Song lyrics can be tricky. Not tricky in the sense that they are tongue twisters – although if you’ve ever tried karaoke singing your way through Lulu’s 1964 version of You make Me Wanna Shout you’ll know – as the Beatles pointed out at the time – that tongue twisting whilst shouting can easily happen. No, it’s more in the way that some songwriters are often so enigmatic that it’s hard to know what a song is actually about. Whatever the initial inspiration for a song may be, that’s not the same as how it’s often interpreted.
There are of course long lists of song lyrics that people have simply got wrong over the years: They don’t come much better than Ke$ha’s Cannibal, which apparently a large number of listeners have heard as “Cat Nipple.” That is a lot less dramatic than the original and – some say – makes the track a whole lot more enjoyable.
Message in a riddle
But even if you do hear the lyric properly – Adele was not “chasing penguins” incidentally – there is the perennial problem of decoding lines that almost by definition are not always what they appear to be. That’s art, right? And just to make it interesting, sometimes there isn’t a hidden message at all. Sometimes the inspiration for a song is just a straight up story about something that actually happened.
For example, did you know that Smoke on the Water wasn’t inspired by some spiritual apocalyptic event? It’s about a small fire in a casino on Lake Geneva – hence smoke, hence water. Once a song gets turned into the musical equivalent of a postcard it doesn’t strike quite the same emotional high notes, does it? It’s a bit like someone singing their way through a list.
Once you start to think about it – once you’ve gotten through the whole business of boy-meeting-girl – there are some songs out there that take their inspiration from some quite surprising points of departure.
Shorthand twists of fate
There are songs about cars, there are songs about space, there are songs about work, about war, about peace, and about cleaning windows. There are songs about other songs, songs about painters and ever since The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo there have been all sorts of songs about gambling in one guise or another. And that’s before we even start to think about protest songs. Some people complain there are too many protests songs…
It is true, though, that from Lady Gaga’s Poker Face to Motorhead’s Ace of Spades there is something about the twists of fate that the turn of a card can symbolize that is grist to the songwriter’s mill; poker, blackjack and roulette have all cropped up at some time or other. Songwriters love a good symbol.
So much more than Death in Vegas
Songs about luck, songs about old houses in New Orleans (The Animals were singing about a gambling den), songs about Vegas – the spiritual home of the casino – and even bands with Vegas in their name: they all neatly summarize, symbolize and somehow seek to capture the ups and downs that living life to the fullest or risking your instincts on the tables entail – winning and losing and all points in between. And it’s a tradition that goes way back beyond the days of hip hop – artists have been game for games of chance – and the metaphors they can draw from them – since the dawn of 4/4 time. The short-hand symbolic place that games such as roulette, blackjack and slots hold in the artistic imagination is nowhere more evident than it is as a musical inspiration.
Getting lost in the mix
The trouble is that the connection between those symbols and what they are meant to stand for can all too easily get lost in the mix. And that of course, is made more difficult by writers who just play with the symbols and leave the business of actually meaning anything at all up in the air. Like Travis said, what is a Wonderwall anyway?
Recently we’ve enjoyed Kralc Life’s Moan of Lisa which has a bit of wit to it, but perhaps the king of the crop in this respect is the ever-enigmatic Mr. David Bowie – a man who in his early years was famous for cutting up pages of writing and just arranging the words willy-nilly. Black Star – whatever the inspiration, and whatever it is meant to be about – has got everybody guessing.
What this all proves – if it proves anything at all – is that when we fall in love with a song we don’t necessarily need to love the lyrics, or even to engage with the original point of inspiration. Maybe it is enough to just take the sentiment and to turn it into something of our own imagining. Maybe it’s in the enigma that the bitter-sweet magic really lies.
As John Lennon put it, Imagine there’s no lemons…