Sunday, April 1, 2012

7 Songs That Sound Deep... But Really Aren't

There are a couple things that characterize songs that "sound deep, but really aren't". First, the song must use highly poetic and stylized language. Secondly, it must sound a bit like a fortune cookie. For example, Pearl Jam had a song off the album No Code called 'Who You Are'. The chorus went something like this... "You are who? Who you are." What you do is take a phrase, say it, then reverse it; "If you are not with the one you love, then love the one you're with." Brilliant! Ultimately, in order to fit into this category, a song must have every appearance of saying something profound (meaning that the song must be well constructed and the artist must be under the impression that he is saying something sublime), while simultaneously managing to say very little at all. This type of genius is difficult to capture, but we have managed to track down this rare creature and study it in its natural habitat.      

7. Kansas - Dust in the Wind 

Perhaps it is unfair to put Kansas on this list, for I would not say that their songs are bereft of meaning (I actually like them). But they do have that element of... 'Shh, you are about to hear something profound. Gather round my children, while I teach you an important life lesson.' "I close my eyes, only for a moment but the moment's gone. All my dreams pass before my eyes, a curiosity. Dust in the wind, all they are is dust in the wind." Preach it brother! "Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea. All we do, crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see." I can't tell if he is trying to tell me something, or he's just really depressed. In another of their songs, we have the lyric; "If I claim to be a wise man, well it surely means that I don't know". Well, OK, I suppose there's something to that, but I liked it better when Socrates said it. At any rate, this is not so much an indictment of Kansas, who may have in fact been trying to say something meaningful (as depressing as that message may be), rather it is a commentary on a song which has all the classic characteristics of heavy-handedness.

6. Aerosmith - Dream On

Much like the former, this too has a haunting intro in the classical vein. The listener is pulled in by the musical drama, and as he follows the lyrical carrot, he expects that there will be some kind of payoff. Alas, the carrot is one of those fake ones you find on display at your Local Pier 1 Imports; "Half my life is book written pages/ Live and learn from fools and from sages/ You know it's true, oh, all the things come back to you". Some actually refer to this as the law of physics, but I digress. All of this sounds rather thoughtful, that is until you get around to asking what that thought is? Steven Tyler then goes on to say in the chorus; "Sing with me, sing for the year, sing for the laughter, sing for the tears. Sing with me, just for today. Maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will take you away." The chorus begins with a sort of anthemic rise, until we reach the conclusion which turns out to be a whole lot of cryptic garble. In point of fact, the final words of the chorus sound a little too much like a lyrical- though decorative- space filler. I guess what I am saying is I don't quite understand why the Good Lord is going to take me away tomorrow. And if he is, should I be pleased about that? Moreover, why is Steven Tyler asking me to sing with him? I get the feeling he has a reason, he just never gets around to telling me what that is. One of the primary characteristics of such navel gazing classics, is the ability to leave the listener with the distinct impression that you are actually going somewhere with your poetic collage of images. However, what the listener receives instead (as is demonstrated by the beatific fortune cookie on display above) is a big fat nothing burger, a veritable donut hole without the donut.

5. Blue Oyster Cult - The Reaper

I will avoid mention of that magnificent cow bell and get right to the issue. I love this song, mainly because it reminds me of Steven King's book "The Stand". In the TV miniseries (inspired by the book), 99% of the population dies as a result of a plague. This eerily upbeat song about embracing the reaper serves as the backdrop for this almost universal march towards death. As interesting as that all sounds, the song by itself is a little more dubious in its messaging. The music is certainly haunting and the general subject matter sounds interesting, but everywhere in between reads a little too much like a teenagers first attempt at writing a depressing poem; "Valentine is done. Here but now they're gone". Whaaa? "Romeo and Juliet are together in eternity. We can be like they are." Yipee, we too can kill ourselves with the hope of something good coming out of it. At one point in the song there is a musical interlude which one would suspect represents the appearance of the reaper. Is the song about accepting the reality of death, or an invitation to suicide? I do not know, but what I can say is that the final verse, like so many of the songs of this ilk, is purposely oblique so that only the most credentialed occultist may be able to interpret it; "Came the last night of sadness, and it was clear she couldn't go on. Then the door was opened and the wind appeared. The candles blew and disappeared. The curtains flew and then he appeared". Wow, did he just rhyme appear and disappear, and then conclude it by putting "appear" again? I think he did.

4. America - Horse With No Name

Taking into account the sheer breadth of nonsensical lyrics that this band has produced, they themselves could be the focus of an entire blog (need I mention The Tin Man or Ventura Highway). You need only read the first verse then you will know exactly what I mean; "On the first part of the journey, I was looking at all the life. There were plants and birds and rocks and things, there was sand and hills and rings. The first thing I met, was a fly with a buzz and the sky with no clouds. The heat was hot and the ground was dry, but the air was full of sound." There is not much that I can add to this lyrical abyss other than to say that a second grader could write better lyrics. I say second grader because when I was in second grade I wrote my first poem about a buzzing bee which had more content than this one. The chorus then wades into even deeper waters; "I've been through the desert on a horse with no name. It felt good to get out of the rain" (I won't even ask what a horse with no name even means). In the desert you can remember your name 'cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain." There is much to say about the potential paradox of a desert, but this "ain't" it. I will simply conclude with the second verse, which requires no comment other than to say that I hope they were on drugs when they wrote it, because no other explanation, save humor, could exonerate them from such stupidity; "After two days in the desert sun, my skin began to turn red. After three days in the desert fun (did he just say "desert fun"), I was looking at a river bed. And a story it told of a river that flowed , made me sad to think it was dead." Huh? A story about a river that tells a story about a river...

3. Bette Midler - The Rose

'The Rose' is a well crafted song, but the lyrics sound a little like something you mind find in a hallmark card. You know, that kind where you can't really think of your own material, so you find some sappy card which says everything that you feel like you would say if you were only a little more poetic (we won't even talk about 'Wind Beneath My Wings'). Actually it is probably not something you would say, but as long as someone else can say something nice for you, it saves you from having to worry about it. You then simply add your signature at the bottom of the card. This is the type of song that makes the sentimental type well up with emotion and feel like the songwriter has divined the secret thoughts of their soul; "Some say love it is a river, that drowns the tender reed. Some say love it is a razor, that leaves your soul to bleed. I say love it is a flower and you its only seed." Behold, the meaning of life revealed in one fell swoop! "Just remember, in the winter, far beneath the bitter snows, lies the seed that with the sun's love, in the spring becomes the rose." I can't tell if this is a botany lesson, or a helpful reminder about what happens when the seasons change. The truth is I understand exactly what Bette is trying to say about hope and adversity, and I think that her sentiment is well taken, but I just can't get the image out of my mind [whenever I listen to this song] of a card with a few scattered seeds on the cover and a gigantic rose inside superimposed over the words of the song. Perhaps it's just me.

2. Poison - Every Rose Has Its Thorn

Speaking of roses... In 1991 the sequel to Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure hit theaters. Not exactly academy award material, though nevertheless most amusing. At any rate, the movie featured a scene in which Bill and Ted, who are sort of like Valley Boys, are told by "God" that in order to save their lives they must reveal to Him the meaning of life. Both pause for a moment, and then consult one another, and then turn towards the divine being again, declaring; "Every rose has its thorn/ Every night has its dawn/Every cowboy sings a sad sad song/Every rose has its thorn." After they finish reciting these words, they wait in great anticipation for the response- and they are not disappointed- for "God" affirms that they have answered correctly! Appropriately this dim witted pair manage to turn this dime store wisdom into their personal motto. Why? Because it is precisely the type of teenage melodrama that makes any given adolescent feel like they are grasping at the very marrow of life. The song depicts a failed relationship, which clearly the song writer greatly laments. When he arrives at the chorus he has every intention of revealing what sage advice he has gained from these events. The first morsel is the paradox of the beautiful rose and her subsequent thorns. Then, like a great epiphany, it is revealed that every night has its dawn, a proposition that few could squabble with. Then we are told that every cowboy sings a sad sad song. At this point I have to ask, what does a cowboy singing a "sad sad song" have to do with your girlfriend dumping you? Is the implication here that cowboys are generally inclined to sing happy happy songs? And furthermore, does Brett Michaels consider himself a cowboy because that's what it sounds like he's saying? This magnificent hodge-podge of unrelated sayings is spectacular in that it shows that you really don't need to know what the heck you are talking about, as long as you say it somewhat creatively.

1. Led Zeppelin - Stairway to Heaven

Known to incorporate Lord of the Rings references into their songs, this band has a whole catalogue of lyrics that sound like they could be the soundtrack of Dungeons and Dragons. With Robert Plant's fixation on Tolkien, and Jimmy Paige's penchant for dabbling into the occult, Zeppelin was able to capture some of the mystery of Lord of the Rings without any of the content; "There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold, and she's buying a stairway to heaven/ When she gets there she knows if the stores are all closed, with a word she can get what she came for". Even the band America might be tempted a chuckle at the sheer stupidity of these lyrics. "There's a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure, 'cause you know sometimes words have two meanings". Hey Robert, I'm just looking for your words to have one meaning. "If there's a bustle in your hedgerow don't be alarmed now (I suppose the words hedgerow and alarmed now kind of rhyme in a way), it's just a spring clean for the May queen." There is perhaps something alarming about a bustle in a hedgerow, but it is difficult to get too terribly excited about a "spring cleaning" event, even if it does involve a May Queen. "Yes there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run there's still time to change the road your on." This lyric couldn't be any more ridiculous if it said; "when you come to a fork in the road, take it". In fact, I think the latter has far more potential.      

Receiving honorable mention are Iron's Butterfly's admittedly nonsensical 'In A Gadda Da Vida', which, according to them, sounded cooler than calling it "In the garden of Eden". I think a better name would be 'Yabba Dabba Da Vita', but what do I know? The other song receiving honorable mention is R.E.M's  'It's the End of the World As We Know It But I Feel Fine'... In truth, I could have used any number of songs from this band (remember 'Swan Swan Hummingbird'?), but this one in particular is so littered with nonsense from start to finish, that I couldn't leave off without mentioning it. And lastly, I honor, "Owner of the Lonely Heart", by Yes with its ode to... only God knows the answer to that.    



  1. But they are great songs. And really, who cares if a song is deep? Lately I listen to songs where I have no idea what the artist is trying to say.

    1. The post was written not to deny the musical merit of these songs, it was to point out the amusing contrast of the vibe of something profound, with the fact that there is no "there" there in these songs. When you say that lately "I listen to songs that I have no idea what they are saying" is that meant as a good thing, or are contrasting those with the songs in the post? I guess in conclusion I would say; first this post was meant to be whimsical not an authoritative list, and secondly, I have to admit I do like it when the lyrics are deep as opposed to pretending to be.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I'm suprised you denied Jon Anderson of Yes an honorable mention. As much as I love this band I have no clue at all what ANY of their songs mean. Still, Close To The Edge and Relayer are two of the greatest ProgRock masterpeieces of all time.

    Fr. JP

  4. I think you are right, Owner of the Lonely Heart, should at least receive honorable mention...

  5. Very enjoyable post. I think Zappa captured the vibe well in a little ditty called 50/50, with which I suspect you are familiar. But if not, see the following. Peace.

    "Well, my dandruff is loose
    An' my breath is chartreuse
    I know I ain't cute
    An' my voice is ka-poot
    But that's awright people
    I'm just crazy enough to sing to you
    Any old way
    I figure the odds be fifty-fifty
    I just might have some thing to say"

  6. Considering your other mentions, I'm sure you're old enough to remember Procol Harem. What is more grand and lofty, pulling you in with the seriousness of the melody, but failing to deliver one drop of insight, than not one but two of their hits, "Whiter Shade of Pale" and "Conquistador?"

    You may put them in Kansas' place. It might be circumspect, and allude rather than directly address the subject, but everyone comes away knowing it is a reminder of the fluid vapor of our firmest accomplishments on earth. And they better come through and play it at my wake or I'll haunt the executrix and the whole lot of them!

    And "Don't Fear the Reaper" is such an invitation of a guy to his girlfriend to mutual suicide to thwart whoever is interloping from keeping them from being together. It always felt demonic, and once I sat with the liner notes (remember those?) off a friend's album, I've hated the song ever since.

  7. Those are alright examples. Pop music of the last 20 years could have provided better examples of terrible lyrics, but the meanings are so in-your-face obvious, I suppose one merit of the obscure bad ones is that you can forget how bad the lyrics are.

    I take exception with your interpretation of Areosmith's song and perhaps with Zeppelin.

    The "sing with me" is clearly meant to express living fully in the moment, with all your being shining forth, because tomorrow the Good Lord may take you away. It's the same kind of idea as "gather ye rosebuds while ye may". It could have a bad atheist-existentialist interpretation, but Tyler thankfully prefers to insert the person of Our Lord. The idea that our sins come back to haunt us is a pretty orthodox notion as well, no? I'm sure Tyler's theology is way off, but the lyrics have more merit than America - that's for sure. I'm nearly positive at least 4 bongs were used in the creation of that song.

    As for Zeppelin, I've always interpreted the intro to be a shot against the gorgeous player women (likely the one's the band most often met) who know how to "win" at life by manipulation with their sexuality.

  8. Thank you for take on it "Hurrrdurr". To your first point, the songs in the last 20 years are more inane than "deep sounding". Remember, that was the criteria. To your second, I can see where you are coming from, but to someone who just reads the words for the first time (or second) it sounds like a loose affiliation of sentiments not terribly related. I would agree that the line about "all the things come back to you" is haunting, but that is because it is a haunting sentiment, not particularly because it relates to anything larger in the song. In fairness, I do think the song communicates a very distinct vibe, I just don't think the coherence of the message has anything to do with it. In any case, I do not deny that many of these are well crafted songs, and I felt a little sheepish demanding so much from a musician, but oh well, I thought it was fun category to create. By the way, Stairway may be saying something, but read the lyrics again and tell me that they don't have all the characteristics of trying to sound deep without anything really deep to say.

    1. Nono, I'm just a gadfly, keep up the good work!

      Your last point trumps mine. Reading it again it sounds like the band had brownies for lunch.

  9. I think about this sometimes when I'm driving home from work listening to my Sirius/ XM radio. I find that most rock songs' lyrics are really non-sensical which tees me off because often times the music is great, as in the songs you noted above. But this is rock. It was created in the 60's to purposely disconnect meaning from words or at least the usual meaning of words. It is all an attack on "society" and the "status quo", which was the "Beat" philosophy back then (the "Beatles"). Unfortunately, growing up a bit, I'm now in my 50's, I find it irritating to listen to songs I once loved because the lyrics are so empty and inane. So its off to the classical stations for me!