Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Importance of Lyrics in Music Part 2: Smells Like Complete Bullshit

by Miguel Cruz

In The Importance of Lyrics in Music, I gave a brief analysis of how current tastes demand vocals in popular music to the complete exclusion of instrumental music. It doesn't matter if the lyrics actually make sense or not. By the late 80s artists began pushing the bounds of credibility in the "stories" they were telling in their words. But in 1991 there was a shift generally thought to have begun with the near-Messianic arrival of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit". I say near-Messianic because for a time that's how their success was largely viewed. A lot of the stories in the rock press would talk about how much music had sucked prior to their arrival (it did). Nirvana completely saved rock music for all time at least until the late 90s when the record companies figured out how to make music suck again.

Nirvana didn't just bring about a different musical sensibility, they opened the door for other artists whose lyrics were largely stream of conscious writing pulling together disparate phrases and snatches of thoughts without any regard for whether they cohere into something meaningful. The last song I ever liked Jimmy Eat World's "Bleed American" is completely impenetrable. The first two lines of the song

I'm not alone 'cause the TV's on yeah
I'm not crazy 'cause I take the right pills everyday


resonate with me in particular because I'm a firm believer in the use of television as sonic wallpaper. When I'm alone in my house with no other people and just my thoughts, it's a truly socially deprived experience. But when I have Oprah on looking at me, telling me what books to read, I feel more socially connected than without it. I don't have to even be watching it. Most of the time I'm not. The television provides the equivalent of sitting in a cafe while I do other things. The second line means something to me because for a time, I took Zoloft and Welbutrin to stave off panic attacks.

And rest, clean your conscious,
clear your thoughts with Speyside with your grain


I had to look up Speyside. It's a whiskey made in the area near the Spey River in Scotland. Easy enough to understand. Drink alcohol to make you forget. The chorus makes very little sense however.

Salt, sweat, sugar on the asphalt.
Our hearts littering the topsoil.
Tune in and we can get the last call.
Our lives our coal.


My belief is that they were words that popped into the writer's mind that best fit the melody which is pretty much the same as the guitar riff. The first line is a very specific image that one can only wonder what it's referring to. Did the writer witness some incident where a Morton's truck collided with an Imperial truck causing the contents to spill out all over the roadway? And since it was a particularly hot day, the clean up crew dripped a lot of perspiration into the mix as well? Whatever the case it's a reference that only means something to the writer and is undecipherable by the average person.

"Our hearts littering the topsoil" is some kind of metaphor. It could be a specific image of several human hearts piled up on a piece of land somewhere, but that's unlikely since the writer's heart is in the mix too. Heart usually is a metaphor for a person's love, devotion, or passion for something or someone. But here the heart is littering the topsoil. Does the writer have a passion for farming? For wheat in particular?

More importantly what the hell does any of this have to do with the title of the song "Bleed American"? One presumes that the lyrical content is brought together and unified by the title. The title provides a context with which to decipher the words and the words serve to illuminate the meaning of the title. But much like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" that is not the case.

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was part of a trend in which the title is never actually mentioned in the song itself. I hesitate to say that it started the trend because I don't really know. I'm sure there was some alt-rock from before 1991 that did this, but it doesn't count because alt-rock sucked before 1991. The Stone Temple Pilots followed that up with such songs like "Sex Type Thing" and "Plush". The content of "Sex Type Thing" makes sense with the title, but not so much with "Plush".

Load up on guns and bring your friends.


A very strong opening line. It's issuing a command, not necessarily to the audience, but to a someone or a group of someones within the universe of the song. This is interesting. Why does the one person want the other(s) to do this. Are they going on a hunting trip? Are they gangbangers about to do a drive-by? Are they a wild-west posse? I can't wait to find out.

It's fun to lose and to pretend.

What does "fun to lose" mean? Does it relate to the fun of pretending? To lose yourself in a fantasy? To lose at some competition? To lose all your assets when the stock market goes belly up? How does this relate to loading up on guns?

She's overboard and self-assured.

I'm guessing overboard doesn't mean overboard as in falling off a boat, but in taking something beyond the bounds of good taste. But overboard about what? What happened to the guns again?

Oh no I know a dirty word.

Is it one of the seven dirty words? Shit, piss, cunt, fuck, cocksucker, motherfucker, and asshole. Did this unnamed "she" tell him the dirty word? Had he seriously never heard this word prior to this encounter? When are we getting back to what you're planning to do with those guns?

Hello, hello, hello

Hello there, yourself. But no need to start the introductions now. You've pretty well broken the ice.

How low?

Hmmm? What is it that you want to know is how low?

With the lights out it's less dangerous.

That's a new one on me. Usually, decreased visibility is more dangerous. You can't see where you're going. You can't see what might be coming at you.

Here we are now. Entertain us.

Who me? You're the musician. We paid you. Entertain us with the story of what you're going to do with your guns.

I feel stupid...

You and me both. At least you know what the fuck you're talking about.

...and contagious

With an actual disease? Figuratively with the power of your nonsensical ideas?

A mullato, An albino, a mosquito, my libido

Is this the setup of a joke? A mullato, an albino, a mosquito, and my libido walked into a bar...Are these the friends loading up on guns?

I'm worse at what I do best

What's that? Writing lyrics that make sense?

And for this gift I feel blessed

With ten million in sales for this album, I would too.

Our little group has always been
And always will until the end


Been what? Blessed. Are you talking about Nirvana or your hypothetical posse who loaded up on guns?

And I forget just why I taste

I don't know. Maybe it's because you have taste buds on your tongue.

Oh, yeah, I guess it makes me smile


Kids, this is what happens when you take heroin. You start associating false causes for biological functions. I forget why I take a shit. Oh, yeah, I guess I get to read a book.

I found it hard, it's hard to find

What's hard to find?

Oh well, whatever, nevermind

Ummm okay. Nevermind to the message you were trying to convey in the body of the song or whatever it is that's hard to find?

Dave Grohl is quoted in Michael Azzerad's Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana as saying, "Just seeing Kurt write the lyrics to a song five minutes before he first sings them, you just kind of find it a little bit hard to believe that the song has a lot to say about something. You need syllables to fill up this space or you need something that rhymes." Cobain's philosophy was that music comes first, lyrics come second. I can dig that. At least someone's upfront about it.

Some artists get real coy about the "meaning" of their lyrics. When asked, "What's it mean," they give cop out answers like, "I don't want to ruin it for anybody. So I choose to let the listener decide for themselves what it means." I wish they would say it like Dave Grohl said it. Granted he wasn't talking about his own process with the Foo Fighters*, but I think we can do a little math on that. This is how lyric writing works.

In part 1, I lied. I said that I was only going to refer to old songs. I'll close with a selection from Miley Cyrus' "Party In The USA" which according to an episode of This American Life has become a frat house anthem.

Nodding my head like yeah
Moving my hips like yeah

The meaning of this song is pretty clear, but it's a failure at devising metaphors. "Miley, just how did you move your hips? Did you move them like a swan gliding through a moonlit lake?"
"Ummm no."
"Did you move them like a hawk swooping down from a great height to catch a mouse in a field?"
"No not quite."
"Did you move them like Andrew Jackson moved the Choctaw to Oklahoma so they could set up casinos 200 years later?"
"No not really.
"Okay how did you move them, Miley?"
"I moved them like yeah."

Fear of a Black Hat's got Miley's Back on this one. I don't know if the embed feature's working though.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwrGv9gZSNA


*There was a time when I used to be able to make a joke when looking at a picture of Nirvana, "Hey! That's the guy from the Foo Fighters." But I'm thinking nowadays Dave Grohl is probably better known for that. It doesn't quite work as well as, "Did you know that Paul McCartney was in some other band before Wings."

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