Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Favorite Songs for their Lyrics Part VII

This is a series where I look at songs I like for their lyrical value and use my fancy degree (in overthinking song lyrics) to analyze the hell out of them. Why is it not called "best songs"? Because I don't believe music itself can be subjectively analyzed as good or bad. Different melodies hit people in different ways. I also apologize that I don't have very sophisticated tastes in music to choose songs from. I don't really listen to anything that's not directly in front of me and on the Top 40 radio station.

I Want to Dance With Somebody, Whitney Houston (1987)-The classic ballad hides a lot underneath the surface. It seems as though the narrator just “wants to dance with somebody,” but the verses expose just how much aching she’s feeling over not having met that somebody yet: “I’ve been all right up to now, it’s the light of day that shows me how, but when the night falls, my loneliness calls.” In other words, the narrator is feeling starved for love on a nightly basis when the workday ends. It paints a vivid picture of a desperate person but it’s also startlingly true of all of us: Being lovesick rarely comes up when we’re swamped at work or engaged in a string of errands.

Speed of Sound (2005), Viva la Vida (2008), Coldplay-Sure, a sampling of Coldplay’s singles (I’ll openly admit that I’m only familiar with Coldplay songs that have played at least 40 times on the radio ) show their share of fluff (“Yellow”) and when it comes down to it, Chris Martin consciously trying to be the best band of all time is off-putting. However, there’s a feeling in some of Coldplay’s songs that these guys are at least two or three rungs higher on Manslow’s hierarchy of needs than your average teeny bopper singing about a girl’s beautiful soul. “Viva la Vida” is a song that mixes a hodgepodge of biblical references (the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, the parting of the Red Sea, the “Keys to the Kingdom” allegory, St. Peter at the gates of Heaven) with mythology from various wars and revolutions (the Greek legend of Damocles, the beheading of Louis XVI in the French Revolution, etc) to fashion an epic tale of monarchical power and faith. “Speed of Sound” is a more meditative number about seeing the grandness of the universe and wondering whether he can achieve his potential. He also talks about the limits of understanding or learning everything he can. A sign in Japanese, for example, is a barrier of sorts.

California Dreaming, Mamas and the Papas (1965), Hazy Shade of Winter, The Bangles (1987) (orig. Simon and Garfunkel (1966)-Both of these songs talk about how the change in seasons of a picturesque setting becomes a reminder for the narrator of how life is slow to move on. In “California Dreaming,” the narrator goes for a walk on a winter’s day and the brown leaves and gray skies are a catalyst for wanting to leave. In a meandering story style, he meets up with a preacher who seems to know better than the narrator himself that his efforts to escape this purgatory of sorts are fruitless (“he knows I’m gonna stay"). He also mentions that “if I didn’t tell her, I could leave today”). Although this isn’t a very fleshed-out part of the song (which only has 126 words including repetitions), there’s something oddly relatable there: It’s usually one or two small commitments that keep us from making a big move (at least that’s how it often plays out with me).

Hazy Shade of Winter, The Bangles/Simon and Garfunkel- Clocking in at 200 words, Hazy Shade of Winter is a bit more descriptive although it covers eerily similar territory. The sky is “hazy” instead of gray but the leaves are still brown and both these seasonal changes seem to depress the hell out of the narrator. In a very subtle way, “Hazy Shade of Winter” broaches the irony of how the joys of Christmas can invoke depression. The narrator instructs you (the subject of the song as it is in the second person) to listen to the Salvation Army Band and think about how what they’re doing is better than what you’ve got planned. Still, while winter is winter and gloomy, it’s the narrator who is in the springtime of his or her life (I’m not sure how that makes the subject feel better). There’s also a suggestion that the gloomy winter is part of a larger tapestry in a sort of ying-yang manner.

Better in Time, Leona Lewis (2008)-Leona Lewis was a big deal around 2008 with her ubiquitous song “Bleeding Love” which is a pretty depressing anecdote on how she keeps bleeding, keeps, keeps bleeding love. Whatever that means, no thanks. Her lesser-remembered second single of that year, “Better in Time” is definitely a more complete sentiment. The narrator is getting over someone and uncovers some pretty deep stuff about the process along the way: That pain and healing occur simultaneously (“It’s going to hurt when it heals too”), that the media makes love sickness harder (“How could I turn on the TV without something that would remind me”) and that things do get better with time. The most affecting sentiment from the song to me is “I’m gonna smile because I deserve to” as if she has to remember to give herself permission. It’s also a song with an interesting call-and-response pattern that symbolizes an internal dialogue.

The A-Team, Ed Sheeran (2013)-A valuable lesson to all you teeny boppers out there: Release a song that’s not about yourself as your first single and then you can spend the rest of your music career whining about your sex life and still have artistic credibility. “The A-Team” tells the story about a drug addict who doesn’t appear to be leaving bad decision land any time soon (prostitution is among the measures she’s resorting to). The song starts out with descriptive half-sentences (“White lips, pale face, breathing in snow flakes, burnt lungs, sour taste) which hint at a very sad character but the description brings an curiously undeniable sense of beauty to it. When he talks about how “she flies to the motherland,” it’s in keeping with the fantasy element. Sheeran Sheeran is very soft-spoken even as he sings the line “and they scream.”    My favorite line of the song is: “The worst things in life come free to us.”

Dare You to Move, Switchfoot (2004)- If music genres were determined by the content of a song’s lyrics, then “Dare You to Move” would be in the “You’re awesome, go out into the world and be awesome” genre along with  Kelly Clarkson’s “Break Away” or Katy Perry’s “Firework” but Switchfoot’s entry into the genre seems so enchantingly grandiose lyrically speaking.

The narrator talks to the subject as if he’s being born (or being reborn) as he welcomes him/her/you to the planet and to existence. Very little in the song can be taken literally. If you go the literal route with it, you’re bound to hit upon unanswered questions: What is “the fall out” exactly? Why is everyone watching you? Is this being addressed to an alien? Switchfoot is composed of Christian members who aren’t clear about whether their band identifies as Christian rock but that might be part of it. Look closer and you see that Switchfoot is even expressing doubt about the lyrics they write as they’re singing them: “Redemption has stories to tell” and “Forgiveness is right where you fell” are both prefaced by the magical word “Maybe.” The grandiosity of the imagery is contrasted by a mandate (or rather a “dare”) that’s pretty simple: To move. Action is better than inaction is the message and within the context of the song, there’s a drastic difference.

Dance, Dance, Fall out Boy (2005)-Despite being in his late 20’s when he wrote most of Fall Out Boy’s most well-known songs, Fall Out Boy lyricist Pete Wentz has a knack for capturing the adolescent experience with a playful and genre-savvy vibe.  “Dance Dance” tells the story of a hormone-addled teenager going through a date with the girl of his dreams to a school dance which happens to be a pretty horrifying experience because of the pressure he puts on himself. The great thing about the song is that it unfolds in real-time as he blows the opening line of his date in the first verse and admits to being weighed down with “words too overdramatic.” He then starts to alternate between being obsessed and invested like a kid in line at a video game arcade who is already “two quarters and a heart down.” He finally capitulates into admitting “I only want sympathy in the form of you crawling into bed with me.” In between this tale, the chorus treats dancing as a stress-inducing routine that collectively leads everyone to fall apart but there’s little doubt that the narrator is likely dancing and undergoing the misery needed to attain his goal. 

Hold My Heart, Sara Bareilles (2010)-I’ve noticed as I’ve done this that some songs feature a narrator evolving as the song goes on (Barenaked Ladies "One Week", The Beatles’ “With a Little Help from my Friends”, and  Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" are three random examples that comes to mind).

In this song, narrator has a habit of guarding her heart in relationships. She sees herself as bad news of sorts. She doesn’t know how to “see anybody by me getting hurt.” But in the relationship that’s the subject of the song, the narrator issues a distress signal of sorts to have insurance for her heart (“can anybody here to hold her heart”) because she doesn’t want to let go too soon of a good situation. However, the narrator gradually admits to herself that she doesn’t want to let go of the guy she’s with. The struggle in her is not about her specific habits but one specific guy who means a lot to her.

1979, Smashing Pumpkins (1996)-A song drenched with nostalgia about being young on the precipice of adulthood. The narrator is inviting the audience (“You and I should meet”) to join him in a vividly detailed point in time where he and his friends were care free. Words like “live wire,” “junebug” and “zipper blues” give the song a sense of (possibly regional or historical) specificity to the narrator’s experience. The narrator notes that while they “feel the pull” of the impending future and the adult responsibilities it will bring (he equates this future to “the land of a thousand guilts” and “poured cements”), the greatest thing about the moment is that they don’t care about what’s next in store. There’s a very strong duality about this moment that makes it memorable enough to sing about: The accrued experience of having conquered childhood while knowing that adulthood is about to kick in.

A historical footnote:   Although the song is titled “1979,” it doesn’t really sync with lead singer and songwriter Billy Corgan’s experiences in 1979. He was born in 1967. He later revealed that he chose to name the song “1979” because It was easiest to rhyme with.


All Songs I've Analyzed at this point:
Anna Nalick: Breathe
Avril Lavigne: I'm With You
The Bangles: Hazy Shade of Winter
Ben Folds: Landed, Annie Waits
Barenaked Ladies: Testing 1 2 3
Cat Stevens: First Cut is the Deepest
Charlotte Martin: Your Armor
Coldplay: Speed of Sound, Viva la Vida
Counting Crows: She Don't Want Nobody Near, Hard Candy, Rain King
Dave Matthews Band: Gray Street, #41, Dancing Nancies, Grace is Gone
Ed Sheeran: The A-Team
Fall out Boy: Dance Dance
The Fray: You Found Me
Foo Fighters: Learn to Fly
Gin Blossoms: South of Nowhere
Goo Goo Dolls: Broadway is Dark Tonight, Better Days, Here is Gone
Green Day: Wake Me Up When September Ends
Jason Mraz: On Love in Sadness
John Cougar Mellencamp: Jack and Diane
John Mayer: Clarity, 3 X 5, No Such Thing, Bigger than My Body, Why Georgia
Howie Day: Collide
Hootie and the Blowfish: Time
Leona Lewis: Better in Time
Lorde: Team
Macklemore and Lewis: Thrift Shop
Mamas and the Papas: Dance Dance
Matchbox Twenty: Downfall, All I Need, Let's See How Far We've Come, Black and White People
Michelle Branch: Game of Love
Nickel Creek: Green and Gray
Paramore: Ain't It Fun
Sara Bareilles: Bottle It Up, Fairytales, Hold my Heart
Sarah McLachlan: Adia
Smashing Pumpkins: 1979
Script: For the First Time
Sister Hazel: Your Winter
Steely Dan: Barrytown
Switchfoot: Stars, Dare You To Move
Sum 41: In Too Deep
Taylor Swift: Blank Space
Whitney Houston: I Want To Dance with Somebody
Zedd: Clarity

Be sure to click on the lyrics tab below for past editions of this series.

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