Music Article

Hooks and Lines

Do rock and pop lyrics matter? Two of Entertainment Weekly's music critics square off -- read their debate, followed by their lists of favorite songs

ROB BRUNNER It's no surprise that the worst song ever written -- America's whiny, monotonous Neil Young rip-off ''A Horse With No Name'' -- has horrible lyrics. There ain't no way for to enjoy a song that contains lines like ''In the desert, you can remember your name/'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain/La la la-ah la-la la/La-la la, la la.'' But the truth is that most lyrics suck. Dumb, awkward, self-important, or just plain silly, the words to the majority of rock songs don't hold up to real scrutiny. Even the supposedly great lyricists aren't so hot when you actually read their words on the page. Springsteen, Costello, Lennon/McCartney -- they've all saddled their catalogs with overwrought, cliché-filled prose that wouldn't make it past a romance-novel editor. Even the mighty Bob Dylan is an overrated wordsmith: Many of his songs consist of little more than long strings of references and evocative imagery that often add up to not very much. Try out this Dylan clunker from ''Idiot Wind'' next time you get in a fight with your wife: ''You're an idiot, babe. It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe.'' What does that even mean?

CHRIS WILLMAN I'll resist the temptation to respond by singing, ''You're an idiot, Rob...'' But you just dismissed one of my favorite lyrics, from one of the funniest songs ever written. It was not two months ago, I swear, that I put on the remastered ''Blood on the Tracks'' and began laughing so hard that tears came to my eyes. No insult comic, not even Triumph, has ever arrived at a better or meaner put-down than Dylan's assertion that his ex is so dumb she can barely remember to inhale and exhale. In some ways, rock & roll and hip-hop have supplanted stand-up comedy -- look at Eminem -- and Dylan is a seriously underrated comedian.

BRUNNER You're actually arguing that Dylan meant the line to be funny? If he did, it barely rises to the level of your average ''yo mama'' quip. But his tormented snarl is too bruised and nasty for me to believe he's cracking jokes throughout the tune, especially since the rest of the words -- yes, I actually listened to them -- are full of fury, paranoia, and pain. At least they seem to be when I can actually figure out what he's talking about; if you know what ''There's a lone soldier on the cross/Smoke pourin' out of the boxcar door'' refers to, please fill us in.

WILLMAN ''Idiot Wind'' is funny because it's so nasty that eventually you have to laugh. Exaggeration has always been a hallmark of great lyrics. Mundane thoughts about lost teen love getting inflated to the level of Greek tragedy: That's 90 percent of rock in a nutshell. Doubt it if you will, but kids -- and I'll count myself as one here -- actually listen to that crap and believe their measly feelings matter because of it, whether it's Eamon's ''F--- It'' or ''A Teenager in Love.''

And the fans who grow up and move on to, shall we say, even bigger questions about life and death and love and loss -- from ''Dark Side of the Moon'' to ''The Rising,'' to name a couple of easily mocked song cycles I'll defend to the end -- those fans will tell you that words matter more than grunts. I'll be pretentious and just blurt it out: Rock isn't just our generation's stand-up comedy, but, for the last 50 years, our poetry.

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