Songwriting Illusions

Listen Carefully

Gold Coast slaveship bound for cotton fields
Sold in a market down in New Orleans
Scarred old slaver know he’s doin’ alright
Hear him whip the women just around midnight

These are the opening lyrics to a song that most of us have probably heard a hundred times; a song the majority of us can sing along with on command. How many of you though knew this harsh stanza was the opening to The Rolling Stones’ classic hit “Brown Sugar” when you initially saw it, without the aid of Keith Richards ultra cool opening guitar riff and Jagger’s identifiable raspy vocals?

Now I know that some of you knew from the get-go that these were gritty Sticky Fingers era Stones lyrics, however, I’m guessing that many were initially stumped. There are hundreds of songs out there that, like “Brown Sugar,” a song that deals with some “fun” themes such as slave trade, rape, sadomasochism, heroin use, and sexual fantasies, are often misinterpreted by its audience. It’s not that we as listeners choose to ignore the song’s true meanings but often we are so taken back by the catchy music (“yeah, yeah, yeah, woo!”) and the pop friendly choruses that we often pass over the deeper lyrical messages.

Brown sugar, how come you taste so good,
Brown sugar, just like a young girl should

There are many reasons for why certain songs seem to elude the majority of listeners. There’s the passive vs. active listener argument; the former being those casual listeners who enjoy songs for the music and live for the power pop songs that don’t necessarily have to be about anything but simply are candy to the ear and the latter being those dedicated listeners who dissect the lyrics and seek out the fine nuances of songwriting. This column is by no means a criticism of how people listen to music nor is it a judgment of those who were stumped by the lyrics above (after all I myself have always, to an extent, been a listener who focuses on the music rather than the lyrics) instead it is a look at a handful of popular songs that, for one reason or another, are constantly misinterpreted.

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
‘Til you spend half your life just covering up

Probably the most popular and baffling case of a song being completely misunderstood is the story behind Bruce Springsteen’s monumental rock anthem, “Born In the U.S.A,” a song that’s true meaning even stumped a former President. The title track of the Boss’ biggest selling album of the mid 80s has often been coined one of the greatest patriotic rock songs about America when in reality the track is a blatant and satirical slap in the face of America. The song tells the story of a small town everyman who is sucked into the war in Vietnam to fight for his country, loses a comrade and quite possibly his will to live, and is ultimately forgotten about upon his homecoming. The supposed American hero becomes an exile and nobody, a tale that is all too familiar now as it was back then.

I’m ten years down the road
Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go

Now while Springsteen clearly wears his ironic take of the American dream on his sleeve (just look at the album’s satirically perfect American pastime-themed cover art) “Born in the U.S.A.” still managed to elude an entire nation who, thanks to Ronald Reagan, saw it as a patriotic anthem rather than the scathing portrayal of a failing country (Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” is another classic tune that comes off as being patriotic when its everything but). The track was used as Reagan’s 1984 campaign rally song and was embraced by his supporters, many of whom only truly heard the song’s pop savvy refrain.

In reality it’s no surprise that the lyrics on “Born in the U.S.A.” were so misconstrued. The song is a perfect power pop track. Loud, overpowering drums (I’m talking thunder snare hits people). Check. Ultra catchy 80s keyboard riff. Check. A vocal performance that screams rock. Check. And above all a ‘God Bless Americaesque’ chorus, “BORN in the U.S.A,” that tricks listeners into thinking the song is about pride and a love for a country when in reality it’s a sobering manifesto for hopelessness and the downfall of the American dream.

Often due to lyric misinterpretations songs take on new meanings all together, shedding the artist’s original intention completely.

Every move you make
Every vow you break
Every smile you fake
Every claim you stake
Ill be watching you

The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” remains to this day one of the “greatest love songs” of all time when in reality the song is a fairly creepy allegory for what happens when love goes wrong. The song’s narrator is not the smooth sounding love God that so many people believe Sting to be but rather a domineering stalker (“Oh can’t you see, you belong to me”). The big brother themes and anti-romantic realities are overshadowed by the gentle crooning vocals, a subtle melodic bass line, and new-age style drumming. Yet despite this and more “Every Breath You Take” manages to finds its place on thousands of wedding playlists and romantic mix tapes around the world.

In a college a professor once talked about James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” a song that has come to epitomize the singer songwriter genre but is often completely misunderstood. Taylor’s lyrics dive deep into his inner depression, his addiction to drugs and his struggles with his rising stardom, however, due to Taylor’s dreamy vocals and lullaby guitar strumming, the song is often mistaken as something more romantic.

It could be said that part of the brilliance of good songwriting is being able to convey a message without having to spoon-feed the audience. A song like “Born In the U.S.A” doesn’t have to necessarily sound dark to express a sad realization. Besides being completely overplayed, “Every Breath You Take” is a great song because you have to get past the cliché romantic melodies to realize the song really deals with the selfish and possibly dangerous side of romance.

Truly great music should be able to play tricks on its listeners. A song like “Brown Sugar” works well because upon first listen it’s a fast-paced, fun rock song but on a second, third or fourth take the listener grasps what Jagger is really saying. Lyrical appreciation and understanding takes patience, carefully tuned ears, and a will to dig deep into a song to realize that more often than not there is more to tune than what appears.