Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Blender Magazine Picks Worst Writer; Fails to Pick Member of Staff

So, yesterday Blender Magazine (the US’s equivalent of Q) declared that Sting is the worst lyricist ever. Never mind the fact that Blender saying that someone’s writing is bad is equivalent to Courtney Love telling Steve Coogan he has a drug problem. They also put Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie further down on the list, because the band are indie but also popular and thus are seen as having no credibility. I notice, however, that Blender’s writers are too scared of seeming dumb to touch The Decemberists, a similarly emo band who are considered smarter because they weren’t beloved by Seth Cohen, don’t have hooks in their songs, and write lyrics like this:
We made our huts of avaram
We’d not betray the sole Ledum
The acres of hysterisy
To our own pangs of starvation

Rhyming “avaram” and “Ledum” is crime enough, but “hysterisy”?? You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Is that one of those uterus-removing operations performed by screaming banshees? Note to music critics: a lyric is not intelligent just because it’s incomprehensible. Note from Merriam-Webster: “hysterisy” is not a word. Compare those lyrics with the opening of Death Cab’s “Marching Bands of Manhattan”:
If I could open my arms
And span the length of the isle of Manhattan,
I'd bring it to where you are
Making a lake of the East River and Hudson
If I could open my mouth
Wide enough for a marching band to march out
They would make your name sing
And bend through alleys and bounce off all the buildings.

Now that’s imaginative, and reminiscent of the imagery in one of Donald Barthelme’s stories. And no avaram huts in sight.

As for Sting, I’ll have to go ahead and admit something here: I like him. When I was a dorky, MOR-loving kid, he was one of my favorite singers. My first concert was a Sting concert, and it was transformative – I’d never imagined that music could be so vital, such a connecting force, something you could feel vibrating through you and linking a crowd of disparate people into one unified force of all that was thrilling and beautiful and uplifting about the world. Yes, “Fields of Gold” did that to me, okay? I still have an affection for adult-contemporary music – it is soothing and uncomplicated, and sometimes I feel like listening to something unchallenging and familiar – and so no, I don’t just like the Police; I own nearly all of Sting’s albums, except for the last couple of them, and enjoy all of them. They’re not the best music I own, and the lyrics aren’t always fantastic, but seriously, worst? Worst ever? I know it’s fashionable to hate Sting, but give me a break. He’s not a bad lyricist. According to Blender, his biggest crimes are pretentiousness (?!?!? Find me an unpretentious musician and I will find you a three-headed unicorn bathed in flame) and “ripping-off” Chaucer and Shakespeare in his lyrics. Again, this is apparently a crime no one except Sting has ever committed (except HUNDREDS AND HUNDREDS OF WRITERS, including Dylan -- not to mention that Shakespeare himself ripped people off incessantly). And what, exactly, is so bad about quoting from them? Yeah, it's a bit pretentious, but it's no "I had a brain that felt like pancake batter" (we'll see how long it takes for AdmiralNeck to comment on that remark). Anyway, fuck you, Blender. Trying to fit in with the cool kids is not doing you any favors.

[ETA: How long? Try five minutes! What's Jack White ever done to you, other than try to entertain you with his colour-fascism, wiry moustache, and instinctive lizard-brain understanding of the Blues? There's just no pleasing some people. - Admiral Neck)

Not that anyone asked, but my personal favorite lyricist? Stephin Merritt -- a sometime solo artist also associated with The 6ths, Future Bible Heroes, The Gothic Archies, and, best of all, The Magnetic Fields. I often don't pay attention to lyrics until I like a song, at which point I'll find out what they are so I can invest in the song more deeply, but Merritt's lyrics demand attention all on their own. They are smart, erudite, often incredibly poignant, and best of all, funny -- something far, far too rare in songwriting. As one critic put it, anyone who can rhyme "Marguerite" and "spirochete" is okay in my book. Just compare "The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure" to the Decemberists' crap above:
I met Ferdinand de Saussure on a night like this
On love he said, "I'm not so sure I even know what it is
No understanding, no closure
It is a nemesis
You can't use a bulldozer to study orchids"

He said...
So we don't know anything
You don't know anything
I don't know anything about love
But we are nothing
You are nothing
I am nothing
Without love

I'm just a great composer
And not a violent man
But I lost my composure
And I shot Ferdinand
Crying "It's well and kosher
to say you don't understand
but this is for Holland-Dozier-Holland"

His last words were
We don't know anything

Now that's how you write a song.


sjwoo said...

Love your title. I was surprised that Sting was chosen as the worst, too. I mean I'd be the first to admit that Bernard Sumner of New Order is probably far worse than Sting (at least the legally drugged Sumner of the recent past).

Seems like if they wanted to pick on Sting, they should've at least mentioned how he recycles his old lyrics. I don't know enough of his work to pinpoint this, but a friend from college was a big fan, and I remember him playing me a song where Sting reused a line right from "Every Breath You Take" in another song. He also did it with a line in "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic." I'm not sure if this is necessary bad -- lazy, perhaps, is more appropriate.

In any case, as you know, I'm firmly in the camp of "melody first, lyrics later," but the reverse happened for me with Suzanne Vega's song "New York Is a Woman." I just adore the "In her steam and steel" lines. Check it out:

New York City spread herself before you
With her bangles and her spangles and her stars
You were impressed with the city so undressed
You had to go out cruising all the bars

Your business trip extended through the weekend
Suburban boy here for your first time
From the 27th floor above the midtown roar
You were dazzled by her beauty and her crime

And she's every girl you've seen in every movie
Every dame you've ever known on late night TV
In her steam and steel is the passion you feel
New York is a woman she'll make you cry
And to her you're just another guy

Look down and see her ruined places
Smoke and ash still rising to the sky
She's happy that you're here but when you disappear
She won't know that you're gone to say goodbye

And she's every girl you've seen in every movie
Every dame you've ever known on late night TV
In her steam and steel is the passion you feel
New York is a woman she'll make you cry
And to her you're just another guy

Masticator said...

Any list of shoddy lyricists that does not include Bono is not worth the paper it's badly written on. Someone I was seeing for a while in high school genuinely believed that lines such as "You're dangerous/'Cause you're honest" and "I dreamed that I saw Dali/With a supermarket trolley/He was trying to throw his arms around the world" were the very height of poetic profundity. (I hesitate to call her a "girlfriend"; there are other, real reasons for this, I promise. It is a mere coincidence that I stopped seeing her a short time after she proclaimed this belief in public. In front of people. People that I knew.)

Scary, though, that I can recall the lyrics so clearly all these years later. I guess that relationship must have had a greater impact than I thought. It could have been worse, though: my other high school girlfriend liked The Levellers.

I'm also amazed that Anthony "Simply put, I saw your lovestream flow" Kiedis was not higher, but I guess Blender knows its readership of teenage meatheads. I'm guessing too that Razorlight have not made enough headway in the US to be included, because Borrell would be a shoo-in otherwise.

I'd have trouble picking a favourite lyricist - most, as you say, have committed some crimes of pretentiousness somewhere along the way - but Deborah Harry and Elliot Smith are two that spring to mind.

Canyon said...

Sting does reuse some lines from early songs in his later ones, but I actually think that's a nice touch -- they're put in at the end as a kind of afterthought, a little joke. And that Suzanne Vega song is great -- could be a poem on its own.

I did consider mentioning Bono in my post, as I can't stand him, but I figured it would be a bit off to make fun of him but defend Sting. (Even though he is so much worse than Sting, at least regarding their hypocritical savior complexes.) And I can't argue with picking Elliot Smith -- spoiled for choice with his lyrics, really.

Admiral Neck said...

Bad lyricists: McCartney, that git from Crash Test Dummies, Sir Tim Rice.

Good lyricists: Elliott Smith, Stephen Malkmus, Tanya Donelly, Will Oldham (a living God!), Dylan (obviously), Ben Folds. Probably a lot more. I even like Jack White, though apparently that makes me brain-damaged or something.

Admiral Neck said...

Oh, and Joanna Newsom. Sawdust and Diamonds from Ys is perfection itself.

Masticator said...

Jack W does come up with the odd cracker - I'm a big fan of "300 people living out in West Virginia/Have no idea of all these thoughts that lie within ya" - but sometimes he seems to be striving to put the tripe in White Stripes. Altogether now: "COOOOO-OOOOOO-OOOOONNNNN-QUEEEEEEEEEEEST!"

Masticator said...

Oooh, almost forgot - I actually got to interrogate Tanya Donelly about the lyrics on Belly's King album! It was in 1995 so I can't remember exactly what was said - I think it was mainly to do with how all the songs on Star were about the moon, while King is all about sleep do you see etc etc - but anyway it was Very Exciting.

Admiral Neck said...

I know people who will exact terrible revenge upon you for meeting Tanya Donelly, and they frequent this very blog. Two men enter, one man leave, in a COOOOO-OOOOOO-OOOOONNNNN-QUEEEEEEEEEEEST, which is, coincidentally, the lyric of the year.

sjwoo said...

If there was any justice, Belly's King would've gone platinum a thousand times. Simply one of the finest pop records from the 90s. I can listen to "Super-Connected," "Silverfish," "Seal My Fate," "Red," etc., over and over and over again.