JUST HOW LITERATE IS POP MUSIC... AND HOW LITERATE SHOULD IT BE? (reposted from Facebook)
I will be the first to admit that the headline of “#1 Songs Written at Third Grade Reading Level” is probably, as are most media headlines, deliberately misleading and sensationalistic. After all, it simply doesn’t seem possible that ALL artists working in the mainstream would be subliterate troglodytes. Idiocracy isn’t set to reach full throttle for another four hundred years or so. Likewise, you can’t refer back to the days of “classic popular Broadway” and say that SOUTH PACIFIC’s “Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” or “Bloody Mary” exemplify the pinnacle of human intellect. Nonetheless, there is a clear skewing in the lyrics of the current pop demographics compared to 50 or even 20 years ago, and it’s not toward the well-spoken or keenly observant narrative.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the poetic lyrics of Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell straddled the charts alongside those of such clearly derivative and willfully commercial (and low-minded) acts as The Archies or Bay City Rollers. In the 80s, Peter Gabriel’s political and spiritual exploration and Kate Bush's explorations of literature, philosophy, and anthropology shared the charts with Olivia Newton John’s effervescent bubblegum pop and the feel-good rock of Rick Springfield and Def Leppard. In the 90s, the complex and nuanced songs of Tori Amos and the angst-ridden explorations of society’s underbelly were explored by Nirvana; both acts found a place in the contemporary canon alongside the typical treacle of Mariah Carey’s litany of bombastically delivered cliches on radio.
It’s not at as though popular music has ever been the domain of Ivy League Intellectualism. Even a quick glance at any week of the Hit Parade charts during the 1940s or 1950s (pre-Rock&Roll) reveals a large number of forgettable, hackneyed, and mediocre singles. But there was at least a PLACE for well-written, intelligently thought-out lyrics as well historically, a place which has more or less evaporated in the last decade and a half. The ability to mass-target the largest number of lowest common denominator taste via streaming has meant that there is no profit to be had by major labels niche-targeting a more complex and personally evolved palette. Ergo, market to that LCD and maximize profit.
Other artists have jokingly referred to a number of my songs as vocabulary lessons with CCEs (College Credits Earned) as rewards for completing a listen. I do take that gentle natured ribbing in good stride, but I also feel that the jokes miss the target somewhat: There is nothing inherently exclusionary in my song-writing. I am just as apt to employ a vulgarity as the next artist; the difference is that my vulgarities exist to characterize and humanize the protagonists in my songs, not minimize or marginalize them. There is nothing sensationalistic in the use of profanity in my songwriting: It serves to depict honestly.
The same holds true for my tendency for advanced vocabulary. It isn’t there for show. It’s there because I have chosen the most specific diction for the tales I need to tell. It doesn’t compromise the integrity of the song, the story, or the melody.
For instance, in the title track to my MEMOIRS OF A MANWHORE: THE REELING WALTZ OF A DRUNKEN LOTHARIO, we find the opening statement, “I’ve been told that I’m a product of my over-education, and everything comes too easily. Vacillating between narcissism and self-evisceration, I always do whatever pleases me.” The narrative shifts to the chorus of “I can’t recall a time when I’ve been bested, but it’s often been suggested that I’ve coasted through the margins on a smile and some panache. If my sins must be confessed, it was my adolescence’s arrested development to blame for these transgressions come to pass. I’m not much more than the cumulative storied life I’ve led, and may the memoirs of this manwhore be the tome you take with you tonight to bed.” The song is sung from the perspective of someone who’s survived as a handsome, rakish dilettante and, even after finding himself far past his peak, is still trying to use his wiles and charm to bed the next conquest. As such, the song, like the title itself, veers from willfully literate to desperately feral. The title itself suggests both a puerile joy (the drunken manwhore) while also calling to mind the Shakespearean character of Lothario. Like Shakespeare himself, the song self-consciously courts the low-brow without sacrificing intellect or dimension.
If by now you’ve not given up on this missive, you’re probably wondering where my point is. Well, it’s twofold. First, of course, is the idea that pop music needn’t be written at the collegiate level, but that it also shouldn’t be deliberately and solely aimed at prepubescent minds: doing so is nothing shy of the worst form of prostitution, because it’s prostitution aimed at audiences too young to know better and abetted by parents who, unwilling to grow up themselves, are more concerned with being their children’s cool older friend than they are in parenting. The second, and equally important, is that you should be buying good music in general and (shamelessly undisguised shill) my music in particular. Venues won’t book acts who don’t sell albums and/or tickets. Labels won’t sign artists who don’t move product, either directly (CD and track download sales) or indirectly (commercial and product tie-ins, franchising songs for TV, movie, and advertisement soundtracks). If labels see artists such as myself making a living without a label, then labels will once again begin recruiting literate and articulate artists to be a part of their rosters in order to profit from said artists, and then top 40 music will re-establish a balance between guilty pleasures and long-lasting, albeit less instantly-gratifying, pleasures.
But because of my background — a degree in English and a livelihood in test prep — I can honestly say that my songs have just enough naughtiness to keep your high school aged children interested in them while, simultaneously providing them with surreptitious exposure to the oh-so-coveted requisite vocabulary to raise their SAT reading scores and improve their reading and listening comprehension skills. Of course, I do not consciously say, “Oh, I need to include x number of college-level vocabulary words in each song.” Instead, I write the song with the song’s needs in mind, not the bottom line profit in mind. I like to imagine that Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and Tori Amos do the same.
While that is the extent of my tirade, I add as an appendix to this entry a series of selected lyrics from various tracks to demonstrate the level of literacy that my lyrics embody (often juxtaposed with something equally profane, or at the very least, colloquially idiomatic), in the hopes that if you can’t simply say, “Wow, that’s a good tune and a fun story,” you’ll maybe look at purchasing my albums and a cheaper alternative to improving your college-bound child’s chances at acing the SAT reading than paying for a prep course is.
HIP LITTLE CITY (an homage to Red Bank NJ): Chris heads to the gym. Paul’s head is buried in a tome, maybe the Ottoman Empire, World War I, or ancient Rome. Over in the corner you can spy Old Creepy Greg, whose eyes are trained intently upon a pair of statutory legs.
SAD SACK: While all the day-laborers slept last night, the old guard came in to bust up the strike. Management said round up all the malcontents. Rout out the agitators and the like. And they called in scabs to finish putting mortar on the bricks and left us standing with no pot, emasculated and limp-wrested. My name’s back on the unemployment roll. My free hand’s out-extended, waiting for the public dole.
HOTEL BY THE RIVER: You said my heart was like the Jordan, drowned in a Dead Sea, and you spat out salty anger and returned to Galilee. Now there’s a cross above the Southern sky to mourn the sailors lost unsaved, those whose hearts, submerged like millstones, took them to an early grave.
JUMP INTO THE RIVER: God only knows how hard you tried, and God knows how much it showed. Anyone could read between the self-conscious lines you always toed, from the obsequious handshake to each self-righteous dictum, how you perfected the art of the well-rehearsed victim. You’ve been bartered. You’ve been martyred. Baby, you’re the patron saint of all the cruel injustices that really simply ain’t.
FOR DELILAH, FORGIVENESS: If one had the mind, one could compel me the story of my demise to tell, of Ashkelon and Israel, by how my hand the columned temple fell. But I don’t blame you. I don’t blame you.
ANCHORS AWEIGH: Drunken Lotharios reel a pantomime waltz. Gatekeepers of fools’ paradise promise gold from their vaults, a bright star that beckons beyond the breathtaking blue, as steady as centuries, a hand that is true on the small of your back now, but come light of day… Anchors Aweigh, boys! Anchors Aweigh!
MOONLIGHT (ENDYMION AND SELENE): I observed from afar and I marveled -- beauty as though cut from marble, divined from celestial graces but defied me to divine or explain your nature or phases; your face is an evolving mystery: No, stasis is not in your repertoire and you are wending away from me shrouded in mystery.
GAVOTTE WITH THE GODS: For every wish that’s granted there’s a curse unleashed, the fatalistic boilerplate of oracles and priests that masquerades as blessing but that rots the core of the outward vestal virgin as it does the whore…. The anagram of time finds you on all fours entering and existing through life’s two doors, a moment standing upright in between and soon enough you’re crawling, wondering where you’ve been.
SNARKY KISS OFF SONG: I’ve been reflecting on our time together. You’ve seen fit to cut my tether. You said you couldn’t stand to see my languishing like this inside. Such an altruistic act for you to unilaterally decide! And I’m mentally sorting out a slew of small discrepancies. Perhaps you’d be so kind enough to settle them for me…. You’ve been parading with your brand new beau with his hipster ’stache and French chapeau. Your man candy’s become a permanent fixture there on your arm where he models hats and pontificates about owning a sustainable farm. So when his scintillating affectations finally wear thin, you know where to find me and what orifice you can stick it in.
FUSE II: There's no use in trying to mollify him or trying to resist. He only knows the song of his own anger, only knows the power of his fist against your cheekbones, won't stop 'til there's a bruise. No one quite believes you when you say the man's got a short fuse.
These, of course, are just a smattering of examples of how the high-brow and low-brow can co-exist side by side in a song without any sort of cognitive dissonance or any sacrifice to narrative or melody. I’m not even including any lyrics from my two upcoming EPs and new full length album, all three of which are due before the end of the year (and all of which require funding — which would be there simply through purchasing my already-existing albums and EPs!).