The old Coasters song Poison Ivy is about a woman that carries a dose of the clap – “you’re gonna need an ocean of calamine lotion” – there are warnings the whole way through the song, most obviously “you can look but you better not touch”. But even in the song’s opening line the overtly sexual nature is pointed out. “She comes on like a rose”. There’s even the hint of promiscuity there to the flower opening (“but everybody knows”). String all the lines together, crafted to suit the melody, to fit the meter and you have double-entendres and innuendos. But you have a song.
And you have subtlety. It might not be all that subtle – but I bet a lot of you are still wondering if Poison Ivy is really about STDs; maybe it’s about a camping trip. Hang on, bad example, STDs can be exchanged on camping trips too, right?
People were outraged by 50 Cent’s song about the lollipop (hint: it’s not actually a lollipop/the song does not take place in an actual candy shop). But am I the only one that finds a lot of the rap and pop lyrics of today crude in terms of (lazy) construction? The crudeness/lewdness of the early rock’n’roll lyrics was clever. It was – at least – crafted.
If we leave nothing to the imagination then, quite rightly, there’s nothing to imagine. I don’t think pop-music lyrics are getting ruder – I think they’re getting dumber. But, as (almost) always, actions speak louder than words.
I made it most of the way through a Katy Perry concert a few years back. It was actually rather grim watching the parents of tweens covering their own eyes and ears in this sensuality-overload horror-show that had Perry all but felating her microphone as she sang the repeated line, “your peacock-cock-cock/your peacock-cock-cock”. Geez, talk about ramming it home.
Her need to shove it right in our faces is what makes this risqué – but at the same time it makes it dumber; it cheapens any possible effect/entendre (and not in a good way).
Before I made it through the Katy Perry concert I survived Basshunter. There he had the audience of kids singing “if you’re sexy and you know it clap your hands”. That might not be that risqué – but it was (just about) more disturbing than anything else that happened that night. Just about.
That said I bet the parents that were raising an eyebrow, as they waited in the wings, would not have batted the same eyelid if their precious youngsters were singing along to a happy-go-lucky tune from their childhood. Something like Shake Rattle And Roll maybe? Well that features the wonderfully disgusting line, “I’m like a one-eyed cat, peepin’ in a seafood store”. Wouldn’t bat an eyelid. And nor should they. Because Bill Hailey and anyone else that has performed Shake Rattle And Roll is unlikely to feel the need to mime as if they were Popeye, to spell it out. To go extra yards on selling the song.
It’s better, isn’t it, if the line sneaks up on you? You can almost feel yourself (ooh er!) doing the double-take. Take Laundromat Blues by The 5 Royales, a song that describes a woman having “the best machine in town” and if one is lucky enough to use it, to, er, dump a load, well, there’s no need to “worry about no salt, her machine is full of suds”.
The message couldn’t be any clearer. But the song’s writer is having playful fun. The song’s performers are selling the story, po-faced perhaps. Or maybe they’re hamming it up. But there’s no pointless profanity, no need to act it out – the lines should sell the song. And hey, if you don’t notice the first, second or third time can’t it still be a good song? That’s fine. If you get it straight away (we’re all experts in hindsight) then that’s okay as well.
I’m sure I’ve written about in-your-end-o before. Consider this a second coming if you must. But I’ve always found it frustrating that the rap lyrics and cheap, nasty pop songs are the ones to cop it. I mean, they deserve it, don’t get me wrong. But they deserve to be called out for being stupid, for being lazy, for being (beyond) obvious.
The blues and R’n’B and rock’n’roll and country and jazz songs of 60 years ago – and older – had spunk. There was cleverness in the creation. And the most overt sexual references could be made but there was still some semblance of subtlety.
Subtlety in the sense that it didn’t need to be exaggerated and overstated; didn’t need to be choreographed, juggled and gargled.
The Big Mama Thornton version of Hound Dog has her singing of a dog (man) that’s been snoopin’ around her door. She warns that he can wag his tail but she won’t be feeding him no more. Filth, utter filth. But brilliant filth.
Course it could just be a woman singing to a dog. If that’s how you want to hear it.
Eroticism will always be more alluring, more devastating too, than pornography.
(Oh and this should have gone without saying, but I’ll have my eroticism without any actual poison ivy thanks).
Lucille Bogan wins the filthiest song award. Still. Always. But that’s a different kettle of fish.