The Soapbox : It’s only words


A few years ago BBC Radio 2 conducted a survey among its listeners to determine what is the best opening line to a song. Due to the age demographic of Radio 2 listeners, the suggestions mainly hailed from the ’60s and ’70s, an era where many lyrics played a rather important part of the overall song.

Simply searching for this poll with the “best lyrics ever” on Google brings up a plethora of results referring to One Direction‘s hit of bloated self-importance ‘Best Song Ever’, a song with the lyrical intellect to rhyme ‘her daddy was a dentist’ with ‘kissed me like she meant it’.

But I remember the result fondly as the top song in the poll planted the seed for a long-term love affair with the artist in question and his stunning brilliance in lyric composition.

The top result was this – the opening verse to Warren Zevon‘s 1978 hit ‘Werewolves of London’:

“I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand,
Walking through the streets of Soho in the rain,
He was looking for the place called ‘Le Ho Fooks’,
Gonna’ get a big dish of beef chow mein.”

Now some may find this verse bizarre – well done, you are supposed to. But the imagery, the strangeness, the particulars of the place where the werewolf is buying a Chinese dish (a place which used to exist in London until it was renamed ‘The Golden Duck‘ or something equally terrible) make this verse simply stunning. It is a grand opening and and overall, dare I say, grand piece of poetry.

Then the weather changed, the white got stained, and it fell apart

Zevon‘s genius did not stop there for he constructed other fantastic verses for us all to marvel, such as this one from the song ‘Trouble Waiting to Happen’:

“I turn on the news to the third World War,
Opened up the paper to World War Four,
Just when I thought it was safe to be bored.”

Or this one from my personal favourite song of Zevon ‘Desperadoes Under the Eaves’:

“And if California slides into the ocean,
Like the mystics and statistics say it will,
I predict this motel will be standing,
Until I pay my bill.”

This song then sees Zevon have the audacity to remark about a humming air conditioner, which he then imitates by humming for about a minute as the song fades out over some stunning string sections. It’s a song of wry, witty humour and sadness tinged dreams – a song which, to me, has everything a pop-ballad needs.

Aside from Zevon, lyric writing in the ’60s and ’70s (hell, even the ’80s) was just far more thoughtful than nowadays. Pictures were painted with words and – when you consider artists like Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, Neil Young, Carole King, Joni Mitchell and a whole host of others – the melody often took a secondary role to the message, simply because the message was strong enough on its own. You think everyone likes the sound of Dylan’s voice? No, they do not. Dylan sounds like a drunk man garbling poetry while chomping a raw potato. But who cares – the poetry is exquisite, refined, and detailed.

Then somewhere – which I am guessing is around 1995, as that just seemed like a rather droll period in my life – everything changed. All of a sudden the interest in rhyme and reason dried up. Everyone seemed content with childish observations from ranting Northerners, such as Oasis, who invented concepts of the ‘Wonderwall‘ and other nonsensical drivel.

All of a sudden the writing craft behind music seemed to become lost.

Admittedly you have probably guessed my musical taste is rather nostalgic and sentimental to the US singer-songwriter scene, so perhaps I am arrogantly assessing ‘normal’ music against artists with legend status, which is not fair at all. It would be like saying: “Well, Manchester United are better than my local pub team The Oak Tree FC, ergo everything different to Manchester United and what it stands for is just awful“. I understand therefore that perhaps my argument comes from mere conservative ignorance. But bear with me.

Let’s analyse one of the biggest artists of today, Rihanna – a woman who has as much for feminism as CFCs have done for the ozone layer. Thanks to her we all now know that a strong woman can be depicted by simply acting like a whore on a stage to sell records (high five). Here is a full verse of her song ‘Rude Boy‘:

“I wa-wa-want what you wa-wa-want,
Give it to me baby like boom, boom, boom,
What I wa-wa-want is what you wa-wa-want,
Na, na, ah, ah.”

Aside from the obvious, Rihanna challenges to get an erection in the chorus (“come here rude boy, boy can you get it up”) the remainder of the song leaves a lot to be desired lyrically. Even if I did lighten up and take the song as a bit of fun, the lyrics still sound as if a horny virgin teenager has used the Vengaboys as an inspiration for talking dirty.

Next up is the Canadian chipmunk cretin Justin Bieber and his hit ‘Boyfriend’. Bieber is just the worst thing to have been associated with the music industry, full stop. I thought the Spice Girls were bad, but at least they knew they were the punchline of a rather successful profitable joke. The worst bit about Bieber is that he takes himself so seriously – a deep sense of genuine admiration and misplaced self-belief shared by his ‘Beliebers‘ who are, let’s face it, probably the impressionable and naïve biological results of accidental prom night conception.

Bieber has a selection of terrible song lyrics so lengthy that the national archives look miniscule in comparison. But here is my favourite hate:

“Swag on you,
Chillin by the fire while we eatin’ fondue.”

It is not quite ‘Mind Sex’ awful (though this song was written ironically, rhyming ‘crouton’ with ‘futon’ for example) but Beliebers really must be idiots. Is that all they need – ‘fondue’ rhyming with ‘you’? I am surprised he has not rhymed ‘unicorn’ with ‘being torn’ yet, imagery which I suppose a desperate pubescent teenager would relate to. Or how about ‘myspace’ with ‘your face’ to relate to the social media teens. He may as well. (I have copyrighted these lines so at least me, Justin).

Still, even lyrics from supposed ‘good’ artists are no better. Take nonsensical corporate rock cocksuckers Coldplay in ‘Paradise’:

“When she was just a girl /

She expected the world /

But it flew away from her reach /

And the bullets catch in her teeth”

Or how about the Arctic Monkeys in ‘Do I Want to Know?’:

‘Cause there’s this tune I found that makes me think of you somehow and I play it on repeat / Until I fall asleep / Spilling drinks on my settee.”

Or finally, for now, the often lauded Alt-J who spout geeky references to shapes in seemingly all of their songs:

“Triangles are my favorite shape /

Three points where two lines meet /

Toe to toe, back to back, let’s go, my love; it’s very late /

‘Til morning comes, let’s tessellate.”

It is all just awful.

The end of the innocence

The examples could continue and we could debate what is a good and bad lyric all day. Yet it seems apparent that in music today, particularly pop music, the lyrical quality of chart-topping hits has declined.

Yes, some of the best lyrics are contained in songs which will never see fame or notoriety. Yes, some of the best lyrics are still written today by artists who take time to shape their craft with skill and sensitivity. Yes, perhaps I am a moaning fool with complete disregard for the brilliance that exists in music out there.

But I do not care. Right now I can hear Jessie J in my flat, blurting out the lines “I’m feeling sexy and free / like glitter’s raining on me” and I physically clenched in disdain at hearing those lines.

It does not say anything meaningful. It does not portray anything tangible. And, worst of it, it is all secondary to basic repetitive melody which the everyday listener will be swept away with to such an extreme that they will have no time to even consider the mediocrity of the lyrics.

It is a shame. I am a lyric fan and often listen to the words before the tune. But now I have just stopped listening altogether.

Words: Ashley Scrace

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