Tag Archives: lyrics

I Bet You Think This Blog is About You: Blurred Lines and the Problem with Direct Address

blurred-lines-cover

Who are you?

Or, I guess, who are “you”?

More accurately, if less grammatically, who is “you”?

“You” has been very busy, at least going by song lyrics.  Other genres—including a lot of poetry, even though people think of lyrics and poetry as the same thing—stay away from using “you” as the dominant pronoun.  You can count on one hand the number of novels written in second person.  (Bright Lights, Big City; something by Italo Calvino…  OK, on two fingers.)  Instruction manuals, and their snooty siblings, self-help books, sure, “you” yourself away.  Nonfiction—and blogs—use direct address as an occasional rhetorical device (“You can count on one hand…”).  But every song is about You.  Here’s a rundown of some song titles that begin with “You”:

You, Breaking Benjamin

You, REM

You & Me, Dave Matthews

You and Your Friend, T-Ride

You Are Not Alone, Michael Jackson

You Are the Everything, REM

You Are the Girl, Cars

You Belong With Me, Taylor Swift

You Better Run, Pat Benatar

You Can Call Me Al, Paul Simon

(You Can Still) Rock in America, Night Ranger

You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Stones

You Can’t Get What You Want, Joe Jackson

You Can’t Kill Michael Malloy, Primus

You Can’t Kill Rock & Roll, Ozzy

You Can’t Stop Progress, Clutch

You Could Be Mine, Guns n Roses

You Don’t Have to be a Prostitute, Flight of the Concords

You Don’t Know Me at All, Don Henley

You Don’t Know What Love Is,, White Stripes

You Drive Me Ape, The Dickies

You Dropped a Bomb on Me, Gap Band

And that’s just the “You D–“’s, with more than 40 more You-first, not including “You” contractions. This is just from my iTunes library.  (Yes. Taylor Swift.) Go pull up your own playlists and see for yourself (and go ahead and post favorite or significant titles in Comments).  And obviously this list can’t include all the songs that revolve around “you,” since that would be nearly all of them.  “You” had to be a big shot.  Who is “you,” and how do you have so much time to do everything?

All of this is a way of getting to the Song of the Summer, in caps, Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines.  Yes, it’s crazy popular, and you can’t listen to the radio for 10 minutes without hearing it.  But it’s controversial, because the lyrics have been declared rapey, a word that fills an important vocabulary niche but that still sounds, meaning aside for the moment, like the name of a cat.  A lot of it comes down to this line:

You know you want it.

It’s pretty damning out of context, especially the way I used sinister italics, sitting on the page like that creep on the public bus. And I’m not here to defend the song. (Hourman hates controversy.)  But a few things are interesting about it.  First, its context is not the page but rather a pretty sweet R&B song, which is melodic, playful, and even a little corny (musicians: it’s all in the flat 7s, the corniest of all intervals).  How else can Robin Thicke, Jimmy Fallon, and the Roots pull off an all kiddy instrument version of the song?  (Of course, I am conveniently ignoring that OTHER video.)

And the song sounds and feels nothing like what I think of as the (intentionally, to be make fun of that sort of thing, according to the group; Thicke said something similar about his own song) rapeiest song of all, Stone Temple Pilots’ raucous Sex Type Thing.  Featured lyric: “You wouldn’t want me have to hurt you too, hurt you too,” totally worse than “You know you want it.”  (Musicians: the main riff revolves around a flat 5 interval, which everyone knows is the devil in music).

Maybe the song could deflect its accusations better if it were one of those He said/She said songs that allow for more than one point of view and point of “you”—think Don’t You Want Me’s first verse by the Guy:

You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
When I met you
I picked you out, I shook you up
And turned you around
Turned you into someone new

 Followed up in the second verse by this, by the Girl:

I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
That much is true
But even then I knew I’d find a much better place
Either with or without you

Balanced, dueling “you”s.  Or more recently, Gotye and Kimbra’s Somebody I Used to Know, where we get the sense that both the man and woman are hurting over the breakup, not that one is right and the other wrong. First Gotye sings this:

Now and then I think of when we were together
Like when you said you felt so happy you could die
Told myself that you were right for me
But felt so lonely in your company
But that was love and it’s an ache I still remember

Later followed by Kimbra’s POV:

Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over
But had me believing it was always something that I’d done
But I don’t wanna live that way
Reading into every word you say
You said that you could let it go
And I wouldn’t catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know

No assumptions about what the woman wants, since the song allows her to tell us.

It’s also interesting to compare Blurred Lines to the runner-up song of the summer, the maybe even catchier Get Lucky by Daft Punk.  Here’s the chorus:

She’s up all night to the sun

I’m up all night to get some

She’s up all night for good fun

I’m up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to the sun

We’re up all night to get some

We’re up all night for good fun

We’re up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to get lucky

We’re up all night to get lucky

No “you” at all!  Instead, the song uses “she” and “I’ before settling on “we.”  If the repeated line had been “You’re up all night to get lucky,” a la Blurred lines, it wouldn’t sound so sex positive:

 You’re up all night to the sun

You’re up all night to get some

You’re up all night for good fun

You’re up all night to get lucky

You’re up all night to get lucky

You’re up all night to get lucky

You’re up all night to get lucky

You’re up all night to get lucky

 Now it sounds so accusing, kinda shamey.  Now, it’s not a story about two individual people, She and I, who together comprise We, but rather the lyrics’ male speaker looking at and judging the behavior of an unnamed woman.

The same thing happens if you contrast the next line in Blurred Lines: “You’re a good girl.”  It’s the singer’s assessment of what the woman thinks of herself, not necessarily what she thinks.  Contrast it with Tom Petty’s Free Falling, which begins with the exact same line but in 3rd person:

She’s a good girl, loves her mama
Loves Jesus and America too
She’s a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis
Loves horses and her boyfriend too

And with 3rd person comes the feeling of objectivity, which may be at the heart of the Blurred Lines—and, for me, the “you”—controversy.  “She’s a good girl” sounds like an omniscient narrator.  It means what it sounds like, or at least doesn’t call attention to its own possible ambiguity.  “You’re a good girl” sounds subjective—who are you to say or know whether she/I/ you is/am/are a good girl?  Blurred lines indeed.  Whether we find the line—and “You know you want it”—offensive or not boils down to whether we believe the singer.    If the singer—he—is reliable, and she—the recipient of the song’s words—is a good girl, and does want it, and the blurred lines of the title represent  the internal conflict within the woman herself, then the song is seductive, which I take as Thicke’s—and every lyricist’s—intention.  But if we doubt him, and hear situational blurred lines—he thinks that she wants it, but she doesn’t—well, that’s rapey.

But it’s up to you to decide.

Time: Over time, about 80 minutes, since I didn’t keep track that well, with double apologies for going italics crazy.

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Learning to Sing Hours and Hours of Cover Songs

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, as Frank Zappa, or Elvis Costello, or George Carlin, did or did not say.[i]  Except, of course, that it’s not.  It’s more like writing about architecture, except more fun, frequent, and widely-appealing.  Humans strive to put abstractions, like justice; emotions, like love; senses, like taste; and art, like, um, art—that is, that which seemingly defy the verbal—into language all the time, a kind of symbolic synesthesia. Plus, the analogy does not hold, since music is unique; in addition to listening to music, playing music, and writing about music, we do dance to music, and create architectural structures devoted to it.

And yet, ZappaCostelloCarlin is/are also on to something.  For the past nine months, I have been playing music semi-professionally—three paying gigs for six hours of playing this month, y’all—after a seventeen year hiatus, as I wrote about here.    And although I teach a class on rock music (early version of the syllabus posted here) and have written an academic essay on the rock novel, it turns out that there’s still more to learn from playing the music itself.

For one thing, unlike my romantic, idealistic former self, the one who wrote the music and lyrics and refused to play covers, my current self is happy to play other people’s music.  If anything, playing covers is more like what I do for my day job—interpreting books and literary criticism.  In some cases, I find myself less faithful to the original artist, while in others, I’m more faithful.  Some of this is just me—everything I play on the guitar sounds metallic, so even Tommy Tutone’s “Jenny” gets an inadvertent metal makeover.

At other times, it’s the problem of trying to adapt a studio creation to a three piece guitar-bass-drums performance.  Even a relatively straightforward pop rock song like Ratt’s Round and Round overdubs multiple lead singing tracks (and guitar tracks, a different problem), so that each first line of the verse very slightly overlaps the one before it, making it impossible for one person to reproduce live. This overlap is almost inaudible and of no concern to anyone—except someone trying to sing it live.

Whereas other songs are just fun to copy, like Green Day’s Basket Case, where making myself nasal and deliberately trying to imitate Pee Wee Herman’s serious voice—the one he’s using when not screaming—becomes a pretty solid approximation of Billy Joe Armstrong.

And it is really the singing, much more than the guitar playing, that’s the challenge for me.  I like playing the guitar. I want to play guitar.  Every part of it is fun—practice, repetition, volume, the instrument and gear itself.  While I’ve resigned myself to being a singer, it’s much harder.  For one thing, I have to use my voice ALL THE TIME, for work, for leisure, for everything.  I want to save it and keep it safe and preserved, yet I keep having to take it out to do all sorts of things.  I imagine taking my guitar out of the case, say, to sweep up, or knock a Frisbee out of a tree, and what a dangerous waste that is to use an instrument for a nonmusical, mundane purpose. Yet I’m stuck doing that will my voice all day, every day. Tea and honey can only repair so much.

But even more than the challenges, learning covers, especially singing them, has made me think more about how songs work, and their structures.  Although they use words, rock songs are not narratives—rock operas , all those Billy Joel songs with verses that  begins with people’s boring first names, and Iron Maiden epics to the contrary.  Songs have too much recursion and repetition.    It’s a cliché to say that rock songs are verse/chorus/verse.  And in reality, it’s usually closer to intro/verse/prechorus/chorus/verse/prechorus/chorus/solo/bridge/chorus/repeat chorus fade.  But they don’t move linearly from beginning to middle to end the way a story does.

Yet they’re also not poems, Dylan and Lennon and Baez to the contrary as well.  They have elements of poetry, like rhyme, rhythm, and meter (although at this point I roll my eyes at any rhyme schemed or formulaic poems written after about 1940).  But they’re not usually interested in exploring or developing ideas through imagery the way poems are.  And they’re certainly not essays, all Rush lyrics to the contrary.

What the words often are, then, are part of the music itself.  Their sound, their tone, their shape in the singer’s mouth makes the song.  Rockists like to make fun of the toe-tapping masses who say things like “I don’t listen to the lyrics, I just feel the beat” [comma splice sic].  And I admit to being something of a lyric fanatic, whether it means greater appreciation or greater disappointment.  Mock if you want, and I’m iffy about some songs, but Pearl Jam has some strong lyrics. Spin the Black Circle, Even Flow, Jeremy: these are songs where the lyrics, as sung and together with the music, turn Eddie Vedder’s voice into a pure rock instrument.  And sometimes, I’m flummoxed : The Scorpions’ Rock You Like a Hurricane, a song I’ve heard a million times, is nothing but a series of crude sexual non-sequiturs, somehow  palpable because  Klaus Meine’s German accent makes the lyrics vary between percussive and sweet ‘n’ sibilant at the right moments.

In the end, why the opposition to writing about music at all? It turns out that music needs words a lot more than words need music.  There’s only so many times even an ardent rock fan can listen to YYZ.  On with the show.

Time: 55 minutes.


[i] Quote Investigator does a pretty stellar job tracking the sources of “writing about music…” http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/11/08/writing-about-music/

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