Not before time, the music industry has begun to take seriously the effect of song lyrics on the way we communicate with one another. At the recent annual convention in America of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers, a rule book for songwriters, covering usage, punctuation and grammar, was released.
The main reason for the campaign was practical. Sub-literate presentation can cause confusion when music is being sold online. According to the NARM, some lines, like that old favourite “Kill’em ’n’ grill’em”, are acceptable in terms of punctuation but the less well-known “a TIMe to love” are likely to be miscategorised.
The fact is that musicians have been out of step with the outside world for decades. It is not only online where lyrics have caused misunderstandings, but in real, practical life. Sometimes it is as if songwriters live in a parallel universe where a similar, yet weirdly skewed, version of our language is spoken.
Perhaps at next year’s convention the Association will publish a retrospective guide, taking a tough, corrective line on the lyrics of the past. There are some obvious contenders.
Little girl, pretty baby, baby baby: You do not have to be a gender activist to find these forms of address in the context of a love affair between adults misleading, if not downright odd in today’s culture.
The occasional request to be the pretty baby’s teddy bear, in songs by Elvis Presley, ZZ Top and others, compounds the confusion.
Mama, daddy: In 2013, it is no longer appropriate for a loved one who is not a parent to be addressed in this way. A song which brings together both these areas of confusion, like Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” (“Hey, little girl, is your daddy home/ Did he go away and leave you all alone?”) can easily be misconstrued.
And I don’t mean maybe: It is an odd fact that, in the world of music, when a man tells a girl that she’s his baby, he often has to reassure her that he don’t mean maybe. This not only breaks grammatical guidelines but is generally unnecessary.
Foolish pride: For almost as long as there have been popular songs, it has been an unwritten rule of songwriting that pride must of necessity be foolish. It was part of the 1933 classic “It’s the Talk of the Town”, and more recently was the title of an Eminem hit. The phrase is rarely if ever used in the non-musical world.
I’m gonna walk on down the line: What line? If it’s a railway line, why does the singer not ride a box-car like any self-respecting hobo? By contrast, the Johnny Cash song “Walk the Line” has a perfectly clear metaphorical meaning.
Cut me like a knife: There is a lot of pain in songs but it is a mystery why, whenever cutting is involved, there must be an entirely redundant mention of a knife.
I’m gonna rock you ’til the morning light: There is, of course, a crude euphemism at work here of the wrap-your-lock-around-my-key variety but it should be discouraged. A band may be able to rock you – it is part of the job description – but boys and girls, or even daddies and pretty babies, do not rock one another, except in particularly bad songs. And, in the real world, no one talks about doing anything “til the morning light”, even if it does make them feel all right.
I’ve been weeping like a willow: This simile reveals a woeful lack of natural knowledge. Willows do not in fact weep – the adjective is figurative – and the description adds nothing to a song beyond providing a rhyme for “pillow”. Trees can be occasionally used to good metaphorical effect in songs, as in “I was an oak/ Now I’m a willow/ And I’ll bend” from Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Until It’s Time For You To Go”.
Pickin’ like a chicken who’s pickin’ up corn: Similarly, in the context of a guitarist picking at his strings, a chicken provides entirely the wrong image.
Kisses sweeter than wine: As a description, these words are singularly poor, unless they refer specifically to dessert wines. For all other wines, many adjectives can be applied, but not “sweet”.
I’ve got a feeling deep down inside of me: Feelings are, by their nature, internal, and the addition of the word “of” may help scan the line but is ugly and incorrect.
The love light in your eyes: This image, beloved of songwriters, has no place in the real world. Has anyone seen one of these lights being switched on? Eric Clapton did in his song “Wonderful Tonight” but since that was about being too drunk to drive yourself home, his experience can be discounted.
’Cos I’m drowning in my own tears: This very rarely happens and, as an image, is more comical than tragic.Reuse content