Thursday, April 20, 2006

Overwhelm thyself in poesy: the 100 greatest lyrics

It has come to my attention that the esteemed television channel VH1 has just completed a survey to decide (drumroll please) The Greatest Lyric Of All Time. I first found out about this on Saturday, as graced the front cover of The Times' weekend supplement. The premise seemed typically interesting, but that was before I spotted the ominous caveat at the bottom of the page. It said "voted on by you".

You, the viewers. What's happened is that VH1 have selected 100 lyrics, leaving the massed ranks of the electorate to vote on them as they see fit. At the culmination of this laborious process, the original 100 have been whittled down to a definitive top 20. And true to form, all the old favourites are there.

The least surprising inclusion is probably John Lennon's 'Imagine'. It's the quintessential, intellectually lazy vox pop choice - a horrible playschool poem masquerading as enlightened philosophy, rather like a line of Eastenders dialogue. The fact that it was written by a fully-grown adult highlights what patronising, self-righteous crap it really is.

Some might argue that it showcases his more tender side, as opposed to the scathing wit that characterised many of his Beatles songs. It doesn't. It's more sanctimonious than one of Cromwell's speeches. Listen to it too much, and you'll soon find yourself offending dinner party guests with statements like "I always thought that Mark Chapman was a very pleasant boy".

The second most obvious choice is 'Bohemian (C)Rhapsody', which, along with Kurt Cobain's deeply asinine 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', provides the inevitable stream of bloated gibberish that is considered "poetry" these days. The majority of the population are fairly bright; in possession of an O-level or two, that sort of thing - so why is the collective mindset so staggeringly inane?

When you unpick the threads of everyone's eternal favourites, ABBA, the depth of our fixation with the vapid becomes more apparent. The general public will extract detritus from anything. And this is why ABBA are best appreciated as a shiny package. Because once you start to deconstruct them, you realise that the fragments of the songs are just twaddle that somehow synthesises into a well-written unit. That in itself is an impressive skill, but if we're taking down particulars, officer, the lyrics fall flat on their arse.

It's a bit like ABBA's native Scandinavia. On the whole it seems quite a prepossessing kind of place; all glaciers and wilderness and mystery and Santa Claus. But when you examine its characteristics, you begin to realise how torrid the place is - three hours of light a day, suicide rates that go through the ceiling, rampant alcoholism amongst the populace, and reindeer.

The common reindeer is not an attractive beast; it's quite capable of ambushing you somewhere outside Norrköping and then goring you until your intestines fall out. Rudolf may have charmed you all with his red nose and low self-esteem, but there were also eight other bastards that gave him one hell of a hard time. Thus endeth the allure of Scandinavia and all its lifeforms.

This little analogy relates perfectly to ABBA. It is best to concentrate on the glossy veneer, and not the aforementioned particulars. Because when you do, endless rhyming couplets like "Seeing me so tense / No self-confidence" become faintly embarrassing. And sooner or later you begin to wonder what the point of ABBA actually was. They deserve better, and therefore should be remembered under the safe, translucent heading of Great Pop Music. Not as exalted wordsmiths from the heavens, as the public prefer to think of them.

With heavy eyelids, I wonder whatever's left. There's songs by Coldplay and U2, two bands which appear to have merged into one another over recent years. Chris Martin's infectious immaturity combining with Bono's delusional pomposity is the production of a modern rock nightmare. As such, their lyrics have about as much edge as a vegetarian.

So, are there any worthy lyrics in VH1's top 20? Perhaps. Bob Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' deserves automatic selection in any poll of this nature, and could almost win the thing on its own. "Johnny's in the basement, mixing up the medicine / I'm on the pavement, thinking about the government" is a line that distils the energy and excitement of Sixties society down into twenty-six frenetic syllables. The same era also produced 'Waterloo Sunset' by The Kinks, a bittersweet tale of love in the capital that is as fine a narrative as you're ever likely to find in modern pop music.

At the same time, there are below-par entries from some otherwise decent lyricists - Lennon, of course, as well as Morrissey, Bowie, and Thom Yorke. All of them are underpinned, in this case, by boring, self-regarding songs. Further proof that polls such as these have an uncanny knack of filtering a lorryload of crud from one diamond.

There are a number of difficulties present when deciding what constitutes a great lyric. When words are set to music, a good melody can do half the work, thereby compensating for any shortfalls in the quality of verse. As a result, the realm of song is frequently deceptive in terms of the literature it produces. It is necessary to study the lyrics in isolation, whilst maintaining an awareness of their context.

A good lyric reconciles a unique means of expression with the spirit in which it was produced. If it lacks either an original language pattern or an inspired context, it just doesn't work. Chris Martin might have bucketloads of white male angst, but his writing style is wholly adolescent. So his lyrics serve little purpose. Whereas Dylan, Lennon, Morrissey, Reed, Yorke, Cocker, Edwards et al were in tune with both their own capabilities and the society (read: drugs) that fired them.

But the general consensus fails to take this into account. The public will vote for whatever they like to dance to on a Friday night, or songs that exemplify nebulous concepts such as 'love' or 'happy' or 'sad'. Perhaps this is the easiest way for them to celebrate their own love of popular culture, as a simple means of cataloguing their own lives. So it looks like I'm the awkward sod, with my over-complicated, ABBA-inspired misanthropy. But don't forsake me. I'm loving angels instead.