The idea of a great song with bad lyrics trips a circuit in my brain that makes me want to run in circles chanting “not possible.” When writing custom songs, the lyrics are the most important part of the equation, and I doubt I’d still be in business if I didn’t give them the utmost attention. But what applies to custom songs doesn’t apply to the real world. There have been enormously successful songs that have had horrible lyrics-but successful doesn’t always equal great. Still, there are some amazing songs out there that contain questionable lyrics. They are rare, but I’ve come up with three songs that I would vouch for in a court of music nerds, as being great despite their lyrical shortcomings.
Knocked Down, Made Small (Treated like a Rubber Ball)-Was (Not Was)
My daddy took a look
On the day that I was born
And said he looks like corn
And his feet are made of clay
And then he walked away
And when I began to crawl
He knocked my head against the wall
And said you’re much to small
And you don’t get no ice cream
Not even if you scream
Don’t you know that I was knocked down
Treated like a rubber ball
Goofy. These lyrics are just plain goofy. They don’t fit the vibe of the song at all. I get the part about the rubber ball. Rubber balls get thrown around, it would hurt to be a rubber ball. But you look like corn? That’s just silly, and was probably included because it completed an internal rhyme scheme. Feet of Clay is a little known saying that means there is a defect of character, but it still sounds awkward here, and the part about ice cream is just plain out of place. Were they trying to be funny? Did they just not care? Is there some inside joke or larger concept that I’m not getting?
Was (Not Was) specialize in producing off-kilter but incredibly catchy songs. They’ve done everything from danceable powerhouses like Walk the Dinosaur, to skronky surrealist rants such as Dad I’m in Jail. They cross the line into absurdity with such authority that questioning the result seems more like a fault of the listener than the band. On Knocked Down, vocalist Sweet Pea Atkinson delivers the lyrics with absolute conviction, and every other element of the song is spot on. The lyrics to this song are ridiculous, but when you have the talent contained in Was (Not Was), it’s hard to go wrong. This song straight up rocks.
What a Crying Shame-The Mavericks
Wasn’t I good to you
Didn’t I show it
And if I ever hurt you
I didn’t know it
If you think I don’t care
Then you’re mistaken
My love was always there
But now my heart’s breakin’
Oh baby, oh what a crying shame
To let it all slip away
And call it yesterday
Oh baby my life would be so blue
My heart would break in two
Oh what a crying shame
What A Crying Shame is a daisy chain of cookie cutter phrases that look like they were taken from a middle school love note. The phrase crying shame has been used in the titles of at least six other songs, and has been a part of countless choruses and verses. The rest of the lyrics are predictable to say the least. Cliché all the way.
Luckily, lots of other stars are shining down on this song. It has a soaring melody delivered in vocalist Raul Malo‘s signature, heart-rending croon. The music to the song is simple, repetitive, and full of crisp, familiar, beautiful sounds. As a whole, the song is hypnotic. When I hear it, I can close my eyes and see colors that don’t exist in the real world.
I went alone down to the drugstore
I went in back and took a Coke
I stood in line and ate my Twinkies
I stood in line, I had to wait
The verse in Strange is a lamentation of the mundane that doesn’t even rhyme. It is repeated twice, as is the chorus, and that’s all there is to this song.
If you could psychoanalyze rock and roll, you might be able to find some episode in its childhood that brought it to the point in 1989 when the above lyrics appealed to so many people. Or maybe all of us that love this song should be psychoanalyzed? It would be easy to say that Galaxie 500 were successful because their overall sound was so amazing. But part of their appeal were the oddly simple lyrics. As a guy who is not above name dropping, I will tell you that Dean Wareham, who wrote this song, told me that he didn’t like writing lyrics. I would guess that means that he didn’t put a lot of time into them. So why does it work? Lie down on the couch. Tell me about your mother. In other words, I don’t know. But it does work. Really well.
A word about my criteria
Other people have attempted to identify great songs with bad lyrics, but it often collapses into a collection of songs like Da Doo Ron Ron by the Crystals or De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da by The Police, which contain nonsense syllables. In nearly every case, I find these doos and das completely appropriate and effective. Beyond that, there are a number of great songs that contain one bad line, maybe two. I tried to find songs in which a larger portion of the song was infested with cringeworthy words. It wasn’t that easy. That’s why there are only three.