What is so ^%$#ing hard about actually listening to a song? One of the pettiest of my pet peeves are people who manage to completely misinterpret the meaning of some very popular straight forward pop songs. To be clear, we’re not talking about acts like David Bowie (who the hell knows what he’s talking about most of the time) or, say, Pearl Jam (great band, but who can understand what Eddie Vedder is actually saying. His style is more in the emotive delivery than in the words he’s singing). Nor am I referring to those songs which are famous for “misheard lyrics”. No, I’m talking about songs in which the singer clearly enunciates and the lyrics themselves are, you’d think, hard to get wrong. And yet, there is apparently no shortage of sheeple who seem to be incapable of interpreting a clearly stated message.
Yes, there is the argument that the excellent thing about art is that it’s open to interpretation and great art draws you in and, in doing so, makes you apply your perspective to the artists’ message. That’s a nice way of saying that in the cases I will cite here, lots of people were just listening to the pretty music and/or (possibly) the refrain, while absolutely ignoring the lyrics as a whole. Hey, whatever floats your boat. Also, there is one mitigating circumstance: some people, like my dear sibling, are congenitally incapable of hearing lyrics as they are sung. If that’s your case, you are hereby exempted from this screed.
Most famously, there are those pretty songs which sound – and are – melancholy but which some people completely miss the much darker theme and derive rather more positive messages than it seems the artist wished to convey. Case in MF’ing point: Angel, by Sarah MacLachlan. This is a song about addiction, the reasons for addiction but ultimately hopelessness and a terrible downward spiral. The arms of the angel, folks, it’s heroin. Listen to the song – the meaning is not at all hidden. There is nothing remotely uplifting about this tune. It’s not about puppies deserving a better life and whatever the ^%$# some people seem to think it’s about. MacLachlan ain’t no fool, she knows the majority of people have no idea what she’s singing about but she’s not about to kill the cash cow so of course her response to the music critics is “it’s about whatever people want it to be”.
Comfortably Numb, by Pink Floyd, is another one in the same vein. It’s literally about numbing one’s self to the reality of life and the inherent sadness and loss of potential, of past and present, that is addiction. The song is told from 2 different view points, the doctor who is administering the drugs and the rock star patient. While the drugs take effect and the patient’s physical pains recede, his mental anguish does not. The disconnecting from reality, one senses, forebodes something worse. It’s as sad as they come:
When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone
And yet there are lot of people who somehow derive a positive message from this song. It’s as if they listen to the amazing guitar solo and the refrain about being comfortably numb and think “sounds great, sign me up”. Ironically, this song sounds, to generations of high schoolers puffing their first joint, like it’s promoting drug use. It’s more about why people use, and the consequences.
Famously, US Republican candidates often coopt songs for their campaigns that are usually diametrically opposed to the candidates’ actual views. The candidates probably don’t know or care, safe in the knowledge that analysis of even the more simple concepts in life is not what their consituency is noted for. A classic example of this was the Reagan campaign’s use of Bruce Springsteen’s song, Born in the USA. Hilariously, this song became a sort of patriotic anthem to infantile meatheads everywhere. It’s an anthem, yes, but to bitter disillusionment, dashed dreams and hopelessness in the face of a corrupt system that doesn’t care about the little guy. It’s about the protagonists bitter disappointment in taking part in a pointless war (Vietnam) as well as official and societal indifference to the problems faced by Veterans. Say what you will about Reagan hastening the end of Cold War but the union busting, market unshackling Cheerleader for the military industrial complex was anything but the Pabst Blue Ribbon swilling buddy of the “little guy”. The message in this song is literally the opposite of blindly chanting “USA, USA”.
Finally, some people think that Sir Mix a Lot’s “Baby Got Back” is a mere one-dimensional paen to one man’s fondess for women with prodigious, round buttocks. It is that, for sure, but it’s so much more. In it’s own way, it was a much of a cultural bellweather and antiracist political protest song as NWA’s “F### Tha Police”. It was funny, yes, and incredibly catchy but if you listen to lyrics you can’t escape the positive message of glorifying one’s own community and refusing to buy into narratives or esthetic values the denigrate that community. And, it must be said in this era of rampant “Thicc-ness” that Sir Mix A Lot was prophetic, ahead of his time. Big ol juicy Nicky Minaj, Kim Kardashian booties were not a thing back in the early 90s. This song ushered in the dawning of the Age of Badonkadonk. And for that, Sir Mix a Lot, we all you owe you an immense debt of gratitude.