Is Any Topic Taboo For A Pop Lyric?

Anybody with any affinity with popular music will have songs whose lyrics are very important to them. They may not look much on the printed page, but coupled with the tune and the memories invoked, they can have an immensely powerful impact on a person’s emotions. This is a very personal thing, but for as long as we’ve had songs, they’ve had the capacity to move people. Traditionally, the most direct route to the emotions came via songs of love – lost or found. A good break up song can be a rock to cling to when a relationship goes tits up. When no one else really seems to understand how you feel, Sinatra, Cohen, Joni – whoever: but someone will be there with a song that seems to reflect exactly how you feel.

Some emotions are simply too powerful, and too specific for a mere song to act as a band-aid for the psyche. The death of a loved one is far more final, and far more traumatic than simply getting dumped. But even here, the best songs can be a help by celebrating life rather than wallowing in death. So are there any topics off limits?

Murder is a pretty brutal topic, and yet traditionally, it’s been a popular one with songwriters. But murder ballads, even those written in the first person, tend to be narrative stories rather than make any attempt to get to grips with the psychology of murder, and its effects on both the perpetrator and the family and friends of the victim. True, there are those self-pitying songs that see the murderer awaiting his execution and spending his last hours whining about not seeing his girl any more. Probably the best, and most realistic, death row song is Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat” in which the protagonist keeps up a façade of innocence right until the end, showing defiance and fear in equal measure, but absolutely no remorse. So murder’s OK.

War? Well there are plenty of anti-war songs, and plenty of songs about soldiers going overseas and missing / being missed by loved ones. There are even plenty of gung-ho, patriotic, flag-waving ditties (always penned by people safely hidden away from harm, of course). But songs about the horrors of war? Few and far between. It’s a difficult thing to pull off, without sounding glib. Something best left to the likes of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon. Two notable exceptions are “The Green Fields Of France” and “The Band Played Waltzin’ Matilda”, both written by Eric Bogle, which capture the horrors of the Great War perfectly without being preachy. By taking the personal and specific, both songs are filled with the echo of a lost generation, and are immensely moving.

Another deeply disturbing topic that has nevertheless been successfully portrayed in song is rape. The most celebrated (if that is the right word – probably not) example of this is Tori Amos’s “Me And A Gun”, a really hard song to listen to. It’s a subject matter that can only be dealt with in the first person, and really only by somebody whose experience is real or at least believable. There are other examples where a rape is alluded to in the most tangential of terms, but which nevertheless have the emotional impact of a bomb going off. I’m thinking here of the Shangri-las’ “Past, Present, Future”, and the killer line “But don’t try to touch me. Don’t try to touch me. For that will never happen again” before the protagonist brightens up and asks “shall we dance?

The Towering Inferno’s Kaddish is a monumental concept album that deals with the Holocaust, indicating that even genocide is not off-limits if dealt with in the right way. With its mixture of Jewish folk song, industrial music, and disturbing samples, it’s almost like an abstract movie. It works because it creates a broad canvas, and relies on what the listener knows already to colour in the details. A verse-verse-chorus narrative song about the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau is simply inconceivable.

You would think that terrorist atrocities would come under the same banner, which brings me to the song that made me think of the whole subject in the first place. Bert Jansch is rightly lauded as one of the greatest guitarists of his generation, and he has an outstanding body of work behind him. He’s not been afraid to tackle difficult topics, as his heroin tale “Needle Of Death” proves. It’s a harrowing, sensitively handled song that was pretty revolutionary for its day (1965 or 66). But “Bright Sunny Morning” from 2002’s Edge Of A Dream is just so wrong on every level.

The events of September 11th 2001 aren’t necessarily off-limits for songwriters, but “Bright Sunny Morning” has a tune that sounds like it was written to carry an innocent folk romp about milkmaids and brave knights. Hell, it’s bouncy and bright. And the lyrics are banal and descriptive, like an impassive commentary. Judge for yourself:

On a bright sunny morning
In downtown New York
People are rushing to get to their work
Unaware as the events of the day unfold
Gonna haunt them for the rest of their lives
For high overhead there’s a mighty explosion
A fireball on the ninetieth floor
For like a cruise guided missile flight 11 has flown
Straight into the World Trade Centre tower
Everybody stands there in disbelief

Out from nowhere arrives flight 175
And he looks like he’s gonna travel on his way
Then he banks and turns, does a kamikaze dive
Into the heart of the twin sister tower
Now that look of disbelief has turned to horror and grief
Some are on their knees praying for the dead
With both towers ablaze the world watches on TV
It’s all there for the whole world to see
Took twenty minutes to change history

Like a gambler who throws in a bad hand at cards
The twin towers they give in to their fate
They fall one by one, floor by floor
Sounds like stampeding buffalo
All over Manhattan a dust cloud settles
That blocks out the sky and the sun
From Brooklyn to Peking the world holds its breath
The day the World Trade Centre fell
On the day the World Trade Centre fell

Who could believe what has happened today
In this land of the brave and the free
Who could have torn out the heart of our city
Our proud symbol of sweet liberty
Now the government says it knows who to blame
And it won’t stop till it cuts them down
But that won’t bring back three thousand people who died
On the day the World Trade Centre fell
On the day the World Trade Centre fell

They actually read better than they come across on the record. Well-meaning as it is, “Bright Sunny Morning” is just so wrong on every conceivable level.

So, are there any subjects that are taboo for pop songs? I think so. I think there are some things for which the form is simply not suitable. Music can deal with anything, as can poetry and literature. Somehow, though, the combination of the two in the form of song just doesn’t work addressing atrocities on this scale.

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4 responses to “Is Any Topic Taboo For A Pop Lyric?

  1. It just occurred to me that there’s something very William McGonagall about those lyrics. McGonagall was a Scottish “poet” of the 19th century who is considered to be one of the very worst ever. He belongs in the so-bad-its-good category alongside film maker Edward Wood and singer Florence Foster Jenkins. Here’s his Tay Bridge Disaster:

    Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
    Alas! I am very sorry to say
    That ninety lives have been taken away
    On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
    Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

    ‘Twas about seven o’clock at night,
    And the wind it blew with all its might,
    And the rain came pouring down,
    And the dark clouds seemed to frown,
    And the Demon of the air seem’d to say —
    “I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

    When the train left Edinburgh
    The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
    But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
    Which made their hearts for to quail,
    And many of the passengers with fear did say —
    “I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay.”

    But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
    Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
    And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
    On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
    Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

    So the train sped on with all its might,
    And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
    And the passengers’ hearts felt light,
    Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
    With their friends at home they lov’d most dear,
    And wish them all a happy New Year.

    So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
    Until it was about midway,
    Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
    And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
    The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
    Because ninety lives had been taken away,
    On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
    Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

    As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
    The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
    And the cry rang out all o’er the town,
    Good heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
    And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
    Which fill’d all the people’s hearts with sorrow,
    And made them all for to turn pale,
    Because none of the passengers were sav’d to tell the tale
    How the disaster happen’d on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
    Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

    It must have been an awful sight,
    To witness in the dusky moonlight,
    While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
    Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay.
    Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
    I must now conclude my lay
    By telling the world fearlessly without least dismay,
    That your central girders would not have given way,
    At least many sensible men do say,
    Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
    At least many sensible men confesses,
    For the stronger we our houses do build,
    The less chance we have of being killed.

  2. Nothing seems to be easier than seeing someone whom you can help but not helping.
    I suggest we start giving it a try. Give love to the ones that need it.
    God will appreciate it.

  3. At first, Bert Jansch’s lyrics on 9/11th sure sound rather odd, or rather meaningless, when compared to the “size” of the event. But if you compare this song to your average disaster ballad, whether it be a mining disaster or some train or ship wreck, and if you care to suppose that Jansch was as horrified as anybody else and all he wanted was to describe the event in the way he’s probably most familiar with, i.e., the anglo-saxon traditionnal ballad idiom, then there’s nothing shocking about it.
    It may not be Shakespeare or Dylan, yet this song calls for a few questions: are we ready to listen to a 21st century narrative sung in a century-old idiom? And why should the chap feel like writing and recording such stuff? Or who the hell is going to feel like playing it regularly, as often as one’s favourite Pop/Rock, Jazz or Folk cd? At least Jansch had the guts to try and have a go, whereas 99 percent writers remained speechless, and this song may well go down in History for that matter.
    As regards the “innocent” tone of the music, I think it works perfectly: a bright, normal, sunny morning, and a sky so blue that 1 billion people around the world just couldn’t believe their eyes, though we all knew it was not some more stupid TV rubbish.
    The music of this song is not anymore unuitable, or whatever, than that of The wreck of the old ’97, for instance: anybody who’s heard that one or has ever had the chance to see folk musicians sing it on stage must have been carried out by such fast, joyful tune: “gosh, what fun that was”, they make you feel!
    I am not a New Yorker, not even an American, and I never play this cd anymore, yet I am convinced that if a friend or relative had died there, I would need to listen to it every now and then, just as some go and put flowers on a tombstone, and Bert Jansch should be credited – even respected for that. At least that’s my opinion, and I sure do agree with it.

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