When I was eleven years old, my parents presented me with an awesome music rig for Christmas. Within minutes of opening the box, after installing the batteries and internal storage, I was listening to popular tunes. With the press of a button I could download songs and play them back at my leisure. And download I did.
But there were drawbacks to this particular rig. It possessed only one speaker. Its wireless connection was actually an AM/FM radio, and the internal storage was a finite supply of Certron Normal Bias 90 minute cassettes. Also, whenever I recorded songs to tape, the first ten or fifteen seconds were invariably marred by some jackass DJ talking over the top of the music. And the batteries ran out too quickly.
Nevertheless, I spent much of my free time listening to that rig, so much that I eventually wore it out. But not before I fell in love with popular music. The first song I ever recorded was Olivia Newton John’s “Physical,” and other Top 40 radio hits of the time included such favorites as “Celebration” and “Centerfold” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.” I obsessed over them all.
What frustrated me to no end, however, was I couldn’t understand the lyrics very well. Like I had trouble making out the actual words. And on the rare occasions when I could decode the syntax, I usually didn’t know what the singer was talking about or completely mistook her meaning.
Let’s take “Physical,” for instance. Olivia Newton-John was an early adopter of music videos and was arguably the hottest woman in the world at the time. I was in love with her. But I had no idea she was, in this case, singing about sex.
Let me hear your body talk. Clearly she’s talking about lifting weights, right? Just look at the video. It’s shot in a gym! Of course, I completely misunderstood the surprise ending, where the muscular men turn out to be homosexual. And how was I supposed to know that at the 2:32 mark, Ms. Newton-John was declaring herself a spitter and not a swallower? And even if I had figured all this out, the lyrics still wouldn’t have made sense. A woman takes a man to a suggestive dinner and tries to keep her hands on the table? She’s tired of talking and just wants to get horizontal? What sort of alternate reality is this?
How about “Whip It,” another popular song of the time? Anybody got a clue what that one means? I sure as hell didn’t. In fact I just looked it up on Google and read where Jerry Casale wrote the lyrics as an homage to Thomas Pynchon’s parodies in Gravity’s Rainbow. Whatever, Jerry. Missed that one, too.
On the other hand, the lyrics for some songs were much more obvious. Like Blondie’s “Rapture.” I loved the rap about the man from Mars who ate up cars, like Cadillacs, Lincolns, and Subarus. When you’re eleven years old, this sort of logic makes sense. But the rest of the lyrics were delivered in a surreal voice that made them difficult to comprehend. Which is probably why I missed the line about finger fucking that occurs right before the rap. What a shame.
I could cite examples all day.
“Angel of the Morning” – I loved this track, but had no idea it was a remake, and certainly I was clueless that Juice Newton was greenlighting a one-night stand.
“Bette Davis Eyes” – Bette Davis? Jean Harlow? Maybe I should have asked my Grandmother for clarification, because I sure as hell didn’t know who they were. And Greta Garbo standoff sighs? Are you kidding me? Why not just sing the song in German?
“99 Luftballons” – This one was sung in German. Whoop de doo. Something about Captain Kirk and floating balloons that symbolized Cold War fears. Or whatever. Next.
“I Want Candy” – Bow Wow Wow remade this 1965 hit and convinced a fifteen-year old girl to sing about sex. I honestly thought it was about candy. The girl was fifteen, for Christ’s sake!
“Abracadabra” – What the hell did black panties have to do with illusion? Doug Henning never said anything about women’s underwear. And what was all the talk about fire? Some kind of new magic trick? Oh yeah, it was a special trick where Steve Miller burned up his career.
“Blister in the Sun” – High as a kite? Strung out? Straight over my innocent little head. And how about, Body and beat/I stain my sheets/I don’t even know why/My girlfriend/She’s at the end/She is starting to cry Really? Eleven-year old Richard is supposed to make sense of that? Fuck you, Violent Femmes.
“Who Can It Be Now?” – Maybe it’s about a crazy guy holed up in his house, but when I was a kid I just wanted Colin Hay to get up and answer the goddamned door.
Of course, as the years progressed I gradually began to understand some of the abstract phrasing and innuendo embedded in most popular songs. I wasn’t eleven forever. Still, there were a few songs that confused me, like:
“Relax.” Don’t do it/When you want to come. By fourteen I was well acquainted with masturbation, but why on earth should I relax and not do it? I most definitely wanted to do it at every opportunity. And then Shoot it in the right direction/Making it your intention. So, Frankie: You don’t want me to do it, but if I do, make sure I point it somewhere important? Shine on, you crazy diamond!
And finally, “She Bop.” I could barely make out Ms. Lauper’s sexy-squeaky delivery, but what I could understand sounded suspiciously like dancing. Or so I believed until one day I somehow discovered the line They say I better stop or I’ll go blind. This is something I could relate to, since for years I’d worried about a similar fate befalling me. But more importantly, I was thrilled to know there were girls out there who enjoyed “bopping” as much as men. Who just wanted to have fun. This knowledge thrilled me so much that my own bopping became new all over again. Thank you kindly, Cyndi Lauper.
So, yeah. I struggled to understand song lyrics in my formative years. And because of this, I quickly learned to ignore lyrics altogether. Instead, I found enjoyment and inspiration in melodies and instrumentation and arrangements. And besides, I was reading plenty of books by then. They brimmed with all the word-based art I could ever need.
In my later teens I was drawn to bands like Boston and Def Leppard and their complex recording techniques. Their meaningless lyrics were, well, meaningless to me. And even today I gravitate toward post rock outfits like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a nine-piece collective that writes complex, orchestral rock pieces almost completely devoid of lyrics. Anymore, I barely listen to popular music at all.
But back in the day I did. In fact, I made it all the way from Olivia Newton-John to Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
And people say evolution isn’t real.