It’s Only Words

Carolyn Roberts

I made an astonishing discovery recently. Maybe not that astonishing compared with, say, the breakthroughs of Pasteur, or Columbus, or whoever invented GHD hair straighteners. But it was certainly significant for me. My discovery was this: my boyfriend does not listen to song lyrics. He doesn’t notice them. He has — and this is the bit that really floored me — no idea what songs are about. In fact, he was confused by the notion that songs could be about anything.

For me, this is utterly baffling. Listening to a song without hearing the words seems like reading a novel without noticing the plot, characters or dialogue. Part of my enjoyment of a song comes from lyrics that are well crafted, or insightful, or significant. And if the words are terrible, or convey something blatantly stupid, then every time I hear the song I get more annoyed about it. Eventually, just hearing the opening chords sends me storming over to the radio to switch it off and embark on a rant about idiotic music-buyers.

Case in point: James Blunt, You’re Beautiful. I realise that many people are irritated enough by James Blunt’s strange squawky voice and insipid haircut, without having to listen to his lyrics. But this song is particularly infuriating, because it doesn’t make any sense. Allow me to demonstrate.

We join James in verse 1, when he tells us, “She smiled at me on the subway, she was with another man. But I won’t lose no sleep on that, cos I’ve got a plan”.

Ah - this is a story of intrigue. He’s met a girl, she’s already with someone, but fear not, James has a plan! Brilliant! Maybe he’s going to pretend to be a flower delivery person, and win her over with his beautiful blooms? Or perhaps he’s planning to keep getting that same subway train until he sees her on her own and can make his move? Or it might be more sinister: will the song turn out to be an account of his plans for stalking and eventually killing this unfortunate woman? The possibilities, they are overwhelming me!

But wait - then we get to the chorus. “I saw your face, in a crowded place, and I don’t know what to do. Cos I’ll never be with you.”

James, what happened? You had a plan! How did it go so wrong in the space of two verses? Is this the standard of planning that you learned in the army?

This is exactly the sort of lyrical inconsistency that drives me to distraction. I don’t wish to be too harsh on songwriters - having just written the first draft of a novel, I know that it is easy to lose track and find that chapter ten completely contradicts everything you wrote in chapter one. In my own novel, I accidentally wrote a whole scene based on a conversation between the main character and the father that I’d killed off several pages earlier. But come on James, this is only two verses - three, if you include the odd “My life is brilliant” bit at the start. How hard can it be to avoid contradicting yourself over 194 words, 27 of which are either “you’re”, “beautiful”, or “la”? (Yes, I did just count them. No, I’m not proud of myself).

It’s not just downright stupid lyrics that bother me. I am discomfited by songs that promote dubious values, too. I don’t just mean songs with obviously offensive messages - I imagine I am not alone in finding the works of Roy “Chubby” Brown a bit hard to take. But consider, for example, the current song by Amerie, Take Control of Me. The chorus goes, “And I want ya, and I need ya, and I’ll do anything to please ya, I just want you to take control of me.”

They play this every week at my exercise class, so I’ve had plenty of time to think about it. As I’m lying on my mat, stretching out my quads (or possibly my hamstrings, I’m not really sure) you can be sure that no matter how hard I try not to, I will start reflecting on the lyrics. “Take control of me”? Is this really the kind of thing that a young, successful woman should be singing? What would the Pankhursts say? What kind of effect is this going to have on the impressionable young girls who buy pop music? Whatever happened to feminism? Equality? Self-respect?

Now I know, I know that pop lyrics are not intended to be taken seriously, and I try to ignore it, I really do. I realise that nobody else seems to get this upset. I know this because I’ve just checked the Wikipedia entry for Amerie’s song, and although it mentions the producer, the video, and even the “tense little groove at the song’s centre”, they say absolutely nothing about the lyrics. Nothing. Not a thing. This is incredible to me. How can you write an entire page about a song and say nothing about the lyrics? Does this mean that I am genuinely the only person that listens to the words of a song? If so, why do people bother writing them in the first place? Why doesn’t every song just go, “Whoo, la, boing boing, I’ve got a potato on my toothbrush?” Come to think of it, I think that might have featured in a song by 2 Unlimited in the early nineties.

I genuinely find this troublesome, and I would like to know - am I alone? Can nobody else hear, and object to, the nonsense that our popsters subject us to? Should I start a campaign to Bring Back Proper Pop Lyrics (with Non-Objectionable Content)? If I started a Facebook group, would anybody join?

But I suspect that no one is listening.