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Jack Smith

Rock music lyrics are of little consequence to him, but hum a few bars and he'll give you one ton of metal

July 29, 1986|Jack Smith

With Atty. Gen. Ed Meese's puritanical campaign against pornography and the Supreme Court's intrusion into bedrooms, the heat may be temporarily diverted from rock music for its alleged obscenity and satanism.

We're too busy denouncing skin magazines and criminalizing gays to pay much attention to the dirty words that are said to be corrupting our young by way of records, tape, TV and concerts.

The attorney general's commission on pornography and the court's decision on sodomy have opened up two new fields of prosecution for the rampaging moralists. They don't need rock.

However, the Parents Music Resource Center, which prodded Congress into hearings on obscene rock lyrics, has not abandoned its crusade.

I have always doubted that the lyrics of rock music could corrupt the young because I don't believe anybody ever really hears them.

I have been listening to rock music for more than 20 years now (how can you escape it?), and except for a couple of the old Beatle songs, when they were in their mellow Sergeant Pepper period, I have never been able to understand the words.

Most rock music sounds to me like an airplane crash, and the words are lost in the general din.

Also, the words are usually so banal and repetitious that if you try to listen to them they will hypnotize you, which may be the idea. Also, they are not exactly sung, but snarled, or delivered in a primal scream, and the amplification is so great that what are supposed to be love songs, perhaps, sound more like the agonies of hell or the snorts of the slaughterhouse.

So I am gratified by a recent story in the paper about a survey of 266 junior high and high school students at California State Fullerton. In a 40-page questionnaire, the kids were asked to name their three favorite songs and describe what they were about.

As Newsweek commented on the story, the kids came to the same conclusion Mick Jagger had: "It's only rock 'n' roll."

Of the 622 songs named, only 7% were thought to be about sex, violence, drugs or satanism; 26% were thought to be about love. They had no idea what 37% of them were about. They just liked the beat or the melody.

In other words, about 63% of the songs rock fans like best are either about love or nothing identifiable. I think a survey of us survivors of the big band era would turn up about the same percentage; 63% of the songs we liked were either about love or nothing.

Said Lorraine Prinsky, one of the two professors who conducted the test: "One of the conclusions we came to is that parents are hearing more sophisticated themes in songs than their children are capable of understanding. As for brainwashing kids, or corrupting them, music is a minor factor, if any. . . . Specific lyrics seem to be of little consequence to most kids."

But Jennifer Norwood, administrative assistant to the Parents Music Resource Center, said on hearing of the study, "It's ridiculous to say that music does not have an effect on human behavior."

Well, my favorite rock star is Cyndi Lauper, and what made her famous was a song whose only words, as far as I can remember, were "She bop." I don't know whether Ms. Lauper's performance would have corrupted me had I been a teen-ager, but if so it wouldn't have been the words. It was her style.

The words of songs in any era are treacherous when we try to learn them just from hearing them sung. How children love to sing that old Christian hymn, "Gladly the cross-eyed bear!"

William Safire, the New York Times word watcher, notes the ways in which children mangle "The Star- Spangled Banner."

They sing "Jose can you see by the Donzerly light," "o'er the ramrods we washed," and "grapefruit through the night that our flag was still there"!

American soldiers similarly mangled songs they heard overseas. In Japan the popular Japanese song "Shi-i-na-na Yaru" was translated by Americans into "She Ain't Got No Yo-Yo." And what the Doughboys did to "Mademoiselle d'Armentieres" is unprintable, even today.

I have a letter from Jack K. Walker of Santa Monica, who recalls a song written by a guitarist who had played on several of Walker's recording sessions. Walker had always thought the song was "Dem Light Sticks Smoke," and it wasn't until he was reading the composer's obituary that he found out it was "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke."

When he was teaching guitar at a music school to help support his songwriting habit, a student asked Walker if he would teach her the song "One Ton of Metal." Walker said he didn't know it. The girl hummed a few bars and Walker recognized it as a recent hit, "Guantanamera."

The student had thought the words were, "One ton of metal, why he loads one ton of metal."

Later Walker told the story to a sophisticated young student who didn't seem to think it was very funny. After an awkward silence, she said, "Actually, I thought it went 'Once on a meadow, while we were once on a meadow.' "

Remember Melina Mercouri as the happy hooker in "Never On Sunday" who liked to go to the ancient theater in Athens to watch the great Greek tragedies, in ancient Greek? She didn't understand a word of ancient Greek; and when the plays ended, she would jump up cheerfully and say:

"And then everybody went to the seashore!"

That's the way I feel about rock lyrics.

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