Clever, audacious, surprising, intimate — these are the song words that have had the greatest impact on me. Here are my 5 favourite lyrics.
5. “I splashed on my clothes as I spilled out of bed” (“Establishment Blues: This is Not a Song, it’s an Outburst” — Rodriguez)
This song was recorded in 1970 — but it could have been written just 2 weeks ago. Its unabashedly topical message of societal discontent strikes a particular chord in today’s world where instability, war and societal decay are becoming all too pervasive themes in the daily news.
Compared to Rodriguez’s other songs, “The Establishment Blues” is a rather poetic piece despite its overtly political character. It has even moved some people to compare Rodriguez to Bob Dylan. I don’t know about that (I’ve never felt the need to engage with Dylan at all) but I fully appreciate the craft that went into writing the song.
This line is a particular stroke of genius and is definitely one of my favourite lyrics. The watery images it conjures up are so wonderful. What a talent to have made the association and put it into song!
It’s astounding to me that Rodriguez never made it big back in the day when he recorded his early work. Still, it makes me all the happier about his late life recognition and success. The film Searching for Sugar Man is a must-watch.
4. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” (“Me & Bobby McGee” — sung by Janis Joplin)
I always loved the song “Me & Bobby McGee”. I bought the album “Pearl” when I was 16 and exploring all kinds of music at the recommendation of friends and colleagues. Getting the lay of the land, music-wise.
I was impressed by Joplin’s raw and soulful singing style and loved how she casually shattered all kinds of preconceptions about “white” and “black” voices. And of course, I was moved by her tragic, live-fast-and-die-young story, which catapulted her right into the annals of legend along with Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain.
I think the beauty of the lyric is that it can be interpreted in so many ways. Perhaps that explains the enduring popularity of the line (and the song) among so many people.
To me, it speaks to a sense of freedom which exists independently of money, possessions, jobs and status. A freedom which comes from within and would still be there even if you lost everything material, making life wonderful.
You may have ended up at that place of material poverty by accident or by design….it doesn’t matter. In Joplin’s world, it’s where the magic starts. Be not afraid.
3. “My thighs have been involved in many accidents/And now I can’t get insured/And I don’t need to be lured by you” (“Out of Habit” — Ani DiFranco)
I learned about Ani DiFranco from another law student on my course at UCL in our first semester. She leant me a couple of her CDs.
I was instantly smitten. Listening to her self-titled first album (another one in the category marked “EVERYBODY I KNOW HATES IT BUT ME”) was a transformative experience, like a musical meteorite landing. Here was a woman singing fearlessly about things I hadn’t dared think about previously. And of things which simply hadn’t occurred to me at that point. Politics, sexual identity, abortion, you name it — Ani corralled it all into her music and the poetry which she scatters through her albums.
Oh my goodness, I thought. You can really…GO THERE? Oh yes — Ani can. And Ani did! There was no subject too thorny, no feeling deemed unworthy of her examination and expression. She woke me up to so many avenues of thought which I needed to go down to BECOME and for that I’ll always be grateful. Ani offered up all her views and ideas for us to try on, learn from, find out what belonged to us and what we could discard.
At 40, I’m a fully formed person. I don’t feel the same relentless hunger that I did at 18 to go on excursions into other people’s internal lives, trying to salvage bits to include in my own identity-in-progress. I don’t listen to this kind of wordy, confessional music anywhere near as often.
But giving DiFranco’s debut album another whirl the other day, I was again impressed at the sheer linguistic and musical dexterity with which DiFranco takes harrowing life experiences and moulds them into music. Often with a massive pinch of wry humour and irony.
This is one of my favourite lyrics because it is so full of her typical dark wit. Hinting at something tragic beneath, and sending it out to us as a warning, cloaked in light jest. Then she throws the “c” word right in in the next breath. That’s Ani!
2. “It takes courage to enjoy it” (“Big Time Sensuality” — Björk)
How is it that Scandinavians manage to write such brilliant lyrics in English? Whether it is Benny & Björn from Abba, or Per Gessle of Roxette fame, or the Kings of Convenience…there are some great multilingual wordsmiths living up there in the wild north!
And you can’t talk about Scandinavian pop music without mentioning Björk! Unapologetically and consistently bonkers, she has been thrilling and confusing us in equal measure for almost 40 years. A lot of the time with her work, I’m left wondering “yes dear, very good — but what you MEAN by it?”
Her earlier music, including the album Debut, was a bit more accessible and I think I like that stuff better. Big Time Sensuality, track no. 6 on that album, became an instant hit. Because of Björk’s unusual music style for sure — but also for the ground-breaking video directed by French director Stéphane Sednaoui. It featured Björk, in a silken dress and with her hair braided into tiny knots all over her head, being towed through New York on the trailer of an articulated lorry, dancing and jumping around in typical unconventional style. Crackers! No one else except Björk would be up for it — or be able to carry it off.
Such great words
Don’t let the video distract you though — the song itself is the main attraction. Its lyrics are sparse (especially when compared to the work of more “talk-y” artists like Ani DiFranco or Tori Amos), but carry just as much meaning.
Björk has said that the song was written about the exhilarating feeling of falling in love and experiencing a deep connection with someone who shares your energy and passion for life. But it’s also about surrendering yourself to — and living in — the present moment.
Letting yourself fall — falling in love, letting yourself go to the flow of life, opening yourself up to the full range of emotion and experience — is daunting. Björk is absolutely right: it does take courage to enjoy it. I could listen to this all day long to hear my favourite lyrics.
Top among my favourite lyrics…
1. “I don’t believe you’re leaving/’Cause me and Charles Manson like the same ice cream” (“Tear in Your Hand” — Tori Amos)
Just like Ani DiFranco, intricately worded, hard-hitting confessional songs are Amos’s strongest suit. Which she has been playing with aplomb for 30 years.
Not afraid to visit the darkest places of the human heart, Amos’s lyrics can be somewhat disturbing. Although I often feel a sense of relief when I listen to them. Thank goodness there is someone else out there whose mind is as weird and as unquiet as mine!
This particular line comes from the penultimate song on Amos’s debut album “Little Earthquakes”. Compared to the songs before, it feels altogether lighter, like the hard work of the album is over and we’re now on the release.
Yet despite the more relaxed feel to the song, there’s a darkness underlying the humour of this lyric. You laugh at the audacity and the absurdity, but also wonder: is she serious? You’ve just listened to an entire album which communicated to you in no uncertain terms what depths lie inside this woman’s mind. You can’t exclude anything. An unstoppably exciting musician.
Photo: micens on Envato Elements