Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Lyrical dissonance

You've heard of the term "cognitive dissonance," right? I guess it means something like "discomfort or tension caused by holding simultaneous conflicting views or ideas." Um, maybe like Bill Clinton having a Monica Lewinsky flashback while having dinner with Hillary. Another example of cognitive dissonance could be rich Republican members of Congress (are there poor members of Congress?) boo-hooing that they have to pay taxes -- any taxes, really -- while they suckle at the federal teat for their paycheck.

How about "harmonic dissonance" or "lyrical dissonance"? That's how I describe a melody at odds with its lyrics -- surprisingly so. My first embarrassing discovery of this occurred while driving around in my car chirpily listening to and singing along with "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," on Abbey Road, by The Beatles. It's very catchy. Whimsical. Almost nursery schoolish, in its sound and rhythm. My younger daughter, maybe 9 or 10 at the time, or even younger, was sitting in the back seat. She dutifully called my attention to the outright violence of the lyrics. I mean, really, at least three people are hammered to death in the song, but, heck, it sounds like a jingle for chewing gum! I had no explanation for her. I, a wordsmith, had never really paid it much mind. And she never lets me forget it.

There's a current hit, by Foster the People, that summons the same lyrical dissonance. "Pumped Up Kicks" is an exuberant, danceable song with lyrics about a six gun and trying to outrun bullets, and other terribly disturbing references. It is positively finger-snapping catchy.

I guess the moral -- if there is one -- is either "don't take things too seriously" or "take them more seriously" or both or neither.

I will admit it is hard for me to get sanctimonious, given my own lyrical dissonance history.

I'm sure you have your own examples. John Lennon's "Imagine" comes to mind. A haunting, gorgeous melody, but not everyone would be quick to accept its secular, casually atheistic, anti-nationalist message -- if they even hear it.

Speaking of imagining, what if "Yesterday" by The Beatles were a heavy metal anthem? Or a cha-cha or salsa?

This reminds me of a game my older brother and I used to play, back in The Sixties. We'd conjure up mismatches, stuff like Kate Smith doing "Purple Haze" or Perry Como doing "Satisfaction."

Get it?

Got others?


Anonymous said...

Check out "F**k You" by Lily Allen. Hahahahahahahahaha.

Mark Murphy said...


Back in the '60s, the Box Tops, as you may recall, had a song called "Sweet Cream Ladies, Forward March."

I really liked the beat and the melody, but my older brother pointed out to me that the lyrics were about prostitution.

Around this time, a food company (General Foods?) had a product that
I think was called Dream Whip. The company apparently bought the rights to the song and actually had a commercial showing housewives with the product, accompanied by the song, whose lyrics had been rewritten to "Cream Pie Ladies, Forward March."

I think I saw the ad maybe twice before it disappeared. Obviously someone, though probably not my older brother, had filled the food company in.

Given what I know about the making of commercials (OK, not a huge amount, but read Michael J. Arlen's book called, I think, "Thirty Seconds" if you want an idea of all the work that goes into a spot), my mind reels (it used to boggle but decided it hated cliches) at the thought that all through the process NO ONE caught on to the lyrics.

But who am I to talk, given that I (and you) once worked for the author of "A Great Blow for Decency"....

Pawlie Kokonuts said...

Great take, as always, Mark. I'm noodling in my head to do a post on the whole subject of news. To come.