I regard myself a wordsmith—upper percentile in the average-vocabulary division. When penning song lyrics or poems, I observe self-imposed quality controls. Apparently, though, many musicians have made bank without regard for such rules. Here is a sampling:
REO Speedwagon’s Kevin Cronin secured three weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” deservedly #1 also on the Mixed/Multiple Metaphors chart. This song has feelings that flow, friendship that grows, fear versus security, direction and clarity, and a love-interest who is a warm, light-bearing candle in the window during the dark of winter. It also features a forgetful fighter, a captain (who also rows, and abandons ship), and a runner who goes in circles inside the mind but can otherwise follow someone straightly, especially if it means going to special places.
So, between the lines, “Can’t Fight This Feeling” is a song about a river, a plant, a protective counselor-optometrist, an obsolete light/heat source placed impractically in the room, a concussed boxer, a similarly concussed captain, and for that matter, a concussed adventure racer. More on this ditty later….
In “Boogie Shoes,” by KC & The Sunshine Band, one line recently forced me to pause Pandora and perform a quick lyric search:
I want to do it ‘til I can’t get enough, yeah.
Fun to sing along with, but taxing to decipher. Let me break it down:
Firstly, since I was discussing metaphors, I will clarify that the writer is referring to dancing, quite literally, not the overused innuendo. Clear your mind, I don’t want you distracted.
As for the phrasing, if one intends to do something in excess, there are two approaches: 1) The person wants to do it indefinitely because he or she can’t get enough, or 2) The person wants to do it until he or she has finally had enough and is satisfied, however long that may be. Yet the lyric is saying neither of these. Instead, it’s saying that the outcome of one’s endurance in one’s beloved activity is to finally be unable to get enough. Now that’s a real problem. Unsatisfied with his level of desire for dancing, KC exerted himself to the place of knowing that now, he can never be satisfied. Congrats, KC. You can’t get enough. Pick yourself off the floor, take some electrolytes and a protein bar, and reconsider your goals.
As promised, back to “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” which includes a major contradiction in its main metaphor. What happens when you can’t fight off the desire to show your romantic feelings because you don’t have the strength anymore to do so? You’d think you’d just give up, exhausted, and blurt out in weakness, “I love you, baby!” But for Kevin Cronin, giving up on the effort means crawling on the floor, crashing through a door, and rowing an entire ship into the shore, apparently with only two oars. Doesn’t sound like someone who only wishes he had the strength to let it show! So, let me get this straight: the man hasn’t the strength to show it, nor the strength not to show it, but he’s fit enough to crawl a Tough Mudder, shatter a door, power a massive vessel up onto the sand single-handedly, and javelin those oars completely out of sight? Cronin is ripped, though.
Because lyrics are not only for content, but also contribute to a song’s overall sound and vibe, I won’t assert that nonsensical ones always make a song bad. But it does puzzle me, some of the absurdity that songwriters have laid down for posterity.
I’ll give a pass to Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” for being outrageously and purposefully silly, all over the place in a brilliant way. It’s wonderful when someone can write lyrics so obviously not plagiarized and unlikely to ever be reused:
You could have an aeroplane flying
If you bring your blue sky back
Show me ‘round your fruit cage.
Some claim, though, that the nonsensical lyrics of their favorite singers only sound nonsensical because they are so very subtle and complex—at a level above us simpleton non-fans. Someone once published a book elaborating on the deeper meanings of U2’s early catalog. Bono, responding to an interview question about it, smiled and humbly suggested that he would have liked to have been so cryptic and clever.
There are thousands of nonsensical lyrics (that paid well) of which to peruse and scratch our heads, but I’ll pick on three particularly amusing ones:
Sitting on a cornflake waiting for the van to come
This comes from “I Am The Walrus” (John Lennon). I calculated that a cornflake big enough to sit upon would measure about three feet across, or 1018 square inches. At a thickness of 1.2 mm and a flake density of 700 kg/cubic meter, that requires about 28 servings of the Kellogg’s product. (Trust me, I’m good at math and conversions.) That would be a difficult flake to manufacture. And difficult to sit on without damage (the lyric would then have to be “cornflakes”). Perhaps John thought of himself as that diminutive. Deep.
[Lennon fans can be thoughtful and sensitive, like the great songwriter. Maybe I should apologize here. Although I don’t care for the content of “Imagine,” I could mention that it is a lyrical masterpiece….]
Kurt Cobain and company (Nirvana) penned “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” This had fans belting out the chorus,
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido.
Parsing out two of those words, I suppose Cobain may have contracted West Nile Virus at some point? That’s sad. But it isn’t clear whether the malady helped or hurt his libido, as he only mentioned that he had a libido. He seemed to associate albino with race here, but I’ll cut him some slack because, admittedly, he felt stupid.
[Hardcore Cobain fans can be quite edgy and even scary. If any of them read this and have a problem with it, I’ll tell them “Chard Berndt” is just a pen name for an anonymous blogger—I’m not the same guy….]
I conclude with a more contemporary example. Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd) has mastered both the illogical and nonsensical to complement his fluttery, angelic (yawn) voice. I dug to find a rare non-illicit example, and here’s one, from “Belong To The World.”
Well, I’m not a fool
I just love that you’re dead inside.
So romantic. This could totally reframe the whole “you’re dead to me” phrase. How foolish I’ve been, digging my wife’s vibrant and vital soul all these years.
[Weeknd fans can be…ah, I don’t really know. Bring it on!]
Copyright © 2022 Richard Berndt – All Rights Reserved.
Leave a Reply