(To those of you new to the RP Nation, we welcome you to one of our longest-standing traditions: the RP’s Top 5 best-of-pop-culture-lists. Check out his previous entries…if you dare: Favorite Breakup Songs, Favorite Hoops Books, Most Jew-ish Gentiles, Favorite “Docs” who Weren’t Doctors, Pretty Boys I Begrudgingly Admire, and Guilty Pleasures.)
As I venture through middle age, it’s amazing some of the strange and obscure things I remember from my adolescence. Such as the middle name of my first serious girlfriend: Miriam.
OK, OK… I married her…You got me.
One truly inexplicable memory that’s stuck with me is that of my high school youth group buddy, Stacey. When it came to music, she didn’t have a favorite band, or even a favorite song. No, Stacey had great affection for brief moments in the middle of popular tunes. Like a fleeting Keith Richards guitar lick. Or a Mariah Carey high-C note. Or — since it was the 80s, after all — some fancy synthesizer work.
For me, always a voracious reader and wannabe writer, my passion has been directed toward a brilliant lyric. Sometimes, it’s just a line that is particularly clever or moving or instructive.
So, in salute to Stacey, I offer my Top Five Pop Music Lyrics:
I hate Alanis Morisette’s “Ironic.” I simply hate it. Here’s this extremely bright and insightful singer/songwriter who just set the world on fire with her extraordinary breakup song, “You Oughta Know“; she comes up with a catchy tune and a great thematic idea…but then totally flubs the execution. Nearly every example she gives of “irony” is not irony. Rain on your wedding day sucks, but it’s not ironic, unless maybe you’re a meteorologist. A black fly in your Chardonnay is gross, but does not even approach irony. I get Marvin the Martian angry whenever I hear the song; so when an acoustic version popped up on the radio recently, I used it as a teaching moment for RPette #2, who was sitting shotgun in my car. But as I was about to explain to her why learning that an attractive, appealing man is married is not ironic, Alanis pulled a fast one on me and changed a word from the original version of the song: “It’s like meeting the man of your dreams/and meeting his beautiful…husband.” As a recently admitted and very proud gay marriage proponent, I had to smile: One of my favorite lines appears in one of my least favorite songs. Isn’t that ironic?
“American Pie” is one of those songs you either love or completely despise. Some claim it’s a brilliant symbolic exposition of the history of rock music; others term it a childish recitation of popular events, a la Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (which would be #2 if I compiled a Top 5 list of horrible songs by musicians I love — right behind “Ironic,” of course.) Blame it on my adolescent nostalgia (“American Pie” was one of the few songs I could play and perform roughly in tune), but I fall in the former camp. By positioning Buddy Holly’s death as a critical moment in rock history, and transposing Holly’s most famous lyric, McLean evokes tragedy with appropriate reverence to one of rock-n-roll’s original masters. With forty years of distance, the Mick Jagger/Satan metaphors later in the song seem a bit overwrought, but “This’ll Be the Day that I Die” still rings sincere and true today.
In every generation, there’s that seminal moment: An event so memorable that you can remember exactly what you were doing when you learned it happened. For the Greatest Generation, it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For Boomers, it was JFK’s assassination. For us Gen Xers, at least of the Hebraic variety, it was Adam Sandler’s first performance of “The Chanukah Song” on Saturday Night Live‘s “Weekend Update.” As I’ve argued previously at this site, America’s Seinfeldization — the prominent public emergence of so many proud and open Jewish comedians during the 1990s — helped pave the way for the historic Joe Lieberman candidacy in 2000. And the pivotal moment was learning from Sandler that so many revered celebrities (Paul Newman! Harrison Ford!) had Jewish blood. So, midway through the song, when the comedian name-dropped OJ Simpson — who infamously was in the middle of the trial of the century — I took a deep breath, and was finally able to exhale with a belly-quaking laugh, relieved that he was no Member of the Tribe. That line doesn’t provoke as much laughter today, but at that precise moment, it was the funniest line ever written. (2011 Postscript: Casey Anthony…Not a Jew).
Two weeks ago, I admitted one of my most embarrassing secrets: I love the Barenaked Ladies, particularly their first album, “Gordon.” Nearly every song on the disc is propelled by clever lyrics, but none more so than my favorite, “If I Had a Million Dollars.” In an early verse, the Ladies appear to misfire with the PC declaration: “If I dad a million dollars/I’d buy you a fur coat/But not a real fur coat; that’s cruel.” But in the next verse, you realize you were just being set up for the big payoff, when “green dress” is substituted for “fur coat.” Just like a great chessmaster, the lyricist was anticipating moves later in the game. This writer doffs his hat to the Barenaked Ladies…and hopes they put their clothes on soon.
Before Weird Al, et al, launched the music parody industry, there stood alone, “Back in the USSR.” As part of the sometimes weird, sometimes transcendental “White Album,” Paul McCartney claims to have written this piece both as a parody of the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” and a tribute to Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA.” But I suspect it was some sort of LSD-fueled reverie that inspired Paul to write an entire song around the most brilliant line within, a reference to Hoagy Carmichael’s treasured “Georgia on My Mind.” This was, simply put, the greatest pun in music history, guaranteeing the song will endure forever, even though its namesake so quickly expired.
OK, RP Nation, your turn. What great lines did I miss? As always, if you come up with a good one, I will make you famous by featuring it in a new post.
Please comment below.