This is another edition of "Favorite Songs for their Lyrics" where I pick a number of songs whose lyrics resonate with me and whittle away at them to my heart's content. I focus only on the song's lyrics because I feel like quantitatively judging music along some scale of good to bad is mostly pointless. Music just hits us certain ways. Also, worth noting: My musical tastes are embarrassingly mainstream and I've never been particularly adventurous at seeking out things other than what's on the radio, but isn't that more fun for everyone since you'll know the songs I'm writing about?
Bottle it Up, Sara Bairelles - I once heard Bairelles say on Chelsea Handler's show that she's in a healthy and stable relationship so she just channels her sister's problems for her love songs. Perhaps that's why her two most famous tracks from her first album seem like love songs on the surface but are really expressions of frustration about the pervasiveness of the love song genre. Both this and "Love Song" are extremely direct manifestations of her feelings. "I know it's just your soul but could you bottle it up" could be a direct plea to Sara's sister to use her as a muse because "girls across the nation will eat this up." Yet as the song moves along and the word "love" is repeated over and over and pigeonholed into various sentences, there seems to be a sense of the singer getting lost in the emotion herself. Even the ability to view "love" with ironic detachment doesn't prevent one from being overtaken with the emotion.
Ain't it Fun, Paramore - The song's first line shows the narrator stating with a hint of casual apathy: "I don't mind letting you down easy" which could mean she's personally rejecting the subject or that she has no problem softening the news that the adult world is going to be tough on the subject. Or maybe being romantically rejected by the narrator is the subject's "welcome to adulthood" moment? The next line turns contradictory as she advises the subject to "give it time" so that he or she can truly experience the pain ("If it don't hurt now, just wait a while"). But then you realize that the pain of being taken down a notch is part of the process of growing up. Ain't that fun?
Annie Waits, Ben Folds-Folds is one of the few consistently interesting lyricists because he uses the medium to tell stories and he realizes that the best stories aren't necessarily about himself. On its surface, "Annie Waits" is another of Ben's folksy yarns and the catchy piano riff is misleading as well. A girl named Annie is being stood up by a friend but this slightly unfortunate afternoon is indicative of a larger pattern of disappointment and loneliness. The song juxtaposes the ticking of Annie's biological clock ("She's getting old") with the fact that it's getting late on this particular afternoon. The tragic undertones are evident in everything from Annie's worst-case-scenario daydreams ("Friday bingo, pigeons in the park") to the way the headlights cast shadows that "pass her by and out of sight." A second layer of the song is that whether she's really lonely or not is based on the point of view of the narrator who happens to want her and therefore thinks that it is the end of the world for Annie that she's being stood up. The twist is that maybe the narrator's the lonely one.
Taylor Swift tries to split the difference in a far more fascinating way with “Blank Space” in which she realistically explores what a relationship with “Taylor Swift: tabloid fixture” would be like. Like “Shake it Off,” Swift insists on being foolish with her romantic decisions using the “we’re young and we’re wreckless” defense. To review: She wants to immediately show the object of her affection “incredible things” right after being introduced to him, she treats love as a game, and she is already referring to her as “his next mistake.” Did we mention she also gets drunk on jealousy? The song’s most interesting line is “I can make the bad guys good for a while” which strikes me as a reversal. I know Taylor’s commenting on her wrong decision, but isn’t getting someone involved in wreckless behavior (AKA romance) turning someone bad?
Adia, Sarah McLachlan- Sarah McLachlan sings to a friend who she let down in what seems to be a major way. As I listened to it a couple more times, it became unclear who committed the transgression as evidenced by the hints of uncertainty (Clues here are "Adia, I do believe I've failed you" and the last line of the chorus "Does it matter?"). So instead of singing out an apology, Sarah pleads with Adia to not lose her innocence. It's possible that innocence could be used in a "not guilty" way but a "not bitter" interpretation is more likely here.
This is interesting if Sarah was the transgressor that she would plead for her victim to not feel pain but that also makes a lot of sense for admittedly selfish reasons. If you hit someone with a car, wouldn't you be relieved to know for the sake of your conscience that the other person was OK? Another possible interpretation is that the narrator let her down by simply not preventing Adia from harm or simply letting her grow older to the point where she'd have to face the dangers of adulthood (hence the reminder that "we are young").
Broadway is Dark Tonight, Goo Goo Dolls- It's a bit of a downer as a song but the song paints such a rich scene. The setting here is an "old man's bar" where a young man is drinking something off his mind. In the second verse the narrator addresses the subject in second person and says (possibly in the form of a command or a condensed form of description) "forget your only son" so that might have something to do with it. And then there's the rich description like "You pray to statutes when you sober up for fun" whatever that means. Perhaps, the young man drinking at the old man's bar laments a generational shift as noted by the fact that "The cowboy killed the rockstar." Johnny Rzeznik likely grew up idolizing the quintessential image of a rockstar because that's what he became (also because he looks like someone who could have scored an invite to stand in with the Rolling Stones or Aerosmith), so you can imagine what the murder of the rockstar at the hands of the cowboy means to him. The song has a strong sense of place that I knew it wasn't based on the Broadway district of New York before looking it up to confirm that.
Your Armor, Charlotte Martin-Whether you find love or don’t as you get older, we all tend to get jaded towards love songs. Heck, even Adam Levine proclaimed “One more stupid love song and I’ll be sick” even though approximately 100% of his songs are about relationships. But a song like “Your Armor” is wistful and enchanted enough to do the trick. The narrator is fascinated with a special someone who, at first glance, seems to be timid and shy as described by the word “Armor.” She asks him in the chorus “Is your armor thin again? Do I want to wear it down?” By painting him in this way, she admits that his reserved nature is intriguing. I always have been attracted to the reserved librarian type, but I realized listening to this song that being attracted to what you don’t know about a person is pretty universal.
Martin then asks two more questions that rephrase the previous line but these questions are a little bolder: “Am I worthy to come in?” expresses self-doubt and “Do you want to be found?” cuts deeper than asking about the subject’s personality. She wants him to make a voluntary decision to shed it. Again, this is pretty bold for a narrator who admits that these are “words that she could never say.” She and her subject both run around pretending the sun is all they need and that “chasing you around the room is tempting.” Lastly, the song makes use of a great time metaphor for the passage of time, which is always something I love: “Making deals with minutes that will slip away.”
Learn to Fly, The Foo Fighters-You can’t go wrong introducing the devil and angels in the first verse and playing off each other: “Run and tell all of the angels, this could take all night. Think I need a devil to help me get things right.“ The narrator oscillating between using both the devil and all of the angels for guidance is indicative of this sense of panic he’s feeling that’s prevalent through much of the song. In the next verse, he wants a new revolution to be cooked up and it’s almost as if he’s having a manic episode or some party drug is starting to kick into his blood stream. The other interesting thing about this song is that the narrator seems clear-headed in terms of knowing what he needs to get him out of this sticky situation (i.e. to fly, all of the angels, for the subject to fly along with him) but he’s also “looking for a complication” before admitting “I’m looking cause I’m tired of trying.” Is the “complication” a sort of hail mary pass because he knows he’s failing? The theme of an airplane here is key here because then the concept of a nose dive fits the premise perfectly.
Thrift Shop, McElmore and Lewis-There’s not much to say here because the songwriter’s satirical spin on the rap song is pretty clear to anyone who listens to this song and that’s a pretty beautiful thing in and of itself. There’s nothing wrong with obvious symbolism. There’s also nothing wrong with being hilarious: “I’m gonna take your grandpa’s style, I’m gonna take your grandpa’s style. No for real, can I have your grandpa’s hand-me-downs?”
Team, Lorde-This is one of those songs where I’m going to have to wrack my brain on each line because Lorde isn’t making it easier on me. If “Royals” is any indication, Lorde’s main shtick seems to be “I’m an outsider, I’m not decked in bling, take me seriously anyway.” Of course, one has to ask why she feels so insecure about her lack of bling. I don’t ask myself “Is the artist visibly rich enough” when shopping for albums, but maybe preteen girls do?
Perhaps, Lorde feels like an outsider because she’s from New Zealand and, if “Flight of the Conchords” is any indication, Kiwis seem to have that chip on their shoulder. What’s interesting is Lorde uses “Cities you’ll never see on screen” as the metaphor of choice for her outsider status. New Zealand has three sizeable urban areas but the first thing people think of when they picture New Zealand are pastoral countrysides filled with sheep. Maybe Lorde is working in conjunction with the New Zealand Chamber of Tourism to highlight New Zealand’s great cities (she was born and raised in an urban area), but it’s more likely that she’s reflecting back against the images of the U.S. she’s inundated with (most foreigners are now subjected to more American TV and movies than art produced in their own country). It’s worth noting that Lorde’s portrayal of what she does see on screen is negative. There are “a hundred jewels between teeth” and “between throats” which reflects a sort of excess. In contrast, her boys have “skin like craters of the moon” but they love that moon like brothers.
Clarity, Zedd-Who is Zedd (other than the evil lord from the Power Rangers) and will we ever hear from her again? I hope so because she certainly has some pretty enlightened views on love and heart break. She sees the subject as "the piece of me I wish I didn't need" which is a pretty smart way to view someone you can't get over: At a certain point, they stop becoming a person and turn into your image of that person. To cement this idea that Zedd is getting over someone, she uses the metaphor of "Frozen Waves" as keeping her in a state of heartbreak, and considers the subject the past (that, for better or worse, is coming back to life). The narrator is woefully lost in these feelings and portrays them well: "It walks deep through our ground and makes us forget all common sense." The real reason that Zedd can't forget the person in question is indicated in the chorus because he brings her moments of clarity. [Editorial update: I have since discovered Zedd is a guy and the singer of the song is female]
Clarity, John Mayer-Since, we're sticking to songs with the name "Clarity." I agree that John Mayer is obnoxious these days, but in his first two albums, he really had a lot to say. I know it sounds corny but in my formative years, “No Such Thing” was my guide for how to approach adulthood, “Bigger than my Body” was an anthem for how to outlive expectations, and “Why Georgia” captured my desire to move during my quarter-life crisis. “Clarity” captures John Mayer in a brief moment of happiness. The narrator is kind of OCD (no surprise there) but he wakes up one morning with a "calm he can't explain." He was surprised that "it somehow lingered on." The interesting line here (placed appropriately in the chorus) is that he resolved to "Wait to find if this will last forever." Um...how do you wait to find if something lasts forever? Will he send a report back to the subject on his deathbed. The pessimistic way to read this is that the narrator is still OCD and can't be comfortable with this new feeling. The more optimistic view is that if you are OCD, waiting to see how long a good feeling lasts is the best one can hope for.
Be sure to click on the tab that says lyrics for past editions of this series.
Other songs I've done include: Green and Gray, Nickel Creek; Collide, Howie Day; Hard Candy, Rain King, She Don’t Want Nobody Near, Counting Crows; 3 X 5, No Such Thing, Bigger than my Body, Why Georgia, John Mayer; For the First Time, Script; Fairytales, Sara Bareilles; End of the Innocence, Don Henley; Hey Soul Sister, Train; Over my Head, You Found Me, Fray; Let’s See How Far We’ve Come, Mad Season, Downfall, All I Need, Black and White People; Matchbox 20; Jack and Dianne, John Cougar Mellencamp; Here is Gone, Better Days, Goo Goo Dolls; Breathe, Anna Nalick; First Cut is the Deepest, Cat Stephens; Grace is Gone, Gray Street, #41, Dancing Nancies, DMB; Time, Hootie and the Blowfish; Gone, Landed, Ben Folds; Stars, Switchfoot; Your Winter, Sister Hazel; South of Nowhere, Gin Blossoms; On Love in Sadness, Jason Mraz; In Too Deep, Sum 41; I’m With You, Avril Lavigne; Barrytown, Steely Dan; Game of Love, Michelle Branch; Testing 123, Barenaked Ladies; Wake Me Up When September Ends, Greenday