Song Lyrics: Where Wrong is Right

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There are some things that people just don’t say.  Among the least imaginable are, “Why don’t we catch Muddy Waters at the Ash Grove Saturday night?”

“The grammar’s atrocious, but the music is great.”  Or, “I can really get behind that Stones song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” but that double negative makes my skin crawl.”

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Some of the most urbane and educated people are capable of appreciating traditional American blues and later musical genres such as rock and roll quite as thoroughly as they do Cole Porter, thank you—but they do not think to comment on the Jekyll and Hyde aspect of the grammar and usage.  And it’s natural they do not.  They don’t even think about it.  It is a question of appropriateness of language in a certain setting.  There is a time and a place for everything–even the most egregious of solecisms.

Upon historical reflection, it is most obvious from whence the gritty and ungrammatical language of authentic Southern Black American blues sprung.  It was written and informally performed by largely uneducated, even illiterate, songwriters and musicians, for the most part to an audience of the same.  However, this is no novel realization; it could hardly be more manifest and well-documented.  What is interesting and fresh, though, can be the recognition of and reasoning attendant regarding the perfect appropriateness and even the de facto “correctness” of the solecistic utterances employed.

The use of the most ungrammatical—to include non-standard words, double negatives, tortured diction, and the like—is not only acceptable in blues, jazz, rock, and other forms of popular music lyrics but is wholly necessary, I would argue, in order most faithfully and forcefully to present the tales and emotions involved.  “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone” far more appropriately conveys the desperation of the situation than could any emendation in the name of fidelity to Dr. Samuel Johnson or Noah Webster.

6 Comments
  1. Robert Politz says

    When I tell a technician to use a 7mm cap screw, he (or she) knows what I mean; and so it is with language.

    Words are the verbalized or printed means by which we convey a thought to another person. And that can only be accomplished if those words are understood by the recipient. You’ve hit an emotional nail on the head Angie. Emotions are the heart and soul of music (Something near and dear to my own heart), and emotions cannot be felt if they are buried in “perfectly constructed prose or poetry”.

    Lyrics, combined with music, can make a song perfectly punctuated, note for note, word for word. And for those that are, the real consumers of music will say, “Man, that tune has no balls. It’s gutless.”

    On the other side of the spectrum there are songs that seem to grab you and make you actually feel something. Those songs have “balls”. And very frequently are interwoven with the vernacular of the intended audience.

    And so, you’ve made an observation that I like and agree with Angie. Proper English may be “acceptable” but may not always be the best way to convey that feeling of loss, of love, of joy or of despair.

    I’ll leave you with this thought:

    Tik nemeluok, nemeluok sau
    Ji tik miražas mažas
    Tik nemeluok, nemeluok sau
    Geras montažas veža

    🙂

  2. Jack Eason says

    A thought provoking article Andrew. Thank you.

    Can you imagine how long a songwriter would last in the business if they were required to stick to a strict set of grammatical rules? Not long at all. Most songwriters today would make themselves instantly unemployable.

    To my way of thinking songwriting is nothing more than the poor cousin of poetry as it is a similar way of getting the message across by employing a few words, nearly always poorly chosen. Often it is the music which initially appeals.

    Fortunately poetry requires the correct use of words. Although having said that there are some poems, mainly avant-garde, which are baffling in the extreme to say the least, no matter that they are carefully chosen and correct from the point of view of grammar….

  3. Paula Boer says

    Maybe I miss half of what music is about, but I never hear the words anyway, only the tune ;-).

  4. Angie says

    My apologies to all readers.
    Initially this article was published in my name.
    The real author is of course: Andrew Sacks.

  5. Andrew J. Sacks says

    Thank you, Angie, and thank you flattering commenters.

  6. Ilia Davidovich says

    Some lyrics can be atrocious, but some can be quite entertaining with or without the music.

    Here is a good example: “I want you, but I don’t need you” by Momus:

    I like you, and I’d like you to like me to like you
    But I don’t need you, don’t need you to need me to like you
    Because if you didn’t like me, I would still like you, you see
    la lala… la lala…

    I lick you, and I’d like you to like me to lick you
    But I don’t need you, don’t need you to like me to lick you
    If your pleasure turned into pain, I would still lick for my personal gain
    la lala… la lala…

    I fuck you, and I’d like you to like me to fuck you
    But I don’t fucking need you, don’t need you to need me to fuck you
    If you need me to need you to fuck, that fucks everything up
    la lala… la lala…

    I want you, and I want you to want me to want you
    But I don’t need you, don’t need you to need me to need you

    That’s just me, so take me or leave me
    But please don’t need me, don’t need me to need you to need me
    Because we’re here a minute, the next we’re dead
    So love me or leave me but try not to need me
    Enough said.

    I want you, but I don’t need you…

    I love you, and I love how you love how I love you
    But I don’t need you, don’t need you to need me to love you
    If your love changed into hate, would my love had been a mistake?
    I don’t know. I don’t know.

    So I’m gunna leave you, I’d like you to leave me to leave you
    But love, believe me; it isn’t because I don’t need you
    (You know I don’t need you)
    All I wanted was to be wanted
    But you’re drowning me deep in your need to be needed
    la lala… la lala

    I want you, and I want you to want me to want you
    But I don’t need you, don’t need you to need me to lead you

    That’s just me, so take me or leave me
    But please don’t need me, don’t need me to need you to need me
    Because we’re here a minute, the next we’re dead
    So love me or leave me but try not to need me
    Enough said.

    I want you, but I don’t need you…

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