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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Understanding the words of pop tunes

By Dick Hirsch

Since I deal with words on a regular basis, it is difficult for me to admit there are so many words I just cannot comprehend. I’ve never complained about this before because it would surely become a generational issue and generational matters are best avoided because they can become very emotional.

Each succeeding generation marvels at the ignorance and vapidity of their elders, as you must realize. They try to conceal it, but it is often evident. Mark Twain once observed that, at age 16, he was so amazed by his father’s lack of knowledge that he was embarrassed to be seen with him. “By the time I was 21,” Twain added, “I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in just a few years.”

Knowing that, I have never revealed the language problem that has been dogging and defeating me. However, experience has shown that it is better to confront and discuss such questions. The hope is that disclosure will be followed by discussion that will result in understanding.

My problem is with the lyrics of popular music. I have trouble understanding. I can often avoid the problem by listening to music of my own choice, music with lyrics that I am able to decipher. But during the warmer weather, with car windows open, I find myself hearing other drivers’ music. It is being broadcast at high volume, often obliterating the more refined entertainment of innocent drivers who happen to be stopped nearby at a traffic light. One of the seasonal benefits of life in the northeast is that we drive around with the windows open for only a small part of the year. The rest of the time we aren’t regularly overwhelmed by other drivers’ music.

Much of that is both cacophonous and unintelligible. I suppose some readers might be expecting me to target rap, which has traveled far beyond its ethnic roots and captured the attention of a fairly diverse audience. Rap seems to lend itself to high volume and it certainly seems to be unfathomable. But my gripe isn’t with rap; my complaint predates rap. I suppose it was born during the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll, but many of the tunes in that general category were accompanied by lyrics that could be listened to and understood.

Let me take you back a few decades for examples of some lyrics that were at the top of the charts, but were still appreciated and understood by the multitudes. There are thousands of examples, but I’d like to cite just a few that demonstrate the skills of lyricists of another time, writers who succeeded in expressing feelings that were understandable and memorable. Here’s a little ditty that came immediately to mind called “Cement Mixer, Putty Putty”:

“Cement mixer, putty putty
Cement mixer, putty putty
Cement mixer, putty putty
Cement mixer, putty putty
A puddle o’ vooty, a puddle o’ gooty,
A puddle o’ scooby, a puddle of veet concrete.
First you get some gravel, pour it on the vout
To mix a mess o’ mortar
To add cement and water
See the mellow roony
Come out slurp slurp slurp.”

I think you’ll agree that has a certain quality that is far different from what we are exposed to these days. Another that was broadcast repeatedly was the iconic “Mairzy Doats.” Here is the chorus: “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey; a kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you?” A little later in the refrain, the meaning was explained this way: “If the words sound queer and funny to your ear, a little bit jumbled and jivey; Sing mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.”

Wouldn’t any objective observer agree that lyrics such as those were stimulating as well as entertaining? They contributed to the intellectual prowess of a generation.

Also rating highly were the lyrics of Spike Jones in masterpieces like “Yes We Have No Bananas,” or “All I Want for Christmas Are My Two Front Teeth.” Some classicists remember the Spike Jones rendition of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.” It describes a horse race, where a horse named Cabbage is leading by a head, only to be challenged by a horse named Banana, who was seen “coming up through a bunch.” The eventual surprise winner was a long shot named Fietelbaum, pronounced Feeeetle-bomb.

You had to be there. As you can see, pop music then was operating at a whole different level.


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