nostalgie de la boue

Do song lyrics need to tell a story? Must they make sense? Perhaps simply being interesting is enough. Or are "interesting" lyrics less desirable than simply familiar-sounding ones?

I want to talk about the lyrics of a song that both interests and annoys me: The Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way". Before I do, I want to look briefly at this verse from Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues":

Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine

I’m on the pavement thinking about the government

The man in the trench coat, badge out, laid off

Says he’s got a bad cough, wants to get it paid off

Look out kid, it’s somethin’ you did

God knows when but you’re doin’ it again

You better duck down the alley way, lookin’ for a new friend

The man in the coon-skin cap by the big pen

Wants eleven dollar bills, you only got ten

For the sake of argument, let's call these lyrics meaningless; I mean, your guess is as good as mine what he's singing about. I nevertheless feel there can be no debate that Dylan's lyrics here are interesting. Especially when delivered in his half-spoken gush, so that his aural wordplay is also conspicuous, the effect is arresting.

In contrast, "I Want It That Way" is boring. It is about nothing and says nothing. It doesn't attempt to say anything. It is simply a collocation of words that sound like love song lyrics. And it is organized around a title and repeated refrain that mean nothing, but which, unlike Dylan's interesting meaninglessness, are boring. Let's look at the lyrics so that I can explain how I feel.

The first verse establishes that the song is written from the point of view of a beau addressing his love: "You are my fire / The one desire". For some reason, the formulation here is not the more conventional "my one desire", but rather, "the one desire". This is the first of many examples in the song where the syntax seems almost broken, as though written in baby-speak—due no doubt to the fact that the songwriters' native language was not English. Naturally, it isn't my intention to nitpick anybody's second-language skills. It simply surprises me that, for a single from a group in whom so much money had been invested, nobody bothered to do a grammar check. It also says a lot about how pop music works that the boys in the band themselves, who presumably would have noticed these grammatical shortcomings and may have found it odd to be made to sing them (over and over, for the rest of their careers), either did not feel empowered to point this out, did point it out but weren't listened to, or simply didn't care.

Another such example follows immediately: "Believe when I say / I want it that way". Why not "believe me" or "believe it"? This would have added an extra syllable to the melody, which is as simplistic as an ad jingle, and perhaps the architects of pop product who were creating this song felt that the auditory complexity of an extra note would alienate too many percentage points of their target market.

The line above is also the first appearance of the song's title, bearing a message that the song urges again and again: that the singer "want(s) it that way". And here begins the mystery. What is "that way"? How are we to understand this importuning, this demand? We shall return to this question later.

The verse continues: "But we are two worlds apart / Can't reach to your heart / When you say / That I want it that way".

Hmm. While the first verse assures the lover that he or she is the speaker's "the one desire", we now learn that something separates them. What is it? It's no spoiler to reveal that the songwriters never tell us. When one thinks of how other songwriters have depicted distance or separation, one may be reminded of, say, John Denver's lines:

All my bags are packed, I'm ready to go

I'm standing here outside your door

I hate to wake you up to say good-bye

In these lyrics, though the reason for the separation isn't clear, the situation is perfectly understandable: we see bags and a door, and can guess the time of day. One difference between Denver's lyric and those of this song is, of course, all those words: while Denver is confident enough in the cognitive abilities of his listeners that he will venture to construct lengthy phrases, the writers of "I Want It That Way" are extraordinarily reluctant to write any single line exceeding four to five syllables.

In the latter half of the verse quoted above, again we get baby-speak with "can't reach to your heart", which Microsoft Word apparently failed to underline when the songwriters were drafting the tune. And then the song title reappears, but this time it seems that the lover is now saying, "I want it that way." Or is she/he saying, "You want it that way"? The problem is, are we to parse this line as a direct or an indirect quote? Is it, "You say that I want it that way", or as "You say (that), 'I want it that way'", the latter having the word "that" inserted inappropriately? The latter also seems possible given the singer's later insistence that he doesn't want his lover to say, "I want it that way."

In other words, one possibility is that the lover is telling the singer, "My interpretation of your desires is that you want things a certain way." Another is that the lover is expressing a preference of her or his own. Either way, this declaration from the lover is preventing the singer from "reaching to" her/his heart. Hmm. Given the apparently simplicity of the words used, why is it so hard for one to figure out what is being said? Umm... any theories, folks?

The chorus kicks in, giving the singer a chance to repeat words over and over, which is what pop songs excel in. Here, the repeated phrase is, "Tell me why?" Why what? What do you want to know, man? Perhaps he wants to know why the lover has said the words, "I want it that way." Well shoot, at this point, we all want to know that.

The following rejoinders, which may be taken as answers to this question, or may instead simply be interpolated observations on the state of affairs in the relationship, are, "Ain't nothin' but a heartache" (I feel duty-bound to remind readers that "heartache" is an uncountable noun and does not require the article "a"), and, "Ain't nothin' but a mistake". Hmm. I think we need to summarize things up to this point.

What we know so far is:

  • The lover is the object of the singer's affections.
  • The singer wants things a certain way.
  • Something separates the two of them, perhaps physically, perhaps emotionally.
  • One contributing factor to this separation is the lover's expression of someone wanting something a certain way.
  • The singer wishes to know "why".
  • Someone's heart is aching.
  • A mistake has been made.

If you took 1,000 pop songs' lyric sheets, cut them into little pieces like William S. Burroughs, mixed them in a bag and pulled out phrases at random, you still probably could not come up with a less coherent message. And yet, when one listens to it, there is no doubt that it "sounds like a pop song". This is what most interests me about this song: the fact that what makes it a pop song is that it appears to be a pop song.

Finally, to round out this first verse-chorus iteration, comes a conclusion: "I never wanna hear you say / I want it that way". The singer has had enough of the lover's going around saying that someone wants something a certain way. That this sentiment is of particular importance to the singer is demonstrated by his devotion of thirteen syllables to expressing it.

What we know at this point about "that way", then, is absolutely nothing.

The second verse: "Am I your fire? / Your one desire? / Yes I know it's too late / But I want it that way". This echoes the first verse, but now the singer wants to know whether his feelings are reciprocated. And yet, it's too late for this. And yet, he wants it that way. Well, contradictory or illogical desires are a part of love, so I suppose there is nothing to quibble with in this verse, which makes it the stand-out verse of this song: there are no grammatical errors, a coherent message can be discerned, and "that way" even seems to have a meaning: he wants to be his lover's fire and desire. I feel compelled to single this verse out for praise.

We return to the chorus, and then comes the middle eight. Every pop song needs a middle eight; omit it, and your teacher will return your paper to you with "See me" in red pen.

Here it is, then: "Now I can see that we're falling apart / From the way that it used to be, yeah". First, sorry, but I cannot restrain myself: "falling apart from the way that it used to be" is gobbledygook. One can fall from a place, say, the top of a ladder, and cry out, "I am falling from the top of this ladder!" But one cannot "fall apart from" something. And even granting that this can somehow mean something, I must at least insist on, "from the way that we used to be." We, dammit.

Anyway, this cascade of syllables represents a rare burst of eloquence from our songwriters, doubtless permitted only because it is necessary to give the middle eight a different cadence from the verses and chorus. But does it add anything to the narrative? What do we learn about these people? Their relationship is going to pieces, but we've known about that ever since the singer told us that he and his lover are two worlds apart, etc. So this is a repetition of a previous idea which was itself so vague as to be functionally meaningless.

This is followed by, "No matter the distance / I want you to know / That deep down inside of me..." Again, distance. Is it emotional or physical? Both? Neither? Anyway, the singer wants the lover to know something: "You are my fire". Again, this is a coherent thought, which it behooves us to acknowledge: the phrases "I want you to know that deep down inside of me" and "you are my fire" can indeed logically follow one from the other. Bravo! But if what you wanted was for your lover to know this, you've covered it already in the very first lines of the song.

Now, the song, having reached the final third or so of its running time, is prohibited by pop entertainment convention from introducing any new ideas or themes, so we can ignore the rest of the lyrics, which simply repeat the same words as before, over, and over, and over.

In a way, this is the perfect example of a pop song as a consumer product. It is unutterably empty. This emptiness is seen as a desirable quality in pop music because the listeners can "make it their own". One thinks of a milk company selling empty cardboard cartons and telling consumers, "Make this your own. Fill it with milk. Then it will be your milk."

Now, I don't need to tell you that I've never written any million-seller songs, and when I come to the end of my little rant, the music industry operators who wrote this turd will still have platinum records on their walls and plenty of money in their bank accounts, and I shall not. So why should I expect them to change their approach because of whining from the likes of me? From their perspective, nothing's broken. But I still wonder: Do song lyrics need to tell a story? Must they make sense? And doesn't anybody expect more from popular entertainment than this sort of mediocrity? Or do we all really want it "this way"?