I like words. I particularly like song words. I think they’re called lyrics or sommet. Doesn’t matter what they’re called, some of them are crafted gooder than others.
Just about all words sound better when they’re sung. Ever stopped and thought about the words you’re listening to and realized they’re pretty crap without the music? That’s okay, it’s why they have the music. Some lyrics probably are totally meaningless. Not that I have anything against meaningless lyrics. When Prodigy were asked about the misogyny behind Smack My Bitch Up they said it just sounded like something cool to say. TISM’s I Drive A Truck is so brilliantly meaningless you’re tempted to stretch for an interpretation of what they’re actually getting at.
Hopefully it means nothing.
I knock out so many words each month, for myself and various other projects I look after, and very few of them will ever get the opportunity to be set against a catchy beat. Which seems unfair really. Anyways.
There are meaningless lyrics and then there is drivel. Most song words are chosen at random and thrown together by computer algorithms composed by second rate programmers on an all-night code hacking binge. Don’t believe me? Let’s check out some songs. (Or check out Some Kind Of Monster and see what happens when people try and invent their own song words. It’s embarrassingly childish and could easily be avoided by using any one of the popular song lyric generators.)
Number one in our ARIA singles charts at the moment is See You Again. The song opens with some guy singing in the kind of nasally whine you normally associate with people who cry themselves to sleep. This song is from the soundtrack to Fast and Furious 7, a movie about magical cars that fly between skyscrapers and the men who fly them. They’re not men given to reflection and moments of tedious self-absorption. They employ this guy to experience emotions for them and he’s very good at it.
After the nasally dude goes off to wipe away his tears a rapper dude comes in with this:
Damn, who knew?
All the planes we flew
Good things we’ve been through
That I’ll be standing right here talking to you
About another path
What? If a child said that his mother would say, “Slow down, think about what you’re trying to say and use your words.” They’re serviceable but uninspiring lyrics anyone could knock together with about ten spare minutes and some paper and coloured crayons. It’s testimony to the power of the song lyric algorithms that it almost seems to make sense.
Let’s not labour the point. Number two on the ARIA charts is Major Lazer, mercurial producers prone to genius but can make rubbish when inspiration fails. It’d be unfair to condemn them on their lyrics just as much as it would be unfair to condemn Richo for his kicking in front of goal. Number three is Justin Bieber, singing in the sort of nasally whine you normally associate with people who cry themselves to sleep. I’m assuming the Bieb has access to proper medicines when he can’t come down from the excitement of throwing stones at his neighbours so crying himself to sleep probably isn’t a serious option. I’d find it almost impossible to actually listen to The Bieb’s lyrics and I’m not about to leave a Google trail to Where Are U in my browser history. I’d much rather get caught searching for midget porn. So let’s not bother trying to analyse the Beib.
And anyway, the point here is to discuss the songs I do like. The songs with words that have been crafted by genius, humour and a touch of inspiration.
First on my list is Screenwriter Blues by Soul Coughing. Soul Coughing were an artsy college group from the eighties or nineties (it’s all a blur) who had occasional glimpses of genius. This is one.
Gone savage for teenagers with automatic weapons and boundless love
Gone savage for teenagers who are aesthetically pleasing
In other words fly, Los Angeles beckons
The teenagers to come to her on buses, Los Angeles loves love
Nick Cave was always going to make a list of my favourite song words. This one I’ve chosen mainly because it puts me in the mood of the song above by Soul Coughing. We’re driving in a car, DJ on the radio.
I’m not your favourite lover
Let’s break away from that nonsense and get clever and funny. I can’t hardly see no sense in words that don’t make you laugh. Almost everything is better when satirized. Even class and race.
Two quotes for this one.
And your idea of multiculturalism
Japanese restaurant on Monday,
Indian on Tuesday,
And on Wednesday Caribbean,
Not to spicy please
Fuck all that shit you call music and pretend to enjoy
Will the revolution be televised? It depends who rises up and whether they’ve got a haircut nearly as awesome as Kim Jong-il’s. In Gil Scott-Heron’s classic the revolution is the rise of the black man from tyranny. But it’s also kinda about consumer culture. White and comfortable as I am I still can’t help enjoy the idea of a good revolution against oppression and the endless cycle of Christmas/Easter/Mothers Day/Fathers Day promotions.
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay
Sadly, this is one revolution is still being televised.
Let’s stay on a television theme with The Disposable Heroes of Hypocrisy’s Television The Drug Of A Nation. I don’t think Michael Franti has ever done anything so full of teeth since. Pays to be young and angry. The new sweeter Franti can’t muster the venom.
It’s the perpetuation of the two party system
Where image takes precedence over wisdom
Where sound bite politics are served to
The fastfood culture
Tom Waits is my favourite song writer. His creates allusions to things that seem familiar and the exotic at the same time, he celebrates beat culture, he tells stories, his songs touch emotions and at times he bellows. And with Road To Peace he shows just how cutting he is when tackling topical issues.
For me there’s one clear stand-out among Tom Waits pantheon of songs. Chocolate Jesus is a song I can never tire of. It starts with a little taste of harmonica from the world’s best, Charlie Musselwhite, and from there it does no wrong. The lyrics are funny, satirical and almost too clever. As a comment on consumerism and religion it can’t be beat.
When the wind it gets rough and it’s whiskey in the shade
Best to wraps your saviour up in cellphone
It flows like the big muddy but that’s okay
Pour him over ice-cream for a nice parfait
The harmonica is the single-speed of the music world. Its simplicity belies its possibilities. In the right hands it sings with a visceral glee. In this song it brings out goosebumps every time I listen.
Let’s have a little fun now. Rap has hardly ever lived up to its possibilities. Has there ever been a musical format so focussed on words? And yet most songs can’t get past the “my dick is bigger than your dick” posturing. Well if it’s going to be like that then fine. But let’s do it properly.
My dick so hot it look like it stolen
Your dick look like Gary Coleman
Staying on hip hop now but getting local. Aussie hip hop is some of the best. It doesn’t get caught up in that meaningless gangster posturing or dissing bitches. It’s often irreverent and by avoiding too many hip hop cliches always finds something original. One of my faves is Evil Eddie’s Queensland.
Here you can pat a stingray and maybe get a stab in the chest
From what inhabit the depths of the reef
Staying local, the drink-sodden lyrics of Peter Bibby sound like he’s lived the life he’s singing about. If he has then good luck to him if he survives to tell us some more tales. He looks kind of clean cut in the video but then that voice comes out and sounds like he’s been on a 3 day bender.
One day I’m going to be so damn wealthy
I’ll have a doctor live downstairs making sure I’m healthy
One day I’m going to be stinking rich
I’ll have a fucking robot to scratch my fucking itch
I can’t have a list of song writer people without including Paul Kelly. For people of my generation (that is, getting on a bit) he’s always been there. He’s defined moments in our lives and told us stories about things that sounded so familiar once we heard them told right. Since he’s so well known for his story telling I’m going elsewhere. In a world where everyone’s God seems so petty and ignorant Paul paints a picture of a God more worthy for that tag. God’s Hotel is a secular place free of bigotry and persecution. It’s a place where a pitiful atheist like myself might find a home.
Everybody got heaven
Here’s a version sung by Nick Cave (who I think was a co-writer on this song) where he swings it a bit.
Let’s finish this thing off. I’ve got a bunch more songs I’d love to include but we have to draw the line somewhere. And who better to draw it than William Shatner and his mate Henry Rollins.
I can’t get behind the Gods, who are more vengeful, angry, and
Dangerous if you don’t believe in them
Why can’t all these Gods just get along?
I mean, they’re omnipotent and omnipresent, what’s the problem?
Don’t be put off by the God quote. This thing’s all over the place. It’s a great collection of gripes.
Got a favourite wordy song? Leave it in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.