Earlier I posted about how my daughter’s music tastes have forced me to break my standing radio embargo. Part of the torture is that she prefers top 40’s stations; the second part of this is that if we don’t listen to these stations there is a significant chance that she won’t eat. So, my choice is to let my daughter go malnourished or listen to soul-killing, ear-mauling, corporate-sponsored trash.
(Ok, that last bit might have been a little harsh. But still.)
Over the last year one of the songs that has tortured me (in addition to “Move Like Jagger”) starts with the following lyrics:
Summer after high school when we first met
We made out in your Mustang to Radiohead
And on my 18th Birthday
We got matching tattoos
From the first time I heard these words I found myself both enraged and incredulous. Either the guy in the song is a total douchebag (listening to Radiohead in a mustang? Who but total dicks drives a Mustang in high school? Of those who aren’t dicks, who by some magic chance possess a Mustang accidentally or without a full understanding of the messages it communicates or, despite terrible car choice, is still a good and tasteful human being, how many of them will also listen to Radiohead?) or he doesn’t exist and the song is pure bull shit.
Here’s my problem: the song lacks verisimilitude. I don’t believe for a second that this couple is making out in a mustang while listening to Radiohead and, if they are or did, I cannot believe that this guy (the one I dissect above) is worth pining over. If this is the guy who got away, what are the losers like?
I hate to be another asshole piling on Katy Perry—we all know that she has some talent and certain assets that contribute to her success and that personal choices and media coverage probably combine to make her life miserable (when she’s not enjoying her fabulous wealth and fame); but we can possibly agree that if she writes her songs, which I doubt, she is a mediocre lyricist. If not, this is an example of a song written by committee or a song trying too hard.
See, when a song uses images and names from popular culture, the aim is to create common ground with the audience. Such details can forge a bond by establishing a shared frame of reference; such details can also function as cultural shorthand to mark out the class or character of the speaker, invoke symbols of prestige, or offer some type of aspirational consumerism.
This song, I suspect, is a victim of the worst shoddy writing—the author of the lyric has thrown out a couple of universally recognized items to establish an atmosphere, to characterize through item affiliation, without a real respect for the range of symbols attached to such items. Perry sings about Radiohead and Mustangs to establish a sense of cool.
And this writing by cultural shorthand continues with talk of tattoos and a comparison of the couple in the song to Johnny Cash and June (a bit of hubris? Irony? Or is this too complex for Katy Perry?)
(And the lameness of the opening conceit is too bad, because the melody of the song isn’t all bad.)
Here’s the worst offense. For me, by invoking items that don’t cohere within my world view, Perry has indicated the fictionality of her song. I don’t believe the speaker of the narrative; I find that its details cannot apply in my world, therefore, unfairly or not, they don’t work in any world. This is fast food songwriting where any ingredients will do as long as they seem like they fit the recipe.
Ms. Perry can do better than that, can’t she?
Or have I missed something? Did you ever make out in a mustang while listening to Radiohead? If so, what album? Certainly not The Bends.