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On Song Lyrics and Semantics

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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 between 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?

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.
  • This is great stuff. I’m going to be thinking about lyric semantics all day now.

    Here’s one, The Beatles in “Helter Skelter”:

    “I’m coming down fast/But I’m miles above you”

  • Nancy

    Yes, I love the article too. Excellent stuff!

  • Thanks for the morning laugh! You and I aren’t bothered by the same things, though. You seem to be bothered more by stupid images. I’m bothered by bad grammar from writers who definitely know better. Most of the lyrics you quote, especially Oasis, don’t bother me because to me they sound so obviously surrealistic (and/or drug-induced, as you mention!) Surrealism can be safely ignored as far as sense goes. (Ever listen to Yes lyrics…?)

    What bothers me are these kinds of things – the patently ungrammatical in a lyric that’s about something sensible and real:
    Sting: “If you love somebody set them free.”
    And from the new Springsteen: “What others may want for free / I’ll work for your love.”

  • Great article!

    I loathe Oasis who manage to be trite both lyrically and musically.

  • Lyrics aren’t poetry, an art form where, generally speaking, the words are meant to stand on their own. Lyrics are designed to fit with music, so they have to make accomodation; in the same way, sometimes the music must change to accomodate the lyrics. And I would agree that you oughtta try to get the grammar and details right, except where it sounds better by being wrong.

    As for scattershot, unrelated images – well, there lies the mystery of the artist, the art form, and the perception of the audience. I truly believe that when a song is finally performed in public, either live or via sound recording, the listeners’ interpretation of the song is no more or less valid than the artist who wrote it. I’m sure that there have been many instances where a listener got more out of a song than the artist thought he or she put into it. Such is the way of a literate world.

    Oasis trite? No worse than compared to most of what’s out there. The late great scifi writer Theodore Sturgeon was once baited by an interviewer along the lines of, “C’mon Ted, admit it – 90% of all science fiction is crap.” To which Sturgeon replied, “90% of EVERYTHING is crap.”

  • Wrong! Oasis ARE trite and Sturgeon a cynic.

  • this is why i like somebody like Bjork, who almost never deals with rhyme schemes…he lyrics mesh with the way i listen: in very small chunks.

    heck, for most music, i don’t even hear the lyrics until i’ve internalized the music. that doesn’t happen until ten listens or so.

  • Michael Welch

    Sometimes lyrics are meant to set a mood in your head or give you a feeling by laying out several images that should make you feel a certain way. They don’t necessarily have to belong together or be feasible in real life. And Orange Crush refers to Agent Orange, which was used by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    OR maybe you can still be “symbolic” with your words and still point to a clear idea or definition of what it is your trying to communicate. I most certainly wouldn’t pick Oasis as a band that has had any kind of brilliant song writing to start this debate but that’s my opinion.

    “It’s rock and roll, not poetry.”

    I think that this mindframe is the reason why so much of today’s rock music sux soo much @$$.

  • JC Mosquito

    Well, Christopher, I’m conceding you a bit of a point here – you can believe Oasis are trite, but I’d suggest they’re no more or less trite than most. And there are certainly better writers of r’n’r songs, but for me, Oasis has their moments scattered here and there.

    Sturgeon a cynic? – that point is likely accurate from what I can read of his personality through his written work. But he was a darn fine writer, too.

  • From Radiohead:

    “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon.
    Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon.
    Yesterday I woke up sucking….a…lemmmmon.
    Everything…in it’s right place.”

    I mean how profound do you want it?


  • Skeeter, Sturgeon was indeed a fine writer and I’ll concede Oasis have had a moment, possibly even two. Liam’s got a fine snarly voice but his brother is just such a hack.

    As to Radiohead, they are one of those bands that can be sublime one moment and the next, as above, sublemon!

  • The Haze

    …the way I listen: in very small chunks. What is trite for some, may be chunky for others. Whadda ya want??? Good taste or taste good?? I think….therefore I am….I think. There you go lad, be as cool as you can….. AAHH Lyrics.

  • JC Mosquito

    … due to the fine sense of gentlemanly conduct and good manners of the sinister cabal of superior writers at bc, tonight’s impending Battle Royale has been cancelled.

    Unless, of course, someone wants to try to explain Radiohead to me. 😉

  • You’ve hit pet peeves of mine. Sure, you can say “It’s only rock’n’roll”. But I still don’t see that as an excuse for bad writing. Popcorn music is fine if it’s sweet, easy to sing and easy to remember. And believe it or not, there’s a certain craft to that. The examples you give are just IMHO sloppy writing.

  • Dana

    Like your article but just so you know, the lyric you quoted for Bono of U2 is wrong. The line is actually “I and I in the sky” which is a biblical reference for God. So unfortunately the lyric makes sense as he is talking about God lifting you up from the muck that we are usually swimming in. Not saying that Bono’s perfect but look for a better example to use.

  • AJ

    Lol.. This is great stuff..

    But as you said, it’s only rock and roll..

  • Mr Noel’s lyrics can be hugely cringeworthy (although I quite like the stream of consciousness madness of Supersonic), and I think he’s on record admitting that a lot of it is just nonense – the sink is full of fishes, she’s got dirty dishes on the brain… Hey? Some people just aren’t arsed about the words, but the older I get the more they mean to me.
    THE BEST lyricist there is (I’m going to be dogmatic about this and shall not be shifted) is Billy Bragg, who, even if you don’t like his politics is just clever as flip.

    Father mows the lawn and Mother peels the potatoes
    Grandma lays the table alone
    And adjusts a photograph of the unknown soldier
    In this Holy of Holies, the Home
    And from the TV an unwatched voice
    Suggests the answer is to plant more trees
    The scrawl on the wall says what about the workers
    And the voice of the people says more salt please

  • A

    I think Bobby Goldsboro is a very good songwriter.