Recently whilst reading “Alice through the Looking Glass” I realised that like all great books it has quite a bit more to say than what appears just at face value. Consider this passage for a moment …
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs: they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’
‘Would you tell me please,’ said Alice, ‘what that means?’
‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’
‘That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’
‘Oh!’ said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.
‘Ah, you should see ‘em come round me of a Saturday night,’ Humpty Dumpty went on, wagging his head gravely from side to side, ‘for to get their wages, you know.’
-Through The Looking Glass- Lewis Carroll
It made me reflect that there was a time when Pop Music hadn’t been ashamed to be considerably smarter than it seems to be in the world of Pitbull. Certainly that time still gave birth to simple platitudes like F.R.David’s “Words (Don’t come Easy)” but we readily dismissed this as “Euro Pap” never thinking Boyzone and a million “Voice” contestants would draw on it as “great catalogue” in years to come.
But there really was a time when chart hits embraced complex lyrical ideas and conceits and it was smart to be … smart. And NME journalists responded with structuralist analysis, linguistic philosophy, comments about post-modernism and other clear entries in pseuds corner. It was a time when musicians played with complex ideas and critics (especially NME legends like Ian Penman, Paul Morley, Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill) answered them in a pseudo-intellectual intelligent way and everyone embraced WORDS happily.
And I have to say there’s a part of me that yearns for singles as lyrically smart as these three:
Tom Tom Club’s funky word play (with its clear allusion to the great poet)
or this by Scritti Politti – a straightforward meditation on Foucault set to music
or even ABC – “if you judge a book by the cover, then you judge a look by the lover”
Are Words (& ideas) really something to be frightened of?