction,” to Lou Reed with “Perfect Day,” and most recently to Nirvana with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Despite snide parody, possible censorship, and critical insult (Lester Bangs once called Iggy and the Stooges “a reductio ad absurdum of rock that might have been thought up by a mad D.A.R. general,” though coming from Bangs, that was a compliment), certain songs sell a particular attitude to their epoch. This attitude may have more to do with the drums or the guitar solo than with what the singer is saying, but once it sticks, the lyrics are set in stone like commandments.

No one really understands, for example, what Nirvana was talking about when they wrote “A mulatto / albino / a mosquito / my libido,” but the new dissonant chord patterns of the music, paired with dirge-y feedback and a telling, relatable chorus (“Here we are now / Entertain us”), appealed to the subtext of an entire target market. So, verses aside, “Smells like Teen Spirit” became an anthem of the early ’90s and served as a gateway drug to the band’s more thoughtful work. But Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic admitted he’d never expected the song to become a rock milestone. “I didn’t even think it was one of the strongest songs on the album,” he says. Drummer Dave Grohl confessed he saw Kurt Cobain write the lyrics to the song in less time than it takes to smoke a cigarette. And Cobain himself told Rolling Stone that the song held no great pull with him and that when he wrote it, he was “basically trying to rip off the Pixies.”

Twenty-six years earlier, The Who scored big with “My Generation,” an unprecedentedly loud tune whose forceful, adamant lyrics were stuttered—scatting for the countercultural set:

People try to put us d-d-d-d-d-d-down,
Just because we g-g-g-g-g-get around.
The things they do seem awful c-c-cold.
I hope I die before I g-g-g-get old.

After actually getting old, Pete Townshend confessed that his biggest hit was a happy accident. In the 1993 liner notes to The Who’s Greatest Hits, he calls the song “The hymn, the patriotic song they sing at all Who football matches,” noting “I wrote it as a throwaway, naturally. I had written the lines of ‘Generation’ without thinking, hurrying them, scribbling on a piece of paper in the back of a car. For years, I’ve had to live by them. Sometimes the world just finds a bit of raw emotion that’s similar to what they feel inside, and they just run away with it, don’t they?”

The potency of lowbrow lyrics inspired Sting to write a song in defense of “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” “My Generation,” and others like it. “Some of my favorite songs are meaningless,” Sting told Bill Flanagan. “I was trying to figure out why I liked songs like ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ and ‘Do Wah Diddy’ and ‘Tutti-Frutti.’ There’s a whole list of songs with just garbage as words that seem to be able to communicate something without necessarily meaning anything.”

Sting’s interest begat “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” a Police hit that made the Billboard Top Ten in 1980. “Words are hard to find,” Sting sings. And when their eloquence escapes him?

De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,
Is all I want to say to you.
De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,
Their innocence will pull me through.
De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,
They’re meaningless and all that’s true.

“Songwriters can often use words to pervert, just as politicians and fundamentalist religious leaders do,” Sting explains. “My song says that the reason ‘Do Wah Diddy’ is successful is because it’s not trying to subvert you. It’s purely innocent.”

Like McCartney, Simon, and other vociferous supporters of early rock lyrics, Sting has gone on to write some of the more lyrically complex hits of recent years. “People often come up to me and say, ‘Now you’re writing all these wonderfully serious songs. How could you have possibly written “De Do Do Do”?’ I give up and say, ‘Well, I was young.’ I can’t be bothered to explain it.”

People are always saying the words are banal and why doesn’t anybody write lyrics like Cole Porter anymore, but we don’t have presidents like Abe Lincoln anymore, either.
—Phil Spector

Dr. Ronald Judy spent three years in France as part of a literary think tank. The group devoted over thirty months to carefully analyzing the rhythm, meter, and literary merit of thousands of poems in the Western canon. If you come to visit during his office hours, Dr. Judy can show you how to do the same thing with rock music. For him, the same assessments of merit apply to lyrics and “regular” poetry. He leans back in his office chair, staring past a set of overloaded bookshelves, toward the window, and smiles before reciting, “I may be numberless / I may be innocent / I may know many things / I may be ignorant.” Judy can recite Sting lyrics as if they were by Yeats.

His lyrics of choice may be more complex than “Be-Bop-A-Lula” (or even Sting’s earlier piece, “Da Do Do Do”), but Judy’s voice bears a striking resemblance to the mock solemnity of Steve Allen’s parodic recitation. “In this song, you have many devices at stake that are very interesting musically and at all times lyrically engaging. These devices play on each other concomitantly, speaking to one another to create a specific kind of emotional response.”

Judy favors lyrics in which—as in a good poem—images, diction, and rhythm all work together to create a specific response in the listener. “Oh, yes, Sting’s lyrics can be intensely literary,” he says with professorial authority. “He often pushes non-pop ideas into songs that move just as adeptly in general pop circles.” Judy recites another line from the same song: “‘A thousand times the mysteries unfold themselves like galaxies in my head.’ Again you have that rolling rhythm, paired with a repetition of words and syllables. This whole song seems to be about mortality and the aging process.” With a smile, he adds, “So maybe I just like it because I’m an old man.”

A voracious pop-culture fan, Judy can play this sort of academic game with lyrics from all sorts of genres, pointing out structural irony in one, contradicting themes in another, and traditional poetic roots in yet another. “This is the way that I listen to music,” he says. “I try to figure out why certain pieces engage me while others do not.”

According to Dr. Judy, lyrics of “lesser merit”—those minus any imagistic structure or heightened diction—can serve a poetic purpose as well. Case in point: the lyrics of James Brown. Brown’s lyrics rarely contain complete thoughts, let alone figurative language (though “Get on the scene / Like a sex machine” is a simile). Judy reads their purpose as “highly functional.”

“James Brown is dictatorial about repetition. . . . He’s very disciplined, and he hits that downbeat and the lyrics fall in between. That’s why he’s accepted as a kind of dance musician.” But Brown’s lyrics (repeated phrases like “Get up!” or “I feel good!” or “Watch me!”) are, according to Judy, “like dogma. They’re the bit of propaganda that you get to go with the beat—a pep rally.”

So what would happen if the lyrics to, say, “Sex Machine” were replaced with others, like “What’s up!” or “Go home!” for the infamous “Get up!”?

Nothing would happen, according to Judy, “except that that phrase would come into the popular imagination, and it would sustain its livelihood or its memorability because of the music.” Essentially Judy identifies these types of lyrics as martyrs, as kamikazes—words willing to pull back in potency in order to highlight the phat beats behind them.

I will write about anything people want to hear about. I would write about cocaine, but only a few freaks would buy that.
—Chuck Berry

Theater professor David Jortner likes to use pop lyrics to loosen up his Introduction to Performance class, a fun course that fulfills his university’s “Creative Expression” requirement. It draws as many football players, science majors, and introverts as it does budding thespians, all of whom find Shakespeare more daunting than challenging.

“Lyrical monologues are a pretty traditional exercise,” Jortner says. “It puts the actor’s focus on intention; if the lines are banal, then the actor is forced to create the intention emotionally. There is no text or traditional interpretation to hide behind; he has to figure out a way to get across the things he’s saying because there’s no way the words will do that for him.” Jortner’s exercise is so silly that students don’t feel embarrassed to throw themselves into it; they’re not afraid to take risks and get showy. “Plus,” Jortner adds, “it’s more fun than showing a bunch of eighteen-year-olds how to do Chekov.”

Brad is a freshman, a pre-pharmacy major on the wrestling team. Today, he’s a little nervous. Brad must deliver a memorized pop song to his performance-class peers—monologue style—in the same fashion as Dr. Judy and Steve Allen, only for a grade. He grins sheepishly, gives his shoulders an athletic shake, and takes a deep breath before passionately convincing his audience just how fun it is to stay at the YMCA.

Dave stops Brad. “That was good, but we need to see you mentally picturing just how fun this place really is. Let that come out in your delivery.”

Brad stares upward, pondering this advice. Then he arranges his face into a game-show grin and giddily exclaims, “You can get yourself clean! You can have a good meal! You can do,” he laughs whimsically, “whatever you feel!”

“Good job,” Jortner says, once the laughter has died down. “Now try it as if this were the most tragic thing in the world, like the YMCA was a place for severely depressed old men.”

Brad takes another deep breath, screws his face up again, and doubles over, nearly vomiting the words in a desperate, plaintive tone. “You can . . . ” (sniff) “get yourself . . . ” (choked sob) “clean. You can have a” (gasp) “good, good, meal” (doe-eyed look to the audience). “You can do” (sob) “whatever you f-e-e-l.

The class applauds. “Excellent, Brad,” Jortner exclaims. “Now, try to do it like you’re about to have an orgasm.”

Brad blinks twice at Jortner.

“Doing this with my students shows how banal lyrics really are,” Jortner says after class ends. “The pop songs they pick are memorable, but after they present them without the music, you see how the lyrics aren’t what makes them memorable.” Jortner attributes that to sentimentality and pop-culture knowledge about the arts, and—of course—the music. “You couldn’t do this the other way around,” Jortner says. “If you take the lyrics out of a sad song, the song will still be sad.”

Jortner isn’t the only educator using pop lyrics as a teaching device. “Lyricists of popular songs derive their ideas from every imaginable source,” says B. Lee Cooper in the International Journal of Instructional Media. Cooper stresses that pop music, rather than being forbidden from the classroom as a “distraction from learning,” should be treated as a supplement, the sugar coating around the less-tasty medicine of general education. Elementary school teachers, for example, can supplement fairy tales with Aretha Franklin’s “This Is the House That Jack Built” or “Hey, Little Red Riding Hood” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Health teachers can speak more freely to their students about drugs by playing songs like “Cocaine” by Eric Clapton or “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane. (Here, Cooper suggests bringing up drugs’ effect on the writing of the lyrics, too).

“Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Abraham, Martin, and John,” and “We Are the World” can be study aids for history classes. Pop music can even be a sex-ed teacher, an accessible, less embarrassing way for kids to talk about more explicit issues. Cooper encourages presenting the lyrics to ‘I Want Your Sex,” “Wild Thing,” “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” and—perhaps most shockingly—“Hot for Teacher” in the classroom to “create a debate on morality and the limits of free speech in respect to youth-directed commercial broadcasting.”

Above all, Cooper insists, “Music educators should not view the recordings favored by their students as either evil or unworthy of classroom investigation. The mark of a learned person is the ability to perceive universal questions in all forms of human endeavors. The realization that all music has some historical or cultural meaning is a lesson in itself.”

I never wrote a love song that didn’t have an escape clause in verse three.

In the culture of female dorm life, pop-music lyrics are a collective soundtrack, a scrapbook, as well an announcement of moods and behavior, broadcast via stereo. Each of the sorority sisters living on the Delta Delta Delta dorm floor can remember her high school prom songs (“Wonderful Tonight,” “Set the Night to Music,” “Celebration”). The sisters with sweethearts share a special song with their boyfriends (“My Funny Valentine,” “Brown-Eyed Girl”). Most have already picked out the music for their wedding day (“Because You Love Me,” “Cherish”) and/or funeral (“Imagine,” “The Greatest Love of All,” “I Will Remember You”).

Jackie, a freckled senior, likes to group and re-record her favorite songs onto tapes: getting-ready-on-a-Saturday-night tapes, tapes for driving, tapes for being pensive. “I have one for when I am super-depressed, and it is so sad. I know every word to all the songs, and I just sing along and cry,” she says.

Tapes of songs in which the words don’t matter at all, like Jackie’s boy-bands tape, are usually played “to rev up before a date or something.” That’s for when she just wants a fun and loud beat, not when she wants to really hear what the artists are saying.

Ziggy, president of the Tri-Delts, agrees. “You come up here right before a party or something, and every room will be blasting the Backstreet Boys.” The girls love boy-band ballads as well. Ziggy was recently in a situation similar to 98 Degrees’s “The Hardest Thing,” a boy-band song that (surprisingly) rocks a Hamlet/Boris Pasternak double-allusion: “I’ve got to be cruel to be kind / Like Dr. Zhivago / All my love I’ll be sending / Though you will never know.”

Ziggy points specifically to the lines “It’s the hardest thing I ever had to do / To try to turn around and walk away / Pretending I don’t love you.”

“I mean, he has feelings for this girl, but he’s gonna stay with his girlfriend, and it really hurts him to do that. I think they express that well; I can hear in his voice how he’s feeling,” she gushes.

Others outside the sisterhood associate the Tri-Delts with boy bands, too.

“At frat parties, they play whatever the girls want to hear, and whenever the Backstreet Boys come on, the girls go crazy.” Courtney rolls her eyes.

Ziggy stops Courtney. “But then after midnight, they start playing booty rap and freak-me music.” The sisters groan and list examples of song lyrics about wet bodies, screams of pleasure, bumping and grinding, and one ditty called “Put It in Your Mouth.”

Ziggy laughs. “Those sex songs, I mean, sometimes those lyrics are just unnecessary. Stop taking away all the mystery! We get your point.”

According to the Tri-Delts, smoother, sweeter rhythm-and-blues lyrics are a better soundtrack if their favorite boys (the brothers of Sigma Epsilon, Delta Tau Delta, and Pi Kappa Pi) want to pitch some woo. Ziggy suggests Maxwell, a ’90s cross between Prince and Barry White.

“In that song, ‘Whenever, Wherever, Whatever,’ he just totally gives himself to this woman,” Ziggy sighs. Maxwell wrote the song for Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, a highly suggestive concept album in praise of monogamous partnership. Maxwell croons sotto voce, pledging not only all his affection but also his devotion to his lady’s every physical, financial, and emotional need. “I mean, they put something that smooth on, and you’re just like—Ummmmnhhhh!”

The other Tri-Delts giggle.

Courtney gushes, “That song is the sweetest thing. If any man ever said that to me. . . . Woooo!”

“Sometimes you’re just like, ‘Jeez! When are the boys ever going to learn?’” Becca says.

Three or four of her sisters chime in, “Never!” before collapsing into giggles.

In high school, Becca was the senior class officer in charge of planning the prom. She suggested the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” as prom theme because of the song’s soft-rock feel and the lyrics’ lovelorn tone. All at once, the girls agree that that song is one of the all-time greatest ballads.

“It’s not overly sappy, more kinda upbeat sappy.”

“Yeah, the tune’s too catchy for it to be too depressing. It’s quiet. He doesn’t sound depressed enough to be, like, really hurting.”

“I think the song is about wanting to spend the rest of your life with someone. He wants the girl to feel protected. I would use it for my wedding, too.”

“You could make it your song. Those lyrics are so romantic. I’d love a boy to sing that to me someday.”

When Sting wrote the song (a Billboard Number One for the Police in 1983), his inspiration lay far away from the sweeter side of romance:

Every breath you take, every move you make,
Every vow you break, every claim you stake,
I’ll be watching you…
Since you’ve gone, I been lost without a trace.
I dream at night, I can only see your face.
I feel so cold, and I long for your embrace.
I keep crying, Baby, Baby, please.

The song is actually about stalking, as Sting explained to critic Bill Flanagan. “It’s about surveillance and owning, controlling someone, but the reaction,” Sting says, “has been one of seduction. They [audiences] want this feeling.” In live performances, Sting has been known to ad-lib “Hurt me, Baby” into the traditional lyrics. The crowd goes wild every time. “It’s the same idea of sadism, of masochism in a romantic relationship,” he says.

To me, [Bob Dylan’s] “The Mighty Quinn” is about the five perfect masters of our age. Of course, to Dylan it’s probably about gardening or the joys of putting dog shit in the garbage or something like that.
— Pete Townshend

The Tri-Delts aren’t the only ones who misinterpret Sting’s lyrics. In 1997, rap mogul Sean “Puffy” Combs re-recorded a hip-hop version of the stalker aria in tribute to his dead cohort, Biggie Smalls (Puffy changed the chorus lyrics to “Every single day / Every time I pray / I’ll be missing you.”) And the song recently underscored Keanu Reeves’s love scene in The Replacements.

“I’ve had so much feedback from people,” reports Sting. “‘Dear Sting, My wife and I love “Every Breath You Take.” We got married to it. We think of it as our song.’ Well, if that’s your relationship, good luck!”

The same thing happened to Elvis Costello’s 1983 single, “Shipbuilding,” the lyrics to which Costello wrote in response to the slanted coverage of the Falklands conflict. Thanks to a dreamy sax solo and soulful piano accompaniment, the song hit it big in the United Kingdom as a soft-rock ballad. According to Costello, “Somebody wrote me a letter because it was such a nice song about couples going boating. I guess I hit a bit off the mark with that one.” Costello, however, isn’t bothered. “It’s all part of the fun,” he says. “You’ve got to give them enough rope to hang themselves.”

In other cases, listeners mis-hear the lyrics—an understandable error since rockers have never prided themselves on diction. Lyrical casualties are bound to happen. Like when, on the Go-Go’s first tour of Australia, the band quickly realized an entire country thought their song “Our Lips Are Sealed” was called “Alice the Seal.”

On the “Compendium of Misunderstood Lyrics” Web site, Internet surfers can post their own rock malapropisms alongside the original (and quite often equally obscure) lyrics. Users can also try to justify their misinterpretations, as in, “I heard it on a bad tape player,” or, “If you sing it a few times, it really starts to sound culturally relevant.” Entries include:

“The Ballad of Davy Crockett”: “Killed in a bar” instead of “Killed him a bear.”

Genesis: “She seems to have an invisible touch, yeah” bungled into “She seems a half-wit, easy on the top shelf.”

The Beatles: In “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes” becomes “the girl with colitis goes by.” Also: “Take a bike ride, sir” for “Paperback Writer.”

The Beach Boys: “Kokomo” originally included “Martinique, that Montserrat mystique.” One commenter admitted to marring the lyric into “I want to eat that mound of rotten steak.”

“Jet Air Liner” by the Steve Miller Band has acquired dozens of crimes against its original lyrics, by a landslide. The simple phrase, “Big ol’ jet air liner,” has been fricasseed into “Bingo Jeff had a lion,” “Big ol’ Jeff had a rhino,” ‘‘Bring-o me that-a lighter,” and “There go Jed and Delilah,” to name a few.

Popular misinterpretation has probably done the most damage to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” written as a four-minute drama but canonized as a patriotic rock anthem. Pop fans can repeat the lyrics to the chorus (the same as the title) verbatim, without fail. However, the song’s somewhat unintelligible verses, its upbeat musical accompaniment, its jubilant video, and an album cover featuring Springsteen’s backside and an American flag all skew the story of the verses. The lyrics begin:

Born down in a dead man’s town,
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground.
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much,
‘Til you spend half your life just a-coverin’ up.
Born in the U.S.A., I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A., born in the U.S.A., now.
Got in a little hometown jam so they put a rifle in my hands,
Sent me off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man.

The song has been a broadcast favorite every July 4th, despite its decidedly un-American lyrics. It even became part of the Reagan/Bush re-election campaign, cited as a youthful affirmation of the kind of America the Republican ticket wanted to uphold. Springsteen tried to counteract these misinterpretations by playing the song only after mentioning various (anti-Republican) labor and civil-rights organizations, but the false patriotic messages stuck, leaving the true lyrics (save the chorus and the originally ironic line “I’m a cool rockin’ daddy in the U.S.A.”) to take a back seat.

Let ’em sing about going steady on the radio. Let them run their hootenannies. But it’s holes like these where the real stories are being told.
—Lou Reed

Miki, a local folk singer, didn’t learn the real words to “Born in the U.S.A.” till college, and she was a music fan who listened. “Yeah, my sister and me used to put up the hatchback to the car. Then we’d sit in the trunk part and watch the boys go by. I remember listening to it then.” Miki laughs hard. “How funny is that? Bruce Springsteen’s singing about getting your legs shot off in ’Nam, and my sister and I are trying to pick up guys in our cutoffs.”

Miki’s career as a songwriter consists of a few monthly gigs around Pittsburgh with just her guitar. “When you’re the only one out there, you better be saying something important,” she says. Most of her songs play with language and cultural perception, like a plaintive love song in which the speaker begs her boyfriend, “Stay for breakfast / I don’t got much / Have some sentimental toast,” and a country tune about being lonely in Akron, Ohio: “I spent the last hour in the rubber capital without you / Thinking about you.”

Playful lyrics like these keep the audience on its toes, especially at a folk show, where song lyrics mean everything. Miki has a Dylan cover in her acoustic solo repertoire, as well as several by Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, both acknowledged poets of rock. Then “just to screw with people,” she’ll do her favorite cover: “Eeeep Op Ork Ah-ah (And That Means I Love You),” a mock space-age song in the alien language of love, by The Jetsons’s cartoon heartthrob, Jet Screamer.

“The audience always goes, ‘Wha?’ ’cause I’m singing nonsense,” Miki says. She chose the song because tunes that are close to people’s hearts are often nonsense, and she is no exception. “The first time I heard that part of ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ that goes ‘Doo de doo, de doo, doo de do,’ I was blown away.”

According to Miki, the English language is weak. Diverse as it is, sometimes it can’t go to the places music can. To keep them paired in song, pop music or otherwise, something must express the inexpressible. And in the pairing, lyrical jabberwocky takes on a significant meaning of its own so that one cannot separate the gibber from its accompaniment.

Shakespeare knew this centuries ago. In a song from Much Ado About Nothing, he begs women to stop singing lovelorn songs and instead sing nonsense: “Sigh no more, ladies,” he writes, “and be you blithe and bonny / Converting all your sounds of woe / into hey nonny-nonny.”

The same goes for jazz musicians, who invented scat as a way to fuse words and music.  The same goes for Van Morrison, who wrote several lofty, descriptive verses to immortalize his mythical brown-eyed girl, only to make the all-important chorus a defiant “Tra-la-la-la-ti-dah.” The same goes for Gene Vincent, who could only effectively combine the feelings of sexual glee, youthful exuberance, and primal energy into a string of babble.

And the same goes for Miki, sitting cross-legged on the floor of her basement apartment, picking through her weird repertoire on the frets of her guitar, defending her choice of playing cartoon-TV gibberish alongside “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Both Sides Now.”

“So many people have said ‘I love you’ to each other, it’s kind of lost its meaning,” Miki says. “Not that any words could ever really talk about love. At least, with ‘Eeeep Op Ork Ah-Ah,’ you get points for being more original. It’s more specific that way. Do you know what I mean?”

Miki lets out a belly laugh, as if words can’t even help her finish her point. She strums her guitar—a full stop where her words leave off. . . . Tra-la-la-la-ti-dah.

About the Author

Elena Passarello

When "Ramalamadingdong" was first published, Elena Passarello told Creative Nonfiction that her favorite lyricists were Cole Porter, Elvis Costello, and the Shaggs. A dozen years later, she feels the same way, though she might add Bill Callahan to that list.

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