It’ll be seven years this summer since Top of the Pops went off the air. Being Number One in the UK singles chart doesn’t have the same cultural impact it once had – we’re a long way from The Boomtown Rats tearing up pictures of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John when Rat Trap got to Number One in the winter of 1978, or The Specials’ Ghost Town being a commentary on Thatcher’s Britain.
The current Number One single in the United Kingdom is Blurred Lines, by the temptingly named Robin Thicke. You might have heard the song on the radio – it’s the “hey heyhey HEY!” one.
It is unlikely that anyone actually hears anything other than “hey heyhey HEY!” when they hear the song though, because if they did the song would surely have not done so well. An appearance by Thicke on the Ellen show in the USA - the video at the top of this page - makes the song beyond reproach as far as women are concerned, but would Blurred Lines be so popular if people heard any of the lyrics other than the “hey heyhey HEY!” part?
You’re always open to accusations of fogeyism when you wonder if it’s really necessary to fling this filth at our pop kids, but my goodness, the thought that people are growing up listening to this and concluding that this is how adult men relate to adult women is appalling. It’s not a question of feminism or ideology – it’s a question of simple manners.
It could be that the people who love Blurred Lines genuinely don’t hear the lyric. All they hear is the “hey heyhey HEY!” and hit the dance floor immediately, viewing all content other than the groove as superfluous.
Such a reaction would not necessarily be uncommon. Max Martin once told the BBC that the first few notes on the piano of Hit Me Baby, One More Time were the entire song – Britney Spears could have been singing a shopping lift after that and it still would have worked. And Martin, of course, should know, having written the thing in the first place.
This is how we consume music now. A series of motifs are expertly stitched together and rolled out the conveyor belt. And it’s not just the writing teams behind Thicke or Rhianna that do it; Sasha Fr ère-Jones expertly deconstructed Coldplay and U2 in in the New Yorker a few years ago. The tunes bounce around but mean nothing. The lyrics are just another sound in the mix, like raspberry ripple running through the vanilla ice-cream.
Is this a good or a bad thing? It could be that the consumers of these things are as oblivious to the lyrics as the 99% of internet users who have no interest in the mechanics of how this modern miracle works, with packets of information flashing back and forth through the ether in milliseconds. We just want to check Facebook, thanks.
It’s hard to know how many people ever listened to lyrics anyway. Bob Dylan is seen as the greatest lyricist of the modern pop/rock age, even though a huge amount of his lyrics make no sense whatsoever. He made his name as a protest singer and people assumed he was still protesting when he went electric. A quick glance shows this a very big assumption to make.
For instance, what makes Jokerman a great song is that it sounds Caribbean and Mark Knopfler plays guitar on it. But the lyrics are rubbish:
You're a man of the mountains, you can walk on the clouds
Manipulator of crowds, you're a dream twister
You're going to Sodom and Gomorrah
But what do you care? Ain't nobody there
Would want marry your sister
If there is a more forced rhyme in modern music than twister/sister, I don’t know what it is.
Of lyrics in pop songs, ABBA are much deeper than they’re given credit for. Not always, of course – the second line of Waterloo is one of the clunkiest ever written – but in his maturity Björn Ulvaeus wrote some remarkably sad songs, with Winner Takes It All being the most harrowing:
But tell me does she kiss
Like I used to kiss you?
Does it feel the same
When she calls your name?
“Does it feel the same / When she calls your name?” L Cohen himself would be proud of that one. Nothing blurred about those lines.