Drugs, Abortion, And Human Nature: Five Pop Songs That Don’t Mean What You Think
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Please Please Me and the start of a new chapter of pop music: dark lyrics couched in metaphor, and slipping past the censors.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ first album Please Please Me, and the start of a new chapter of pop music, in which offensive or dark subject matter was couched in metaphor, hidden by sugary melodies and slipped past the censors. The record itself opens with the line “she was just 17/ you know what I mean” and the wink wink nudge nudge nature continues throughout their catalogue: ‘Baby’s In Black’ chronicles the tasteless move of trying to hit on a grieving wife (we’ve all been there); ‘A Day In The Life’ was banned by BBC due to numerous drug references; ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ is (allegedly) code for LSD; the line “She’s a big teaser” in ‘Day Tripper’ is actually “She’s a prick teaser” – and even the stately ‘Hey Jude’ has John yelling “fucking hell” quite audibly around the three-minute mark. To celebrate The Beatles’ hilarious corruption of the moral fibre of society, we’ve assembled a handful of pop tunes that follow this noble path.
1. THIRD EYE BLIND: ‘SEMI CHARMED LIFE’
This song swaggered its way onto commercial radio in 1997 and has stayed there ever since, with its irrepressible “do-do-do / do-do-do-do” hook, quick-fire half-sung/half-rapped verses, and great-chorus-culminating-in-broken-falsetto all screaming Obvious Radio Hit. It’s also arguably the song with the most fucked up lyrical content to ever have been played on commercial radio. The funny thing is, aside from dipping the lyrics in a sugary sweet pop goo, Third Eye Blind do nothing to hide this at all. People just don’t seem to listen to the words.
Let’s examine. First line: “I’m packed and I’m holding” – clearly a drug reference. Line five: “she comes ’round and she goes down on me”. Line seven: “coming over you”. The amount of perverse sex and hard drugs in this song makes Andy Warhol’s Factory seem like the one of those regular factories with hardhats and timeclocks. “Chop another line like a coda with a curse.” They couldn’t have spelled this out any clearer. Oh wait, they totally could have, and did: here comes verse two, in which he is “taking sips of it through my nose”. The line “doing crystal meth will lift you up until you break” is hastily tossed off, as if he didn’t just drop a hard meth reference into a pop song programmed between Good Charlotte, The Church, and Charlotte Church. The rest of the verse is literally all drugs: “It won’t stop, I won’t come down. I keep stock with the tick-tock rhythm, I bump for the drop. And then I bumped up, I took the hit that I was given then I bumped again, then I bumped again.” Verses three and four see the sheen start to wear off the drug-taking experience: “I’m scared, I’m not coming down” and “she’s got her jaws now locked down in a smile, but nothing is all right.”
At least the sex still seems great: “Those little red panties they pass the test. Slide up around the belly, face down on the mattress.” Up next on HITFM is Leona Lewis.
GOO GOO DOLLS: ‘SLIDE’
Goo Goo Dolls were a shit-kicker American rock band who were six albums deep before they rewrote Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’ and had a smash hit with the lilting, zillion-selling ‘Iris’. Follow up single ‘Slide’ did arguably better in the long-term, still being played hourly on any radio stations that give away icy cold cans of Coke. It’s a cracking pop tune, which uses that age-old trick of holding the chorus back ‘til the last instant then blasting it repeatedly at you for the last two minutes of the song (see also: ‘Khe Sanh’). It also uses the less-established trick of being about abortion, which you may have easily missed. The second verse is where it starts getting real.
“Don’t you love the life you killed?
The priest is on the phone
Your father hit the wall,
Your ma disowned you,
Don’t suppose I’ll ever know,
What it means to be a man,
Something I can just change
Or live around it.”
In this context, the actual hook of the song “Do you wanna get married, or run away?” is less a ‘you and me forever’ moment and more a choice that needs to be made during a heady situation. The scenario in verse two adds an impressive amount of weight to these lines, as it does to the otherwise mundane albeit sweet “I wanna wake up where you are. I won’t say anything at all.” The fact that most commercial radio stations in Australia were owned by the Catholic Church not too long ago adds an extra delicious level of “how didn’t anyone notice this?” to proceedings.
3. NAUGHTY BY NATURE: ‘O.P.P’
Naughty By Nature were a fun-loving hip hop trio from New Jersey who mostly wrote hip hop songs about hip hop. Their brand of street rap eschewed the grittier aspects of abject poverty, gun violence and gang culture, choosing instead to focus on the waving of hands in the air – a hip hop staple at the time. Unlike other hip hop songs though, this was not meant as an act of indifference: when Naughty By Nature instructed you to raise your arms, it was in celebration. Their breakthrough smash hit ‘O.P.P’ sampled ‘ABC’ by The Jackson 5 in that blatant, cash-grabbing way that only a group of people who refer to themselves as ‘naughty’ in order to gain street credibility can truly achieve. (Let the record show that Tupac never referred to himself as ‘naughty’.) When the single was released in 1991, it predictably caught fire at radio and on MTV alike (we called it ‘Video Hits’), and the palatable nature of it all helped ‘O.P.P’ become of the most successful crossover singles in hip hop history. The chorus is memorable: “You down with O.P.P? (Yeah, you know me) Who’s down with OPP? (Yeah, you know me).” What’s O.P.P and why exactly were we all down with it? Who cares? The video looks like a Wayans brothers block party and the Cristal is popping like a racist stereotype in an article written by a white Australian guy. Turns out if you listen hard enough to the first verse, you can decode the mysteries of this acronym:
“O is for Other, P is for People […]
The last P…well…that’s not that simple.
It’s sorta like another way to call a cat a kitten
It’s five little letters that are missin’ here.”
Other People’s Pussy is morally bankrupt for so many reasons, least of all the infidelity aspect. First of all: the implied ownership. Secondly: the term ‘pussy’ (in the ’90s hip hop artists were less respectful to bitches then nowadays). Thirdly: six-year-old girls listening to Austereo in the car on the way to soccer practice were declaring how down they were with the co-opting of other people’s pussy. The verse lyrics basically trawl proudly through various acts of cheating – but then again, they did warn us they were naughty.
4. HUMAN NATURE: ‘TELLIN’ EVERYBODY’
Public proclamations of love make the world go around. From John Donne to John Denver, gushing outpourings of endless, boundless love have formed the very nub around which we centre our society (you thought it was politics? Don’t be silly). So when syrupy sweet boy band Human Nature released ‘Tellin’ Everyone’, it seemed to be another sweet love song from a band, so inoffensive that they spent more time in the green room at the Midday show than on the live circuit. (No doubt the main controversy was the band’s decision to drop that ‘g’ in the title.) But while verse one mines the “girl you drive me wild” territory that boy bands are required by federal law to cover, things get knocked off-kilter once the chorus kicks in:
“I’m tellin’ everybody
Tellin’ everybody what we did last night
I never had a girl who felt so right
Tellin’ everybody what we did last night
You’re the reason why I had a good time.”
In case you missed that, he is telling literally everybody what happened last night in the bounds of his bedroom between himself and the object of his affection. Not just one or two close confidants, not just a table of friends loosened by wine and tall stories. Everybody. He is telling everybody what he and a (presumably) new lover did last night. But it’s worse than that. Aside from the wildly inappropriate oversharing, it seems that among the things he is broadcasting is that his lover is the reason why he had a good time. This girl who “felt so right” is the reason why he got off, basically. This song couldn’t been more objectifying if it was sung directly to her breasts. The second verse drags even lower, with the dubious couplet “I’ll keep workin’ it harder / I’ll keep it up, won’t bother me” aimed at his lovely female companion. By this point we can only assume she is changing her number, asking him to stop calling her work, and Tellin’ Nobody Ever that she slept with the little weird guy from Human Nature with the ears that make him look like the FA Cup.
5. TAXIRIDE: CREEPING UP SLOWLY
Taxiride were a Australian pop-rock band signed to a major label in the late-‘90s, and they actually weren’t that bad (although the use of the term ‘actually’ implies the common consensus suggested otherwise). Their records primarily appealed to that pocket of society which, when asked what type of music they listen to, reply with “everything, really” and believe this to display diversity rather than a lack of discernment. They had two reasonably successful records before shifting their sound into a heavier realm, which of course shifted their appeal to – well, we’ll let this horribly heartbreaking Wikipedia fragment tell the tale: “As of 2006, the future of Taxiride is uncertain. With both Axiomatic and Electrophia being commercial flops, and Taxiride not being signed to a major label, Taxiride’s success as a band appears to have halted. Taxiride continue to tour, mostly as the supporting act for larger names, but it remains uncertain whether Taxiride will ever be able to record another album again.” Ouch. Still, their debut record hit #1, sold double-Platinum and spawned two top ten hits. The second album also went double-Platinum, and spawned their most successful single, and the most played song on Australian radio in 2002: the surprisingly hooky ‘Creepin’ Up Slowly’. Oh, and it’s totally a weed song.
Yup, Taxiride – the boys who literally chose their name because they caught a cab to rehearsals – snuck a honkingly obvious weed song past commercial radio, who proceeded to play it more than any other song during that entire year. Because the relaxed sexual politics and liberal drug use of the ’60s seem to be something that must have happened in the future, Taxiride knew they had to couch their song in metaphor. So, let’s unravel the psychedelic mysteries of their highest charting single. Or, let’s just read the lyrics for the chorus:
“It’s creepin’ up slowly
She’s taken me over, it’s turning me on
With every breath that I take
I roll up my dreams and blow them away.”
The girl-as-metaphor for drugs is a time-honoured tradition, from ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ through to ‘There She Goes’ (totally about heroin: read about that in the next installment, maybe?). Still it’s a little vague: “Maybe you’re just reading too much into this,” I hear you comment. Well, verse two sees our hero “cruising on Blue Street. My worries are freed” when he encounters our (other) hero “stressed out and in doubt”. Of course, Taxiride lad knows “exactly what you need.” Then follows the lyric: “got your life wrapped up in the palm of your hand”, yet another inhalation and then things get really psychedelic, with our the lyrics “slip through the cracks in the stage” and “this meeting of the minds inside of me” coming in quick succession.
As mentioned, it’s couched in metaphor (kinda) but it seems they wanted people to know about their sneaky subversion, with one of the members admitting to an Austereo station ahead of a run of winery shows that the song was about “a day on the green”. Also if anyone actually listened to Taxiride’s records, they’d realise the entire discography is drenched in sitar, tabla, backwards guitar and other instruments that history shows can only sound good while stoned. Their debut single ‘Get Set’ opens with the least subtle Eastern motif ever – and the album that ‘Creepin’ Up Slowly’ is from is actually named Garage Mahal.
Nathan Jolly is the Editor of The Music Network, Australia’s number one music industry magazine/embedder of that video where Bieber raps.