Worst lyrical rhymes in popular music
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s a prompt from Philadelphia editor Emily Guendelsberger:
I was sitting around with some buddies and the topic of “worst rhymes in music history” came up. The obvious ones that came to my mind were “Ride the snake to the lake” from The Doors’ “The End,” and “Generals gather in their masses / just like witches at black masses” from Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” What are some particularly bad lyrical rhymes that have stuck with you over the years?
Whenever this topic comes up, the first thing that always leaps to mind is Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters,” a song I enjoy for the harmonies and the tension between tenderness and growling force, as though James Hetfield is working really, really hard to woo a skittish girl he really likes, rather than just screaming in her face “GET YOUR ASS IN MY BED ALREADY!” But the bubble bursts every time I actually listen to the clunky, clunky lyrics, which read like junior-high poetry, from rhyming “way” with “way” to the convoluted, forced syntax that gets “say” and “new” at the end of lines: “Never opened myself this way / Life is ours, we live it our way / All these words I don’t just say / and nothing else matters. / Trust I seek and I find in you / Every day for us something new / Open mind for a different view / and nothing else matters.” UGH. Rock music generally isn’t about complex wordery and philosophical profundity, but this one particularly grates.
One of my favorite Beatles solo songs is Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy,” probably because it was allegedly written by George Harrison. I love the backup singers and the saxophone, and I can generally get behind the song’s message. (It was my theme song when I was filling out college applications.) However, one verse has such lazy, lame rhymes that it makes me almost embarrassed to like it: “Got to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues / And you know it don’t come easy / You don’t have to shout or leap about / You can even play them easy.” First, George/Ringo rhymed “easy” with itself, but that line “You don’t have to shout or leap about” is what kills me. I think it’s the mental image of a person “leaping about” that ruins the verse for me. If I think about it, I understand the intention of the lyric, but those childlike rhymes just make it sound like the song was written in about two minutes on the toilet, and it’s what keeps me from considering it a great song, as opposed to pretty good.
Having just listened to 38 volumes of the NOW That’s What I Call Music series for The A.V. Club, I am in a uniquely qualified position to answer this question. I am unhealthily obsessed with Will.I.Am and his marionettes in Black Eyed Peas, so I’m going to give my creative arch-nemesis the proverbial reverse props for these lyrics from “OMG,” his collaboration with Usher: “Honey got a booty like pow pow pow / Honey got some boobies like wow, oh wow.” What more is there to say about that particular turn of phrase? As I’ve articulated at length in THEN That’s What They Called Music, I honestly feel that Will.I.Am is engaged in a bizarre performance art stunt designed to expose the emptiness and stupidity of what passes for contemporary pop music. If that is the case, then that particular couplet from “OMG” might just be his reverse-masterpiece.
I recently read Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing The Hat, an annotated collection of some of his lyrics for musical theater, as well as his musings on lyric-writing in general. Sondheim goes to great lengths to chastise users of the hateful “near-rhyme,” when a song-writer settles for words that sound similar without actually matching in vowel sound and syllables. This is actually a fairly popular convention in pop music, when lyrics are supposedly more an expression of the songwriter’s “personality,” and thus a certain laziness is generally allowed. (Like, “She was married when we first met, soon to be divorced / Helped her out of a jam I guess, but I used a little too much force” is a near-rhyme, but it’s Bob Dylan, and it’s a great line, so I let it slide.) But dear God, someone needs to put Katy Perry in jail for the crimes she commits against language in “Firework.” The tune is catchy (and ubiquitous enough) that a lot of people might’ve missed the song’s worst offenses: “Baby you’re a firework / come on show ’em what you’re worth,” or “Baby you’re a firework / come on let your colors burst” are bad enough, but the nadir has to be “Make ’em go ‘Ah, ah, ah!’ / As you shoot across the sky, sky, sky,” a hilariously childish sexual come-on (vaguely reminiscent of the opening line of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which I’m sure was intentional, obviously) that Perry’s strangled, yelping enunciation forces into a pairing more unnatural even than her corporate-approved “personal” brand and the song’s supposed celebration of individuality. It’s so bad that other near-rhymes in the song (like “waste of space / cannot be replaced” and “boom, boom, boom / moon, moon, moon”) seem like an oasis of wit and precision by comparison. Really, why bother using lyrics at all? Perhaps for her next inspirational number, Perry can just ejaculate “Believe!” and “Freedom!” and “Tomorrow!” between gasps.
Silverchair was the late-’90s teen grunge band out of Australia that people who should have known better gave a pass because, you know, they were kids. Kids, it should be noted, who wrote songs, got signed to an international major-label contract, were put into the studio with professionals, shot videos, and toured the globe—but, you know, kids. Christ almighty. Anyway, “Tomorrow” wasn’t their only hit: “Pure Massacre” is still the worse recording. But “Tomorrow” features this hideous gem: “There’s no bathroom, and there is no sink / The water out of the tap is very hard to drink.” Awkwardly forced rhyme, confusingly put (even if the tap is sticking out of the wall, prefacing it by telling us there’s no sink invites the immediate response: Where’s the tap?), and arriving in the midst of mainstream guitar rock’s death knell, it’s everything bad about its era. But you know, they were just kids.
Is it possible for lousy rhymes to comprise a great jam? I’d say yes—especially if that song is The Clash’s “The Magnificent Seven.” Influenced by the band’s love of early New York rap, the rambling song kicks off 1980’s equally rambling Sandinista! But just as with the album as a whole, there’s a shaggy, intoxicating madness to Joe Strummer logorrhea. “The AM, the FM, the p.m. too / churning out that boogaloo,” rhymes Strummer, slurring like a funk-infected drunk with a fat lip. (He may have had one that day in the studio, for all we know.) But the cringe-required couplets don’t end there. Behold: “Gimme Honda, Gimme Sony / so cheap and real phony.” Or “But anyway, lunch bells ring / Take one hour and do your thang.” Also, “Now the news, snap to attention / the lunar landing of the dentists’ convention.” Better yet, “Socrates and Milhous Nixon / both went the same way, through the kitchen.” The best of the worst, though, is the internal rhyme of the legendarily bad line, “Italian mobster shoots a lobster,” which Strummer concludes with the horrible punchline “Seafood restaurant gets out of hand.” In spite—or perhaps because—of this Beefheart-meets-Sugarhill mishmash (not to mention a killer instrumental hook), “The Magnificent Seven” makes lemonade of some particularly pucker-worthy lemons.
I love XTC’s 1986 album Skylarking like I love few albums. And the peppy, this-is-how-the-world-rolls-on song “Season Cycle” isn’t just one of the album’s highlights, it’s practically the album’s mission statement. And yet it manages to combine one of the most forced rhymes I’ve ever heard with one of the worst puns. “Well darling, don’t you ever stop and wonder / about the clouds and the hail and thunder?” lead singer Andy Partridge asks. So far, so good. Then: “About the baby and its umbilical / who’s pushing the pedals on the season cycle.” A couple of notes: Partridge pronounces “umbilical” “um-bill-like-all” in order to rhyme with “cycle.” Then there’s the whole “pushing the pedals” thing… In short, not the group’s finest lyrical moment. When I interviewed Partridge for The A.V. Club so many years ago that the interview isn’t even on the website, he practically apologized for it. But the thing about great music is, it can patch over the groaners sometimes.
Even if you can’t place LFO’s “Summer Girls” by its title, anyone who was listening to pop radio in 1999 will remember the chorus, which kicked off by pairing the lines “New Kids On The Block had a bunch of hits” and “Chinese food makes me sick.” Now, granted, that’s a truly ridiculous rhyme, but given that the track is little more than a mélange of pop-culture non sequiturs to begin with, I’m willing to give them a pass for that one and consider it a fair trade for such so-bad-they’re-genius bits as “Fell deep in love, but now we ain’t speakin’ / Michael J. Fox was Alex P. Keaton” and “Call you up, but what’s the use / I like Kevin Bacon, but I hate Footloose.” Now that I’m knee-deep in writing this up, I’m kind of beginning to realize the ludicrousness of complaining about a particular bad rhyme in this song—which, by the way, is still insidiously catchy even 12 summers later—but there’s still one in particular that never fails to make me roll my eyes: “When you take a sip, you buzz like a hornet / Billy Shakespeare wrote a whole bunch of sonnets.” I don’t know if the fact that the trio is being inappropriately familiar with the Bard or the way the late Rich Cronin pointedly (and, to my ear, almost apologetically) slips an “r” into his delivery of the word “sonnets,” but even with all the preposterous poetry in that song, that’s the one bit that leaves me going, “Really?” I mean, seriously, no one in LFO could come up with a more precise pop culture rhyme than that? ‘Cause, yo, I got one right here: “Knight Rider’s canceled, but you know I still mourn it.” Word.
While I could dedicate an entire column to the uncanny stupidity of the lyrics to Digital Underground’s “Humpty Dance,” there’s another ’90s hip-hop song with an isolated stanza that’s always made me groan and lament how it ruins the song’s otherwise catchy, free-associated nonsense. Halfway through Beastie Boys’ “Pass The Mic,” their fine lead single from 1992’s mostly brilliant Check Your Head, Mike D comes out of its funky, cut-up intermission with the lines “Everybody’s rappin’ like it’s a commercial / Acting like life is a big commercial / So this is what I’ve got to say to you all / Be true to yourself and you will never fall.” The latter couplet is a silly but harmless sign of the Beasties’ near-future global consciousness, but I have trouble wrapping my head around the lazy redundancy of the two lines preceding it. What’s more, Mr. Diamond’s momentum-killing overemphasis about other rappers’ vanity actually grinds the song’s charisma to a halt. Even for a trio that’s consistently hit-or-miss with lyrical zingers and generally given a pass on account of its goofball sense of humor, that’s some uninspired shit right there.
“Billy Mack is a detective down in Texas / You know he knows just exactly what the facts is / He ain’t gonna let those two escape justice / He makes his livin’ off of the people’s taxes.” These lyrics are buried inside Steve Miller Band’s “Take The Money And Run,” a song that can’t be bothered to include more than three chords, or more than a few words that aren’t “Woo woo woo.” This little section—where there are actual words, and not just onomatopoeia—are confusing for so many reasons. Was it really that hard to rhyme with “Texas” without terrible grammar and shoehorning in “facts is”? Is “justice” trying to be more of an eye-rhyme? Is this an anti-government screed warning us of the shoddy police work funded by tax dollars? Am I the only one who just now realized if you switch only the “a” and “e,” you can make “Texas” look like “taxes” and it still sucks as a rhyme? I get visibly agitated every time I hear that song, and God help anyone who tries to sing it karaoke—this crappily written song certainly isn’t done any favors by a crappy rendition.
I’m a huge New Order fan, but I’m also acutely aware that Bernard Sumner is capable of some serious crimes against lyrics. When I was younger, I thought of New Order lyrics as mysterious and dense, but I later realized that many of them are just lazy and sorta tossed-off. I imagine many of you are thinking of this couplet from “Regret”: “I would like a place I could call my own / have a conversation on the telephone.” But I’m going deeper, to another great New Order song with really bad lyrics: “Sooner Than You Think” from Low-Life. Peep these two rhymes, delivered in a row: “Your country is a wonderful place / It pales my England into disgrace / To buy a drink there is so much more reasonable / I think I’ll go there when it gets seasonable.” Wow bad.
Many people really hate Billy Joel with a passion, but when I was a suburban, geeky teenager with a really deep sense of alienation, anger, and unrequited love, his songs hit me square in the chest. His tales of suburban angst, varying degrees of love and passion, penchant for looking back at the good ol’ days, and unrepentant flashes of anger were just what I needed to sing away the blues as his greatest hits volumes one and two blared on my tape deck for years on end. But by the time I got to college, his influence was there but starting to wane, and the appearance of one of his biggest hits, 1989’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” didn’t help. Even to a Billy loyalist like myself, the song sounded gimmicky and a blatant grab for the top of the Billboard charts. It was merely a list of things that happened in Billy’s lifetime, from 1949 to 1989, rhymed clumsily and without much thought. Rhyming “Joe DiMaggio” with “Marilyn Monroe” might have seemed clever, given their relationship, but lyrically, it was a disaster. He also tried to rhyme “H-bomb” and “Panmunjom.” Other clunkers: “Peter Pan” rhymed with “Disneyland,” “Castro” with “Edsel is a no-go,” “Foreign debts” with “Homeless vets” and “Bernie Goetz,” and finally, “Hypodermics on the shore” with “Rock and roller cola wars.” This is the man who wrote “Summer, Highland Falls,” for Christ’s sake; he must have blown a blood vessel trying to get some of this shit to rhyme.
There’s an old story about Paul McCartney supposedly dreaming the melody to “Yesterday” and scribbling out the song when he woke up with the dummy lyrics “Scrambled Eggs.” If that happened to Noel Gallagher, one of the most covered songs of all time would probably still be called “Scrambled Eggs.” The ex-Oasis leader ain’t exactly a wordsmith, and he hardly tries to be: He freely admits that he doesn’t put that much thought into lyrics. The most egregious example of Gallagher writing directly out of ass is the otherwise great “Some Might Say” from 1995’s (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? which includes the following lines: “The sink is full of fishes ’cos she’s got dirty dishes on the brain / And my dog’s been itchin’, itchin’ in the kitchen once again.” Apparently inspired by Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, and the pile of cocaine that was just begging to be snorted once this bloody song was finished, “Some Might Say” is yet another Oasis song that improves greatly if you don’t pay close attention.
This may cost me what little remains of my rock-crit cred, but I’ve never been a fan of Lou Reed’s Berlin, and that goes for its original incarnation as well as its recent live revival. In part, that’s because of its bombastic over-orchestration, abetted by Alice Cooper producer Bob Ezrin, but it’s also because of the faux naïveté of Reed’s lyrics, which hit bottom when he’s trawling the city’s underbelly. You could start with a couplet from “Caroline Says II,” in which a battered woman asks, “Why is it that you beat me? / It isn’t any fun,” but since that isn’t even supposed to rhyme, we’ll zero in on the title track. How to choose the most egregious offender? Is it “In Berlin, by the wall / You were 5’10” inches tall”? (What rhymes with “non sequitur”?) Or perhaps, “It was very nice / Candlelight and Dubonnet on ice”? Perhaps it isn’t the rhyme itself so much as the blandness of the syntax. I mean, “very nice”? You could argue, and I’m sure someone will, that Reed is affecting a kind of innocence before the album’s headlong plunge into hell, but using terms normally used when selecting carpeting doesn’t put the sentiment over forcefully.
When I watched the season finale of Glee, I was shocked by a song that all the kids sang while running around the wilds of New York City. The lyrics were just so asinine, up to and including a portion that rhymed “But I like New York / other places make me feel like a dork.” “Well,” I said, “this episode is about the kids writing their own original songs, so that was clearly a song they wrote themselves to perform for nationals.” But no! It turned out to be the song “I Love New York” by Madonna, and while I respect Madonna entirely because people who like to go clubbing tell me I should, this song must certainly be the nadir of her career, right? Just looking over the lyrics right now, she rhymes “off” with “golf,” then pulls off the unprecedented triple rhyme of “mad/sad/glad,” which is the most creative rhyme ever. Maybe she’s being ironic, but I somehow doubt it.
Nothing feels lazier to me than rappers who “rhyme” a word with the same word. Josh once half-jokingly proposed an Inventory of the biggest offenders of this—he cites DMX in particular—but I don’t think anyone comes close to Kanye West. For as much as Yeezy boasts in his lyrics, he’s not a particularly gifted rapper, and his lyrics occasionally sound pretty tossed-off. It’s not just a complacency that comes with celebrity; West gave us fair warning in the first full track on The College Dropout, “We Don’t Care.” He has a staggering five of six consecutive lines ending with “man,” like “But as a shorty I looked up to the dopeman / only adult man I knew that wasn’t broke, man.” Considering he uses “man” in that verse nearly a dozen times in roughly 50 words, you could argue he was going for something in particular—fine. What about “Scratchin’ lottery tickets, eyes on a new house,” with “house” at the end of the next line? Or “I’m trying to get the car with the chromey wheels here / you tryin’ to cut our lights out like we don’t live here”? Etc. C’mon, ’Ye, there are free rhyming dictionaries online.
I drunk-emailed this AVQA prompt in after spending way, way too much time discussing this with friends, and I can’t let it pass me by without getting into the hideous, brain-clinging rhymes of Eve 6’s 1998 single “Inside Out.” The lyrics reek of self-conscious precociousness—a sort of desperation for someone to write “Very clever wordplay!” with a smiley face in your composition notebook. The kind of “Look at me!” smugness of the lyrics also recalls the many, many times in college I fantasized about getting a blowgun for shooting Soulful Poets so full of curare, they couldn’t move their lips enough to ask rhetorical questions like “Or am I origami?” Several of the lines would be worst-of candidates in any other song (“Rendezvous, then I’m through with you,” “tick-tock of the clock is painful,” (“painful” is then rhymed with “logical” and “wall”), but they all take second place to the dudely self-pity of “Wanna put my tender heart in a blender,” which always causes this physical, nails-on-chalkboard cringe reaction in me. It’s more understandable when you learn that the song was literally written in study hall—Eve 6 signed with RCA when its members were high-school seniors. If I hadn’t written so much horrendously embarrassing teenage poetry or been that obnoxious precocious kid, I probably wouldn’t be wincing so hard.