29 January 2010

Loggins and Messina: Your Mama Don’t Dance

You know, when i started doing this blog i figured i’d be doing mainly 80s songs, ’cause i grew up in the 80s (so that’s the music i really know), and there are just so many bad 80s songs i thought i could just stay with those and never run out.

As it turns out, though, the 70s have become my go-to decade.

This week’s song is no exception: The 1973 top-ten hit (though it was a 1972 release) “Your Mama Don’t Dance” by Loggins and Messina.

Frightening fact: Kenny Loggins’s solo career has apparently dried up to the point that Loggins and Messina has been reformed. Yes, that’s right, you too can have the opportunity to pay large amounts of money to hear the original performers sing “House at Pooh Corner”. (I guess it’s not quite as frightening as the fact that Cheech and Chong are touring again, but still.)

Anyway, today’s song is the story of you, a young man—a teenager—trying to shake off all the restrictions society is trying to place on you. And why are you faced with all these restrictions? Why, because

Your mama don’t dance and your daddy don’t rock and roll

Oh. Of course. Yeah, um, that makes perfect sense.

You’re having trouble because your mother doesn’t dance? Really? You know, i’ve been to enough family reunions, weddings, and so on to know that if there’s one thing most teenagers would agree on, it’s that they’d like for their mother to never, ever dance, at least not where anyone can see her. So how exactly is this a problem?

And the fact that your father doesn’t rock and roll? What does that even mean? Your father doesn’t play in a band? Once again, i don’t know that most teenagers really want their father to be in a band—that would be the ultimate embarrassment, i’m thinking. (Well, unless we’re talking Dweezil, Ahmet, Diva, and Moon Unit Zappa, but let’s face it, they live in an entirely different world from you and me.)

Of course, it’s entirely possible that by “rock and roll” Misters Messina and Loggins are reaching back a bit to an earlier meaning—they’re saying that your father doesn’t have sex. Well, leaving aside the fact that your father, if he is in fact your father, did have sex at least once, why would this be a problem for you personally?

I’m just not getting the basic reason for the whole complaint, and that doesn’t bode well for the rest of the song.

Your mama don’t dance and your daddy don’t rock and roll

Just in case you forgot between the first and second lines of the song.

When evenin’ rolls around and it's time to go to town
Where do you go to rock and roll?

Well, there are probably a few dance clubs, maybe a rave or two going on in the warehouse district, parties at the houses of friends whose parents are a bit more permissive than yours…Really, my guess is that this isn’t actually a problem for you. I mean, even the kids in (random bonus Kenny Loggins music reference alert!) the movie Footloose found a place to dance once they put their minds to it—you’re giving up that easily?

The old folks say that ya gotta end your date by ten
If you’re out on a date and you bring it home late, it’s a sin

First of all, i’m a sociolinguist and dialectologist by profession, so i must mention that the rhyme of ten with sin is so wonderfully and perfectly Southern American English that i get a little geek thrill whenever i hear this couplet.

Second of all, was a ten o’clock curfew normal in the early 70s? I wasn’t yet of an age to really care about curfews, so i don’t know. Either way, i suppose that this is supposed to be evidence that your life is horrible and your parents are evil and so on. Of course, as we find out later, a ten o’clock curfew doesn’t appear to be stopping you from sowing your wild oats in all the expected places (excepting when you forget to take the beats of certain members of the police force into account, that is), so i’m not entirely sure why you should care so deeply about this.

Third of all, it? I could kind of understand someone having an issue if you’re bringing her home late, or bringing him home late, depending on your own personal preferences. But bringing it home late? I’m thinking the curfew may be the least of your issues.

There just ain’t no excuse and you know you’re gonna lose you never win

This was a semi-finalist in the balloting for the longest single-line run-on sentence ever found in a hit song.

I’ll say it again

This line frustrates me on two counts:

First, this is being sung by Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina. The song is a duet, sung in near-unison. There is no “I” here, it’s a “we”.

Second, they then proceed to not say it again. This isn’t a bad thing—the trainwreck that is the previous line should not be repeated, ever—but it does feel like a breach of promise.

But it does leave us wondering why you’re doomed to so much losing. You want to know why? Sure you do—and so here it is:

And it’s all because
Your mama don’t dance and your daddy don’t rock and roll
Your mama don’t dance and your daddy don’t rock and roll
When evenin’ rolls around and it's time to go to town
Where do you go to rock and roll?

Really, that’s a pretty heavy load to place on particular personal habits of your parents, particularly habits that are so, well, unimportant.

Also, the end of the chorus makes no sense here. Are Misters Messina and Loggins saying, as i parse these lines, that the reason you’re a loser is because when evening rolls around and it’s time to go to town where do you go to rock and roll? ’Cause that’s just a weird thing to claim—it’s like saying “I like ice cream because where is my hamster?”

But things are starting to look up for you, oh hormonal one, because

You’ve pulled into a drive-in and found a place to park
You hop into the back seat where ya know it’s nice and dark
You're just about to move in, you’re thinking it's a breeze

You know what’s missing here? Any reference to the it you’re dating. Either way, though, i suppose the back seat would be dark, so whatever floats your particular boat. Just don’t tell me too many details, okay?

But whatever’s actually going on here, disaster suddenly strikes!

There’s a light in your eye and then a guy says
Out of the car long hair!
Oowee, you’re coming with me, the local police

Yep, the police have come to take you in for…Well, whatever they take kids in for when they find them not yet having sex in a car. A semi-public display of almost-affection?

But yeah, who would have thought—a business establishment actually has someone providing security to enforce various rules of behavior? Shocking, i know. I wonder why this is the case?

Well, as it turns out, Misters Messina and Loggins are here to inform us.

And it’s all because

Take note of that, by the way—we’re about to be told the entire reason that you just got busted for PDA:

Your mama don’t dance and your daddy don’t rock and roll
Your mama don’t dance and your daddy don’t rock and roll

Yep, if only your mother actually danced, or if in fact your father rocked and rolled (maybe even if he merely rocked or rolled), you’d have a clean record and you wouldn’t have to register as a sex offender for the rest of your life. Too bad for you.

At least you can blame it all on your parents rather than your own poor judgment, ’cause that would, you know, suck.

When evenin’ rolls around and it's time to go to town
Where do you go to rock and roll?
Where do you go to rock and roll?
Where do you go to rock and roll?

Well, now that you’re hanging out down at the county jail, i suppose you’re rocking and rolling in the prison yard. Don’t worry, i’ll send you a soap on a rope for your birthday.

22 January 2010

Rupert Holmes: Escape (The Piña Colada Song)

So today we have Rupert Holmes’s “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”, the song that officially provided the musical bridge between the 70s and the 80s by virtue of being the last #1 song of 1979 and the second #1 song of 1980. This means that both decades have something to be ashamed of, but in terms of lyrical content this song belongs firmly in the 70s—not saying that the 80s would have been any better, just that songs describing the joys of the infidelity scene got a bit more subtle as disco gave way to new wave on mainstream radio.

I have to say that i can’t slam every aspect of this song—i actually like the music behind this song. It has an interesting beat, and it could function as decent non-Muzak background music in a restaurant or something. The lyrics laid on top of that music, though…Well, let’s just say they’re questionable.

Quick thought before i get to the lyrics: I don’t know any couple who has ever thought of this as “their song”. It’s possible, i suppose (i knew a couple who very seriously considered Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” as their song, so anything could happen), but if you’re a couple like that, well, nothing personal, but i don’t want to ever meet you.

And now we might as well let Mr. Holmes tell us about his life:

I was tired of my lady, we’d been together too long,
Like a worn-out recording of a favorite song.

Wow. Just wow. I mean, can we be a little more cold here?

I’m just trying to figure out how Mr. Holmes got into this relationship in the first place. Imagine: Rupert Holmes sitting in a singles bar, shirt halfway unbuttoned to show the glories of his chest hair wig, attention drawn to it by the huge gold-plated zodiac sign hanging from his neck. He sees an attractive woman at the other end of the bar, and sends her a drink (my guess, given stuff we learn later in the song: a sex on the beach). She accepts, and so he walks across the bar like he was walking across a yacht, and delivers his one best, can’t-fail pickup line: “Hey, lady. You lookin’ for someone who’ll stay with you until he gets tired of you, as if you were an overplayed hit song?”

The scary thing, really, is that she said yes.

Oh—and he calls her “my lady”. Can we just all agree that that’s an annoying way to refer to the female person you’re coupled with? You would have thought that Styx would have put the knife in this one back in 1972, but nope, here it is in 1979. Another reason i’m glad i grew up in the 80s, not the 70s.

On a perhaps more serious note, it’s worth noting that the word “lady” is ambiguous here—certainly she and Mr. Holmes are a couple, but it’s unclear what sort of relationship this is. They may just be long-term lovers, they may be living together, they may be married. I suspect that they’re married, if only because it makes the rest of the song more horrific. and therefore I’m going to assume for the rest of this that the unnamed “lady” is Mrs. Holmes to the singer’s Mr. Holmes. If you’d rather think otherwise, feel free—it doesn’t lower the horror level by more than a half-notch to do so.

So while she lay there sleeping, I read the paper in bed.
And in the personal columns, there was this letter I read:

You know how, every once in a while, you’re listening to a friend tell a story, everything’s going along nicely, and then they throw in a weird little detail that makes you say “Wait—hold on a minute.”

We’ve reached such a point here.

You’re in bed with your sleeping wife, and you’re reading the personals?

I mean, okay, so i recognize that infidelity happens—not as much as a lot of people think, but not infrequently. So the fact that you’re looking for someone else isn’t as shocking as it might be, but while you’re in bed with your wife? Dude, that’s chutzpah—and i’d like to remind everybody out there the the word chutzpah isn’t as positive a quality as a lot of people think it is.

Also, exactly what section of the personals are you looking in? Given the content of the letter it’s not men seeking men, so we might expect to it to be women seeking men. I’m thinking, though, that it’s most likely the women seeking lying, cheating scumweasels section.

Anyway, let’s see what this advertisement says. I’m going to quote it in full, just so that the annoying superficiality of it won’t get lost, and then break it down piece by piece for you. So here’s the ad:

“If you like piña coladas, and getting caught in the rain,
If you’re not into yoga, if you have half a brain,
If you like making love at midnight, in the dunes of the cape,
Then I’m the love that you’ve looked for, write to me, and escape.”

And here’s the breakdown:

“If you like piña coladas,

I will admit right here that i’m not the best choice to criticize someone’s drinking habits, not least because i choose not to drink alcohol for a number of reasons. But i do know enough to wonder why this anonymous advertiser is looking for a guy who likes to drink what can only be described as a girl drink.

and getting caught in the rain,

You don’t own an umbrella, but you pretend that’s a virtue? Cool, let’s sleep together!

If you’re not into yoga,

Given when this song was released (the late 70s), i’m willing to not criticize this one—not being into yoga would have clearly been a virtue. Unfortunately, it’s only an even-a-blind-squirrel-finds-a-nut-once-in-a-while moment.

Or maybe, it’s an even-a-clueless-personal-ad-writer-finds-a-nut-once-in-a-while moment.

if you have half a brain,

If you’re looking for someone with half a brain, why are you advertising in the personals section instead of going out and meeting people you might really have something in common with?

Oh, wait—maybe you’re actually hoping for someone with only half a brain, as opposed to having a completely functional one. In that case, carry on.

If you like making love at midnight in the dunes of the cape,

At least we know now it’s actually all about the time and location of sex. Glad to see what caught your attention, Rupert.

Of course, any time i hear this line about sex in the dunes, all i can think about is one word: Sand!

Sorry, not my thing.

Then I’m the love that you’ve looked for, write to me, and escape.”

For “love”, read “expensive prostitute”.

I didn't think about my lady, I know that sounds kind of mean.

No, Rupert, it sounds like you’re unable to sustain a relationship. It doesn’t necessarily follow that you’re mean—in fact, it might even be merciful to duck out now rather than lead her on. However, when your stated reason for this is

But me and my old lady had fallen into the same old dull routine.

then it’s clear not that you’re not being merciful, you’re just being a jerk.

So I wrote to the paper, took out a personal ad.
And though I'm nobody’s poet, I thought it wasn't half-bad.

Strike that—you’re just being an egotistical jerk.

“Yes, I like piña coladas, and getting caught in the rain,
I’m not much into health food, I am into champagne.
I’ve got to meet you by tomorrow noon, and cut through all this red tape,
At a bar called O’Malley’s, where we’ll plan our escape.”

I would have done this point by point like the other one, but i wanted to…Well, to be honest, i didn’t because there are too many possibilities.

First of all, Mr. Holmes, maybe this isn’t a half-bad poem, but that’s because it’s not yours—it’s largely cribbed from the poem you’re replying to. I teach for a living, and you know what we call that? Plagiarism. It’s grounds for failing a course, maybe even getting kicked out of school if the offense is egregious enough. Now here, of course, the stakes aren’t that high—it’s just about cheating on your wife and moving on to some other relationship you’ll be in for just long enough to get bored with your new “love”.


Oh—and a couple of specific items from this “not half-bad” poem. First of all, with I am into champagne as a response to the parallel line if you have half a brain, it appears that Mr. Holmes is self-aware enough to recognize that he might not fit that part of the request. I guess we ought to give him credit for that much.

Also, consider the desperation of I’ve got to meet you by tomorrow noon. I mean, wow. Beyond the fact that this response probably wouldn’t actually get to her that quickly (remember, kids, this is before widespread use of the internet, and sometimes it took a whole three to four days for a letter to get delivered), there’s nothing about exchanging thoughts about starting up a relationship and the issues involved. Nope, it’s more along the lines of “I match about half of the qualifications you listed, so you will therefore meet me where i say we should so that we can go somewhere and have sex together.”

Yep, this is looking healthier and healthier.

And where does Mr. Holmes want to meet this mysterious hooker woman? Why, at a bar called O’Malley’s, of course. Sensible, i think, since the New York City metropolitan area (where Rupert Holmes did much of his growing up, according to his Wikipedia page) can’t have more than one bar named O’Malley’s, right?

So I waited with high hopes, then she walked in the place.

I’m glad to see that this mystery woman picked the right one. Even if you want to see someone fail, it’s never fun to see someone carrying a red rose with nobody there, obviously getting stood up by someone they don’t know. That’s really just a downer for those of us with hopes of developing or continuing healthy relationships.

I knew her smile in an instant, I knew the curve of her face.

Small victory for him, i suppose, that he didn’t instantly recognize the curve of her Adam’s apple.

It was my own lovely lady, and she said, “Aw, it’s you.”

Yep, folks, here it is, the Clever Ironic Twist: Mr. Holmes went out philandering, but Mrs. Holmes was out doing the same thing—and they ended up with each other.

Then we laughed for a moment,

This is as opposed to recognizing that both of them had had the right instincts earlier, and it was time to head for the exits and hire divorce lawyers.

Of course, this was the 70s, when occurrences like this were what counted as romance-with-a-capital-R. And why was it so romantic? Well, because our star-crossed lovers had finally realized that they had so much in common that they simply had to be meant for each other.


But you know what? After thinking it through, i think i’ve come to that same conclusion, myself—and they’re welcome to have each other, too, as long as they promise not to breed. Is it a deal?

and I said, “I never knew…
That you liked piña coladas,

Let’s think for a moment about what conversations between Mr. and Mrs. Holmes must be like. I mean, imagine when they first met at the seedy singles bar you just know they met at, and Rupert was trying to impress his lovely lady by buying her drinks…

“Hey, lady. You want some wine?” “No, i don’t really like wine.” “Dang!”

“How about a martini?” “No, i don’t really like martinis.” “Dang!”

“How about a rum and Coke?” “No, i don’t really like rum and Coke.” “Dang!”

“How about a beer?” “No, i don’t really like beer.” “Dang!”

“How about a gin and tonic?” “No, i don’t really like gin and tonic.” “Dang!”

“How about a cosmopolitan?” “No, i don’t really like cosmopolitans.” “Dang!”

“How about a fuzzy navel?” “No, i don’t really like fuzzy navels.” “Dang!”

No wonder things were going badly—it never occurred to him to say “So i’ve noticed you drink like a fish. What kind of drinks do you like, exactly?”

I mean, i’m no marriage counselor, but it seems to me that such a very low level of communication is likely to result in relationship issues down the road.

and getting caught in the rain.

I can kind of understand not knowing she liked this if they lived in, say, Yuma, Arizona. Otherwise there’s really no excuse.

And the feel of the ocean, and the taste of champagne.

Apparently he never asked her if she liked champagne, either. Maybe they first hooked up on the night of New Year’s Day and their meetup at O’Malley’s was at noon on New Year’s Eve, so they never toasted the new year in together?

Or maybe this is just a really ill-thought-out lyric? Yeah, that.

If you like making love at midnight,

We turn once again to the Holmes household. They have the day off, and we join them in the morning…

“Hey, lady, it’s nine in the morning. Wanna make love?” “No.” “Dang!”

“Now it’s noon. Wanna make love?” “No.” “Dang!”

“Now it’s three in the afternoon. Wanna make love?” “No.” “Dang!”

“Now it’s six in the evening. Wanna make love?” “No.” “Dang!”

“Now it’s nine at night. Wanna make love?” “No.” “Dang!”

“Well, it’s 11:50 at night and that was the Tonight Show monologue. Guess we’ll go to sleep now.” “Okay.”

Seriously, did these people ever have a real conversation?

in the dunes of the cape.
You’re the lady that I've looked for, come with me, and escape.”

And this time i promise i’ll read the user’s manual first, or whatever a guy does to know what kind of drinks you like. And maybe i’ll be a little more discreet when i decide to look for a little something on the side.

And so then we get the chorus on a repeat and fade, leaving us with the horrible, horrible realization that these two ended up together happily ever after.

Please excuse me while i go dry heave.

The end.

08 January 2010

America: A Horse With No Name

Today i’m going back to the 70s, if only because i need an easy target—and my target this time is the song “A Horse With No Name”, released by the band America in 1972. This was America’s first single; it was also their most successful one. You may feel free to draw whatever conclusions about the band you like from those bits of data.

According to the Wikipedia page for this song (there’s a Wikipedia page for everything!), “at first the group thought it too corny and took some convincing to actually play it”. I wonder why?

Let’s find out.

On the first part of the journey

Apparently the narrator of the song is taking a journey somewhere. We don’t know where or why, but i’m willing to let that slide—starting a story in the middle of the plotline is such a well-accepted literary convention that it even has a Latin name (in medias res, for those of you keeping score at home). Hey! Maybe that means we’ll be treated to some high-end literature-type stuff in this song!

Or maybe not.

I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds
and rocks and things.
There was sand and hills and rings.

Okay, so there’s a lot of life surrounding you. This makes sense, since even in the arctic tundra there’s a pretty decent amount of biomass.

So, Misters America, what sort of life are you surrounded by?

Well, let’s see…there are a bunch of plants and birds.

Okay. Not very specific, but good to know. What else?

Um, there’s rocks.

Rocks? Excuse me, did i hear you correctly? I thought we were talking about the life you were surrounded by, yes?

Um, right. Okay, so maybe not rocks. But there was a whole bunch of life around—you know, lots of things.

Things? Wow. You know, maybe we should stop talking about life—just tell me about the landscape—that would fit in with the whole “rocks” idea, i guess.

Okay, i can do that! There was sand…um, and hills…and, uh, rings.

Rings? What in the world…? You know, let’s just give up on the whole description thing—i think that’s pretty much done. Maybe we should move on to what you did, okay?

(By the way, in all seriousness, the rhyming of rings with things here really bugs me. First of all, if you have to resort to using things as the basis for a rhyme, you’re just not trying hard enough. If you have to resort to rings as a description of a landscape to manage a rhyme with things—well, the reason you’re not trying hard enough is that you’re a hack lyricist.)

The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz

This would be as opposed to a fly with an oink?

and a sky with no clouds.
The heat was hot
and the ground was dry

The heat was hot?

This is even more amazing than the fly with a buzz.

This isn’t like saying “the water was wet”, which i can almost see as an acceptable literary device to drive the point home—this is like saying “the wetness was wet”. This isn’t purposeful redundancy, this is grasping desperately for rhymes.

Oh—and incidentally, i can grok meeting a fly with a buzz, but meeting a sky with no clouds? Randy Newman once described this song as being “about a kid who thinks he’s taken acid”.


but the air was full of sound.

Presumably from the flies with their buzzes, and the birds that presumably have their tweets.

Oh, and the things. With their, um…sounds.

I’ve been through the desert
on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain

Me, i actually like the rain. Deserts make my skin go all itchy and flaky. To each their own, though, i suppose.

In the desert,
you can remember your name

Now, even though i don’t like deserts, i have been in a handful of them—and in none of them was i subject to any sort of realization of my own name greater than i’ve had anywhere else.

That is, this is a completely pointless observation for the song to make.

But this means the horse has no name, but the narrator does—it doesn’t seem quite fair to the horse, does it?

But at least we’re given a reason you can remember your name in the desert. Ready for it? Here it is:

’cause there ain’t no one
for to give you no pain.

Um, okay. Right.

The only way i can make sense of this is that it’s some sort of statement on the horror of negative experiences in life, a claim that the only reason we’re able to have any sort of memory, the only reason we’re in fact able to claim any sort of individuality in our own existence, is because we can occasionally escape the pain that is ordinary human experience.

Well, either that or the authors of this lyrics were desperate for a rhyme for “name” and this was the best they could come up with, so they tried to make it sound deep or something.

I figure the latter is more likely.

Oh—and the grammar of “there ain’t no one for to give you no pain”? Obviously, this song was written by someone from Appalachia or the Deep South, areas where such grammatical constructions are part of the native argot, and as such when they’re sung they reflect some of the gritty realities of poverty and social tension found in those regions.

So…True fact: This song was actually by Dewey Bunnell (one of the members of the band). Another true fact: Dewey Bunnell was born in England to an American father and a British mother. Yet another true fact: Mr. Bunnell even went to high school in England, not in some part of the Southern or Appalachian regions of the United States.

If you think all of these facts through, then you’ll likely come to the same conclusion about that line as i have, which is, in a word: Poser.

(And remember kids, “poser” is only one letter removed from “loser”.)

La la la lalala la lala la la la.
la la la lalala la lala la la la.

I’ll readily admit that the harmonies are pretty sweet in this section of the song—but when the most coherent part of your song’s lyrics involve twenty-four repetitions of the syllable “la”, well, you just might be in a bit of trouble, you know?

After two days in the desert sun
my skin began to turn red.

Once again, i’ve been in the desert, and on a cloudless day this would likely actually take about an hour, maybe even as little as five minutes at midday.

Just another clue that Misters America appear to be singing about stuff they have no idea about.

After three days in the desert fun
I was looking at a river bed.

So you’ve got a killer sunburn, and you’re thinking the desert is fun?!

Dude, there are easier ways to satisfy your masochistic urges, okay?

And the story it told of a river that flowed
made me sad to think it was dead.

Actually, if you’re looking at a dry river bed in the middle of the desert, you’re most likely looking at an arroyo (a.k.a. a wadi). Arroyos are nowhere close to dead—they’re an important part of desert ecosystems. But then again, you’re unable to describe your surroundings clearly, so maybe we should cut you a little break here.

We then hear the chorus again, which is followed by an actual plot development:

After nine days, I let the horse run free
’cause the desert had turned to sea.

Right—’cause, you know, horses are never able to function next to the water. No use at all. Ever. Nope, they can’t do a single thing near water.

There were plants and birds
and rocks and things.
There was sand and hills and rings.

Yeah, i guess it’s an attempt to say that the desert and the sea aren’t as different as we think they are, but come on—what’s up with rings in the sea?

The ocean is a desert
with its life underground
and a perfect disguise above.

No, it’s not. First of all, the ocean is wet, the desert is dry. Second, the ocean has fish, and fish are vanishingly rare in the desert. Third, this lyric is just a silly attempt to seem deep by spouting nonsense.

Under the cities
lies a heart made of ground
but the humans will give no love.

And this is the big payoff—an environmentalist message tacked onto the end of the song.

But you know what? I don’t care. This is a dumb song, and so now any sort of good Misters America had hoped to do with this lyric gets to be stupid by association. Nice job, dudes.

Finally, on a different subject: Lyrics, Weakly will be taking next week off, since i’ll be three-quarters of the way across the continent at a conference on the teaching of linguistics. To keep your attention, though, when the blog returns on 22 January i’ll be taking us through what I consider the most horrific love song anyone ever sang to his wife. Ever.

So you have something to look forward to.

01 January 2010

Starship: We Built This City

Rock and roll has a long tradition of self-referential songs. (The pinnacle, of course, was the song “Bad Company”, from the Bad Company album, by the band…erm, Bad Company.) Rock isn’t alone in this, of course—hip-hop does it even more, and blues has been steeped in the practice since before the era of recorded music.

So it comes as no surprise that twenty years after Jefferson Airplane was formed, Grace Slick and company, now working under the name Starship, decided that they were established enough to talk about how great they were. The best part of all this, perhaps, is that they did this in the mid–80s, which means they made a really, really stupid video for the song—and we should all be glad that they did, because if they hadn’t we wouldn’t have the opportunity to mock it.

True story: Back when i was in my late teens i went through a classic-rock period, which included, of course, getting heavily into classic Jefferson Airplane. During this time i insulted a friend terribly by telling her she looked like Grace Slick. Unfortunately, it took me quite literally years to figure out what i’d said wrong. Now, though, i understand—while my familiarity with Grace Slick was largely mid– to late–60s Grace Slick, her point of reference was mid– to late–80s Grace Slick. There is an important difference. (Oddly, mid– to late–00s Grace Slick has recovered some of her former attractiveness. Forget frying pans—maybe the visual history of Grace Slick is all that’s necessary to combat drug abuse.)

Further news: Blender magazine rated this song as the worst hit song ever. Probably overly harsh, but i can sympathize.

Anyway, with all that as background, let’s get to the lyrics.

We built this city
We built this city on rock and roll
We built this city on rock and roll

I really have to wonder what a city built on rock and roll would look like. In my observation, cities are generally built on foundations made of things like large rocks and reinforced cement pilings, with the occasional high-tech substrate thrown in (particularly in seismically active regions). All of these things share an important feature: They are solid materials.

Rock and roll, on the other hand, being sound waves, is not a solid material. I would expect, then, that a city built on rock and roll would be subject to sudden and calamitous collapse. Apparently not, though, since the good people of Starship built an entire city on the stuff, and it’s solid enough to sing about. All hail the genius of the firm of Baldwin, Slick, Thomas, Chaquico, and Sears, Architectural Partners! Take that, Frank Gehry!

Say you don’t know me, or recognize my face
Say you don’t care who goes to that kind of place

Okay: I don’t know you, or recognize your face. Further, i don’t care who goes to that kind of place.

More seriously, these lines have nothing at all to do with the rest of the song. In fact, exactly what kind of place is “that” kind of place remains completely unanswered, which bothers me more than it probably should.

Knee deep in the hoopla, sinking in your fight
Too many runaways eating up the night

This song has so many idiocies in so little space, it’s kind of an embarrassment of riches for a blog like this one.

I mean, i can kind of understand knee deep in the hoopla—Starship was really, really good at self-promoting, they sold a bunch of albums, they sold out large arenas regularly, they were arguably the first big-name band to use the internet in any real way. So fine, that makes for an opaque but catchy self-reference, and i’m willing to give them a point for that. But then to follow it with sinking in your fight?!? That’s a pure non sequitur, and not in a good way. Sorry, you lose that point, and i’m going to have to take another one away for fear you’ll break it.

And the thing about runaways? I don’t have the strength to even start.

Marconi plays the mamba

This one line may be in the top five most mocked lyrics from the 80s—and for good reason.

I mean, so they bring up Guglielmo Marconi, widely thought to be the inventor of radio. (Not true, but he’s the one who figured out how to make it practical.) Fine—they’re singing about rock and roll (and building cities), so they reference the way most of us still listened to rock music in the dark age of 1985.

But the mamba?!? The mamba is a venomous snake, which means that if Marconi were alive enough to play the mamba, he’d be dead by the time he was done playing it. (I just got a brainflare of Zombie Marconi playing a guitar with a mamba as one of its strings, like in that episode of The Jackson 5ive where they go to London—see the bit starting at 3:24 in the linked video—and they have to get through…Sorry. I’ll move on to other things now.)

Anyway—maybe they originally had something more musical, like Marconi plays a samba, but then they realized Starship doesn’t play anything remotely like samba, so they changed it. Can’t use Marconi plays the conga, doesn’t rhyme, maybe bongos? No, still not. How about mambo? It’s a dance, and it more or less rhymes—yeah, i know, this isn’t a mambo, but it’s not like the kids pay attention to it. What? You mean you’re uncomfortable advertising competing styles of music, since this is an ode to rock and roll? Fine—how about mamba? It doesn’t rhyme, but it’s not some other style of music—so let’s go with that.

(By the way—one of my sisters plays the marimba. Beautiful-looking and beautiful-sounding instrument. Doesn’t fit thematically or metrically there, but at least it would have made more sense.)

Listen to the radio

Sadly, drawing Marconi’s name through the slime was done entirely to set up this line.

Don’t you remember?
We built this city
We built this city on rock and roll!
We built this city, we built this city on rock and roll
Built this city, we built this city on rock and roll

Yes, i remember perfectly well—you told me just a few lines ago.

Not that i believe you, but i certainly do remember.

Someone always playing corporation games
Who cares they’re always changing corporation names
We just want to dance here, someone stole the stage
They call us irresponsible, write us off the page

This is where Starship gets a little bit defensive and, perhaps not coincidentally, a little hypocritical.

First of all, there’s a bit of a whine here about how it’s not a big deal when names change. This from a band that had just changed its name (to Starship from Jefferson Starship) after some years before changing its name again (it was one of the bands to emerge directly from the ashes of Jefferson Airplane). So see that haters? Corporations do it all the time, so it’s no big deal!

But it’s not like we’re corporate or anything, even though we keep changing names just like a corporation! No, it’s the corporate types who try to keep us down, writing us off the page, calling us irresponsible. We just want to dance here, wherever here is! We’re cool, we’re with it. We’re, like, totally tubular and gnarly and those other words these crazy 80s kids use.

Bonus movie gambit: The 1978 film FM does a similar thing—it’s set up as a radio station standing up to The Man (big corporate ownership) and playing whatever it wants—but what it wants to play, apparently, is completely corporate mainstream rock of the late 70s. (And the movie completely ignores the existence of punk, which just makes it even sadder.)

Really, it doesn’t work—Starship, you weren’t fighting The Man in 1985, you were The Man. You had been assimilated at least a decade earlier. Just deal with it honorably, okay?

(Then we have some repetition of the stuff about Marconi and remembering, which i’ll skip.)

It’s just another Sunday in a tired old street
Police have got the choke hold
Ohhhhh and we just lost the beat

So are they saying that police violence is so commonplace in this tired old street that it’s “just” another day when it happens? Or are they saying that the peace of a Sunday has been shattered by the ultimate symbols of The Man? Or are they just spewing lines with no connection to anything, knowing that payola works and they’ll have a hit anyway?

I know my vote.

And the we just lost the beat bit would have been cool if they really had played some game with the rhythm of the song, maybe shifting the vocals just ahead of or behind the beat. Do they do this? Of course not! And why? Because that would be different, and different means you don’t get incessant airplay on the 50,000–watt stations.

Who counts the money underneath the bar
Who rides the wrecking ball into our guitars

I would actually assume that the answers to these two questions are different. Either way, i’m willing to help those guitars get wrecked.

Also, if you listen to the song, the stress pattern on into our guitars is all wrong—for years i thought it was actually into parked guitars because even though the stress pattern is still wrong for that phrase, it’s not as bad.

Don’t tell us you need us, ’cause we’re the ship of fools

Don’t tell you i need you? Gladly.

And can i just say how happy i am that you called yourselves a ship of fools, so i don’t have to?

Looking for America, crawling through your schools

This is creepy. Nothin’ but creepy. I get an image of a drug-addled late–70s to mid–80s Grace Slick doing a belly-crawl along the linoleum floors of my old high school…Great, now i need some brain bleach.

Don't you remember

And then we go into a bizarre bit where there’s what sounds like a radio announcer talking about San Francisco (without naming it). Maybe it’s Marconi.

I listened primarily to Washington DC radio stations as a teenager, and they dubbed over that section so that it referred to DC. I was quite seriously surprised when I found out later that’s not the way it sounded on the album. I assume that other markets did the same thing.

Looking back on it, that’s actually kind of pathetic.

Anyway, then we get more about Marconi and the mamba, and (by my count) seventeen repetitions of some variant of the sentence “We built this city” Yes, that’s right—that phrase is now burrowed so deeply into your mind that it’ll take a listen to Benny Mardones’s “Into the Night” to get it out of there. Have fun!