I Am Unable To Achieve Satisfaction

Song lyrics are not poetry. Alone, they are paint in search of a canvas.  They are clingy lovers who insist on doing everything with their partners. They gaze longingly into the eyes of music and say, “You complete me.”  Music grits its teeth and thinks, why are you so goddamn needy?

Yet who gets all the glory?

When Americans OD’d on Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill in 1995 (in those ancient times when record stores existed outside of Nick Hornby books), pretentious music writers held a “praise art” orgy in her honor. Her shatteringly awesome lyrics regaled us with the story of her breakup from a boyfriend who turned out to be a cheating jerk. It was so edgy, so intense, so cutting that…

For someone who rode to fame in a chariot drawn by vitriol, it’s damned near impossible to find a picture of Alanis angry. Thank you, India?

Wait. Back up a second. Men are two-faced jerks who dont appreciate women? Apparently, these folks were stunned that a rock artist discovered a topic county singers have been beating to death since the 1940s. In fairness to pretentious music writers, they have to rave about the lyrics. It’s job security.

But it was not Alanis’s words that sold us, peeps, it was her delivery. She’s so earnestly pissed off, she’s hyperventilating. She may indeed be brilliant, but not as a lyricist. Maybe, when she’s not singing rock songs, she’s on the cusp of unlocking the secret to cold fusion. That would make her a brilliant physicist. There’s a slight distinction.

Pop lyricists don’t need to be brilliant, just earnest. Whether Chris Martin of Coldplay is telling the tale of a washed-up king who one ruled the world (?) or Chris Brown is crooning about the best way to punch a woman without leaving a bruise, the words merely allow the instrument we call the human voice to invite us in and introduce us to the complete artwork, the song.

Lyrics are dependent on the music they serve. When Bob Marley sings, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds,” in Redemption Song, you might be moved to epiphany, suddenly realizing you are not meant to manage the toy department at Target but, in fact, need to audition for Cirque Du Soleil right now. Or train for the next season of Ninja Warrior. Whatever.

With apologies to your true destiny, it’s just the chords screwing with your emotions, with help from Marley’s impassioned delivery. Look at the line again, without thinking of the melody. It reads like something from Karl Marx Jr.’s Manifesto, Better Living Through Mangled Syntax.

Similarly, when little Jackie Paper dies and Puff the Magic Dragon finally gets to rip his mottled corpse apart and devour the entrails, it’s the minor chords that make you cry, not the splatterpunk lyrics.

No doubt many will argue, what about Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Justin Bieber, John Lennon, et al.? I say even the best lyricists know words are subservient to music. Before you add voice, rock and pop music is two things, a drum beat and chords. Solos, riffs, bass slaps, and samples are just accessories. Accessories must fit the chords and the beat, and so must the words.

Imagine I want to sing:

If you came here for Amanda’s breasts, you’re in for a surprise
Indeed we all go topless, but we’re just a bunch of guys

If the chord changes don’t coincide with the inflections, I can’t use these words.  And I thought Haiku was a bitch.

Amanda Seyfried’s boobs have been the bread and butter of this blog, driving hundreds of thousands of titty-phile pilgrims to our site, including the author of this post.

Poetry can touch the heart, stir the soul, and send people on flights of imagination (I guess). Rock lyrics, on the other hand, fight the good fight against literacy. I’m talking about the ubiquitous double negative. It pains me, as a moderately educated human, that I willingly resort to this “technique” to make words fit my music.

But what would we, as music lovers, be left with if our heroes cared about grammar and syntax? What if Mick Jagger, instead of singing, “I can’t… get no… satisfaction,” had tried to cram, “I am… unable to… achieve satisfaction” into a 4/4 beat?  You’d have a Viagra commercial.  Perhaps “satisfaction eludes me” has poetic grace as a diary excerpt in a Victorian novel, but it don’t fit no three-chord rock song.

At best, song lyrics are clever, but corny lurks in clever’s shadow. The safe choice, in my view, is to be nonsensical. You can’t go wrong with nonsense, as long as you sing it like you mean it. It worked for Jim Morrison. Thanks to hallucinogenic drugs and at least three generations of willing abusers, he’s considered a brilliant poet for saying things like, “He took a face from the ancient gallery, and he WALKED ON DOWN THE HALL!” Remove Ray Manzarek’s moody keys and John Densmore’s jazzy ride cymbal, and you’ve got a crazy, fried alcoholic shuffling around the stage in a stupor, performing pretty, but meaningless, spoken word.

Speaking of Jim Morrison, I never met a woman who didn’t get turned on by his scream. You know, the “mmmmmmrrrrraaALLRAHT YE-YAH!” he’d bust out just before an interminable keyboard solo at least three times per album. Jim Morrison, dead, gets more women in one day than I’d get if I lived a thousand years.

I gotta work on my scream.

The poet has no clothes: Jim Morrison faked his way to genius, while Val Kilmer shows just how glamorous Jim might have been had he lived to golden middle age.

To illustrate that good nonsense is better than failed art, compare the best opening lyric in the history of music to the worst (as determined by an exhaustive 10 seconds of thinking while driving).

The best opening lyric in recorded music belongs to They Might Be Giants, from the track, “Nothing’s Going to Change My Clothes,” off their 1986 self-titled debut, which goes:

All the people are so happy now; their heads are caving in
I’m glad they are a snowman with protective rubber skin

You almost don’t need the music to appreciate such genius-grade nonsense.

The worst opening is Iron Maiden’s “Quest for Fire” from Piece of Mind (1983):

In the time when dinosaurs walked the Earth…

Like a great novel, it sets the time, place, and mood in one simple phrase. An economy of words that Steinbeck would admire. Unfortunately, the five guitars and galloping drums mean that it’s not one of the great dinosaur novels of our age but, rather, a really dumb-ass heavy metal song.

But something more sinister is afoot here than merely the worst lyrics of all time. Later in this song, Iron Maiden sings, “So they [cavemen] ploughed through forest and swamps of danger, and they fought the cannibal tribes and beasts…”

Hold on… Dinosaurs. People. Living together?

I knew it! Iron Maiden are creationists. Just as Jake and Elwood Blues hate Illinois Nazis, I am not big on east London creationists.

Normally, I’d transition to a paragraph mocking creationism, but since this is about art, I admit creationists have some pretty good material. Indeed, the single greatest artist in history (an admittedly audacious statement), Michelangelo Buonarroti, painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which literally is about biblical creation.

Or is it?

No. It’s actually a massive shrine to the joy of homosexuality. The biggest, gayest artwork in the world, almost as gay as Adam Lambert’s stage show. And it has been pissing on creationists’ oblivious heads since 1512, with its army of 15-foot-tall nude gay men lounging mere yards from the God they so offend, who’s too busy whipping up a universe to notice. Ah, Michelangelo. You had balls the size of your David’s head.

Creationism is so gay. Note how the dick of Mickey B’s “ignudo” on the left matches the fruit he’s leaning on. It’s a veritable clutch of cock. The ignudo on the right is trying to be faithful to his boyfriend, but just can’t help a quick cruise.  They banned Mapplethorpe, but this is holy.

So my rant today will instead be about the perpetual and stupid myth that Michelangelo painted the ceiling while lying on his back. First, the Sistine Chapel ceiling is concave and scaffolds are flat. On your back, you’d need 12-foot-long arms to touch the ceiling’s surface with your brush. Second, it’s a fresco, which is watercolor on moist plaster. The paint must go on very quickly and very wet (insert your own “losing virginity” joke here), meaning M needed to, I don’t know, see the paint. Trying choosing the right color while flat on your back and tell me how it goes.

You know, if people applied logic, they wouldn’t walk around thinking artists paint lying down or planets are 6000 years old. Sometimes I get so earnestly annoyed I could… I could…

I could write a song about it! You ready for this, music writers?

Comments: 15

  • Bulger April 9, 20119:41 pm

    They gaze longingly into the eyes of music and say, “You complete me.”

    • James Killough April 9, 201110:26 pm

      Jay, put down the beer bong, slowly … come back from the ledge … take my hand … easy, boy …

      • oldancestor April 10, 20117:45 am

        I thought he was just being cryptic. Make me sit here thinking, “Wha…”

  • Paula Tohline Calhoun April 10, 201111:21 am

    “I don’t EV-er get sati-is- FAC-shun. . .” Yeah, I know – I’m the nerd who sits in the back of class correcting the lousy grammar in rock lyrics. But, I will go out on a limb here and confess that you are absolutely right. Song lyrics ain’t nothin’ without no music. There. That should make sense.

    Shoulda, woulda, coulda. . .didn’t work there neither. How many double negatives does it take to screw in a lightbulb? I know the answer, do you?

    • oldancestor April 10, 20111:59 pm

      That’s why Mozart rarely included words. He knew people wouldn’t make babies listen to his music 300 years later if his music were full of double negatives.

      By the way, I think you achieved the rare triple negative in your comment.

  • Greg Camp April 11, 20115:59 am

    Oscar Wilde did say that all bad poetry is comes from genuine emotion.

    That being said, some poetry is good, and some song lyrics are poetry. Read Neil Peart’s “The Larger Bowl,” and tell me that ain’t poetry. Go ahead–read it, and tell me that I’m not a nerd. . .

    • oldancestor April 11, 20114:50 pm

      Ya had to drag Peart into it, didn’t ya?

      I’ll watch my son’s Snakes and Arrows concert DVD and listen to the lyrics. By the way, how cool is my 9-year-old son that he collects Rush DVDs?

      I hate Oscar Wilde, only because I dream of being a witty writer and I know my best material will never be on the same bookshelf as his worst.

  • jeanie April 12, 20118:22 am

    After reading this I googled my ass off- looking up my favorite songs to prove to you that lyrics can be poetry. Prince, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, I came up with NADA. Damn you!!!
    ps- Love your writing style-do you have a book?

    • James Killough April 12, 20119:09 am

      Are you the wife? Oh. You know that you husband and I are… um, well… I don’t usually get involved or say anything to wives but… My profile on Manhunt does assure guys I’m “discreet,” but I believe that when true love comes around you should just grab it and run, to hell with discretion and caution… Oprah said on that episode …. oh, this is awkward…

      • oldancestor April 12, 201110:41 am

        You just made it more awkward that you know. Say what you want about NJ, but we don’t marry our sisters here. On top of that, she’s married.

        But now that it’s all in the open… Jeanie, my profile on Manhunt ALSO says I’m discrete. Which is why I’m sorry about me and Tom. I know he’s your husband and all, but there’s just something about him. The heart wants what the heart wants.

        And Tom, I know we were talking about leaving our wives and running off together, but, you see, after I met James, the blogmaster, well, I’ve been forced to rethink my plans. The heart wants what the heart wants.

        Hold on a second! I just found a comment on my wife’s blog from James’s boytoy saying he’s switching teams to be with her.

        Oh, the farce of it all!

        • James Killough April 12, 201110:46 am

          That is, like, so weird and stuff because I just wrote the word “farce” in the copy of today’s posting.

          Two married Jersey guys getting it off while their wives aren’t around …. this is even better than gayforit.com …. And it’s free!

  • oldancestor April 12, 20111:13 pm

    You mean I gotta pay money if I wanna go to gayforit.com?

    Now I’m upset. I can’t wait until “fat bitch sunday.” I swear, I’m going to have a piece of carrot cake!

    • James Killough April 12, 20111:19 pm

      You only need to pay if you need to watch more than 4 videos in 24 hours. I think. I rarely get that far.

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