My blood pressure shot north when I heard there is going to be a Margaritaville development for seniors in Florida. That’s because nobody ever listens to the lyrics of songs. If “Margaritaville” the development matched “Margaritaville” the song, everyone living there would be heartbroken, broke, drunk, hopeless, injured, shoeless and have a tattoo of unknown origin. After the false advertising of the first verse, “Margaritaville” is not a happy song.
But nobody ever listens to the lyrics. They hear those jaunty steel drums and think, “Party time!” Well, like the song says, they haven’t a clue.
This happens all of the time in popular music. Sunday, I went to Hexagon, an annual satirical skit show that raises money for charity. One of the skits in the show featured a DJ taking requests for romantic song dedications. The first request was for “I Will Always Love You,” which the DJ angrily pointed out is a breakup song. Another caller requested “Every Breath You Take,” which the DJ even-more-angrily pointed out was a song about a stalker.
People never listen to the lyrics. This has gone on forever. When Bill Haley and the Comets covered Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” way back in the 1950s, the censors picked up on the verse about old dresses and changed it, but they missed the one about the one-eyed cat peeping in a seafood store. So did most of White America, for whom the song had been sanitized. But that verse, as they say, contains a euphemism.
When I was 14, the No. 2 single for the entire year was Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun,” which sounds like a bittersweet end-of-relationship song until you actually listen to the lyrics. It’s actually a look back from someone who is about to die. It also sold more than 10 million copies. And until freakin’ 1997, my current residence of Virginia had an official state song that mentioned “darkies” and “massas.”
Even admittedly terrible songs fall prey to this. My personal choice for Worst Song of the Pop Era, “The Night Chicago Died,” starts with this line: “Daddy was a cop on the East Side of Chicago.” Um, buddy, the East Side of Chicago is better known as Lake Michigan.
Lyrics that don’t match up to the music are common. A well-known example is Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks,” which has a an upbeat, breezy melody as the song’s subject warns that the kids who hate him had better run faster than his bullet. And in late-season American Idol, I always enjoyed watching Harry Connick yell at adolescents singing Grace Potter’s “Paris.” The kids dug Potter’s voice and the overall power of the song. However, in that song, Potter pops off a whole bunch of pretty straightforward sexual pledges that perhaps you don’t want to hear from a 15-year-old.
Listen to the lyrics, people. Somebody put a lot of work into them.