I may be a bit old fashioned, but I like my music the same way I like my broken watches- timeless. Sure, the 80’s song you’re listening to right now might very obviously sound like it belongs on the Breakfast Club soundtrack, at least the lyrics are universal enough that you can appreciate it for more than its use of a Keytar and shoulder-padded blazers.
When we hear a Beach Boys song, we can tell when it was recorded. But they’re singing about Barbara Ann, a lovely lady who has the ability to get us rocking and a rolling and a rocking and a reeling. Barbara Ann, you could plug in any woman for her and appreciate the same sentiment. If they were singing about Julie Christie, people born after 1970 might wonder why the hell she’s the focus of the song, and baby boomers would be frustrated trying to explain who she was every time they turned on an Oldie’s Station.
Went to a dance, lookin’ for romance…
And while occasionally these pop culture references can transcend generations, more often than not, when you include a pop icon in your song lyrics, it’ll end up aging less like a fine wine, and more like a lukewarm carton of milk.
Oo, is this the new Flock of Seagulls?
And sure, a lot of artists who just arbitrarily name drop pop culture specific people, events, or products might not care how well their songs age- if it makes them money in the short run, then that’s all they need. Which is fine, but it’s sort of like being that fat Numa-Numa kid. At first you might be a minor celebrity, but as time goes on, and people revisit your body of work, everyone just ends up sort of…pointing and laughing.
Never underestimate the comedic effect of a lonely fat man dancing
Below are six songs whose lyrics have aged about as gracefully as Carrie Fisher
Oh sweet Jesus, what happened to the metal bikini!? Oh GOD!
6. Bon Jovi – It’s My Life
My heart is like an open highway
Like Frankie said, “I did it my way.”
Bon Jovi was an underground New Jersey act who garnered critical acclaim for their ability to write subtle, probing lyrical poetry that was appreciated by a small portion of the hipster Indie crowds in the 80s and 90s. Wait, sorry, no they’re that band that you hear the same two songs from every time you’re at a crowded bar full of white people and who once did an album about cowboys or dragons or something.
Nope, definitely about dragons
Don’t get me wrong, after a few (dozen) drinks, there is no better fucking song in the world than “Living on a Prayer,” which was inducted to the “I’m shitfaced WOOO I FUCKING LOVE THIS SONG WOOO NO ONE CAN SING ALONG TO THIS BETTER THAN ME RIGHT NOW” hall of fame in 1997, it’s first year of eligibility. And “You Give Love a Bad Name” is a favorite song of Barney Stintson on How I Met Your Mother. And, just like sequined tuxedos and gay sex, anything that Neil Patrick Harris endorses automatically becomes awesome.
But seriously, amiright?
However, there has to be a reason why, though “It’s My Life” absolutely crushed the alternative radio scene in the 90’s and was one of my favorite new songs of 8th grade, you never see it played at bars or ballgames where white people hypnotically start dancing and singing along while the minority patrons look around wondering if they stepped into a frat version of The Stepford Wives (“The Stepford Bros”, if you will. And yes, it’s too late, I’ve already written the screenplay).
Spoiler alert, I cast Asher Roth as the villain, “The Stepford Douche”
“It’s My Life,” a song that reeked of the musical desperation of an 80s band trying to make a huge hit in 1999 after a hiatus, manages to be “hip” for the “young” “kids” through some baffling choice of already aged pop culture references.
Seriously? It’s weird to see a current band namedrop Frank Sinatra, and even by the 70’s, a line such as, “Like Frankie said, I did it my way” would have led to teenagers taking a break from their unprotected disco sex to go, “what?”
And that line is in the fucking chorus! It’s not just aged poorly, this song arrived on the shelves past its expiration date.
5. Brian Wilson – Smart Girls
My name is Brian and I am the man
I write hit songs with the wave of my hand
Songs with surf and sun and sand
I make great music with my band
Songs to dance to and songs of joy
Because I’m the original Beach Boy
I actually just put this song so I could link you to it, and fully ruin your childhood. I mean just decimate it. Holy shit. No, seriously. Just listen to this.
Done? You hate me now, right? Good. This song isn’t so much a single pop icon or pop culture reference as it is a crazy person trying his damndest to ruin his grand musical legacy by writing an embarrassing rap song that sounds like it was made by a white guy in 1991.
Wait, what’s that? It was a rap song that was made by a white guy in 1991? Well that explains a lot. That means that Brian Wilson is now officially part of the “old awkward white people who shouldn’t write rap songs but did because, fuck, it was 1991” trifecta, joining Ron Jeremy and Rodney Dangerfield.
Yes, that did happen. Thanks a fuckton, early 1990’s
Anytime a form of music is just getting its start, you can tell right away where the song is from. If you see any band of skinny white kids with buzz cuts and awkwardly fitting suits with a nerdy looking drummer, you pretty much know you’re dealing with the late 50s and early 60s. Same goes for bad late 80’s/early 90’s hip hop. There’s no hiding when the song was made, and no one in their right mind would still obsess about it, because, you know, it’s awful?
This is no different, from the terrifying giggle at the beginning of the song to the Beach Boys samples throughout there’s…I’m sorry, I’m sorry, are you listening to this song? It’s really hard to keep a straight face while this is on in the background. God, it’s like you can actually see the progression of Brian Wilson’s drug induced brain damage.
4. Badly Drawn Boy – You Were Right
“I’m turning Madonna down
I’m calling it my best move”
I’ve mentioned the problems with this lyric in previous articles but it still proves to be the best example of a pop culture reference that, though relevant at the time, is nearly incomprehensible to people who didn’t hit puberty until the year 2000 or later.
“Wait, I don’t get it, Badly Drawn Boy, what’s so great about this gila monster in a leather jacket?”
The sad fact is, even when people age gracefully, there’s a time limit for anyone to carry a “sex symbol” status. With the help of rigorous diet and exercise, an incredible genetic makeup, and a few subtle hush-hush surgical procedures, you can maybe be a top-tier sex symbol for, tops, 15 years. I mean, I could write a song about how I’d turn down Angelina Jolie for someone else and have it make sense in 2010, but get back to me in 10 years and let me know how well that holds up. Think about it, have you seen Jon Voigt? That’s her fucking dad. That’s right, internet, I hate to break it to you, but in 10 years Angelina Jolie is going to start looking like a crab person.
BEHOLD YOUR FATE AND WEEP!
There’s a very short list of female figures you can compare your love interest to in a song that won’t run into the “Madonna trap” (ewww, Madonna trap). Those are
2- Helen of Troy
3- Marilyn Monroe
4- Queen Elizabeth I
Of that list, the only one that’s not, you know, ancient, also died before she could get…well, old. Thankfully, I think Badly Drawn Boy (granted, this is after Damon Gough got tired of being good and creative, and sort of threw in the towel, artistically speaking) is one of the few (non-top 40) artists who has made this mistake. We’re not really hearing a lot of songs that are like, “Baby, I love you, I’d even leave Megan Fox for you.” Why? Because we all know Megan Fox is about three years and one heroin overdose away from looking like a Nick Nolte mugshot. Plus she has toe thumbs.
I honestly couldn’t decide which picture I wanted to show more…
So that’s why you don’t want to compare a woman to a contemporary sex symbol in a song. Because, while it might seem sweet at first, once that sex symbol falls off the deep end, you’re basically calling them less ugly than a used up swamp monster.
Approximate sex symbol status duration- 8 months
3. Harvey Danger – You Looked So Happy
“I saw you at the 12 Rods Show”
Sure, this song is a demo, and I do actually love the song, and Harvey Danger is awesome (no really, like legitimately much better than anything you could hope to expect from a supposed one-hit wonder). But, a show of hands. Who here is really familiar with the Oxford, Ohio band 12 Rods? Well, shit, I can’t see who raised their hands, because this is the internet and this has been written well before you will read it, but I’m going to guess not many of you. Since they’ve not really been around since 2004, and their last release was in 2002, it’s not a really universal line. You could just make up a band name, and the amount of people you have that mutely nod along as if to say, “Oh, yeah, I remember Stereofresco, they were pretty out there, right?” is roughly the same as the amount of people who will listen to this song in 2010 and go, “Oh man! 12 Rods, I remember when they had concerts!”
The lead singer of Stereofresco
Probably. You can prove me wrong in the comments section, I guess. But still, it’s not like we’re talking about the fucking Beatles here. John Everyman would have no clue what this lyric is about. But then again, John Everyman probably would only recognize Harvey Danger if you hummed to him, “they did that paranoia paranoia everybody’s coming to get me song,” so John Everyman can go to hell.
2. Art Brut- About Half of Their Songs
We’re going to be the band that writes the song
That makes Israel and Palestine get along
But I’m drunk when I text
So I send post soothing out
I can’t believe I’ve only just discovered the Replacements
Art Brut, after three albums, is starting to have backlash for their quirky, carefree musical style. Well, that’s what writers say anytime a new Art Brut side project is announced- their albums still are pretty well received by critics initially. And while Art Brut is scientifically awesome, it’s a pretty safe bet that a generation down the line, half of the lyrics Art Brut writes will come off as some sort of weird time capsule of the beginning of the social media generation. They’re aware of this, and it’s why their songs are so good, but at the same time, generations down the line, some of their lyrics will be incomprehensible.
We can just look at the above lines, which is just a sampling. The Replacements? They weren’t exactly a band everyone knows- which is sort of what Eddie Argos means with that whole “I’ve only just heard of these guys!” thing. That line works a lot better for most Art Brut fans, since even those who did not already know of the band probably heard of them since “Let It Be” by The Replacements literally was re-released months before the Art Brut song came out.
Or, texting. Let’s look at how they talk about texting. Texting is pretty awesome, but the concept of waking up hungover and sending a group text apologizing for whatever you did the night before (as seen in “Alcoholics Unanimous”) isn’t guaranteed to be something that…happens in the future. For all we know, texting will go the way of sending postcards or having pen pals.
What the fuck is that, and why is it leaking letters onto that wood pulp?
But as far as things that might not age well, sure they’ve got a lot of that. But they’ve had lyrics that stopped working less than a year after they were recorded. During Art Brut’s first tour of America, they had to change the lyrics of the track “Formed a Band,” since the line about making Isreal and Palistine getting along didn’t really work at the time, since they were getting along. Of course, instead they took credit, changing their lyrics in concert to “we ARE the band that wrote the song that made Isreal and Palestine get along- next is India and Pakistan. Easy Peazy.”
That’s right. Their lyrics stop making sense between the recording and the touring process. That’s like writing a song about John McCain winning the presidential election in August of 2008, and then having a “fuck me” moment when you realize that you can’t think of any words that rhyme with “Obama”.
1. Billy Joel – We Didn’t Start the Fire
Every damn lyric in that damn song except for “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. Every damn one.
Let’s take a look at a screen shot of how one lyrics website decided to post the lyrics for this song. It literally makes you feel like Russell Crowe in a Beautiful Mind, trying to piece together gibberish into Soviet codes.
What the shit?
Billy Joel didn’t write any lyrics for this song, he wrote a list. And not even a coherent list, he just rambles off pronouns and events like Rainman talking about his favorite historical and pop culture events since 1949. Seriously, Billy Joel’s driving through these like he drives through trees- fast, hard, and probably a little drunk.
The only thing more terrifying than the sheer amount of pop culture references in this song is the prospect of Billy Joel deciding to make a sequel to the song, just to put us all to shame for the things we all embraced in the 90’s and 00’s.
Oh God…please don’t do it, Mr. Joel. I don’t care how much money they offer you…please… just say no…