A few weeks ago I posted a link to a “worst rhymes in pop music”, a topic that rewards — albeit poorly — the copious attention it inevitably attracts once you start thinking about it. In subsequent days, radio stations have driven home to me another “worst” category worthy off note: “worst syntax.” Some rhymes, after all, are themselves perfectly kosher, but their authors arrive at them by way of gruesome constructions or incoherent expressions (not “obscurely evocative,” but “outright insultingly stupid”).
The paradigm case, or course, is America’s “Horse With No Name,” which attains immortality in so many categories of badness that it’s not quite fair to include it with the rest of the popular song oeuvre.
In the desert, you can’t remember your name
Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no fame
Note that “name”/“fame” is a righteous rhyme, all right — and let’s bypass the issue of whether living in the desert induces onomamnesia — but that last line defies any English-speaker to utter it with a straight face. “There ain’t no one” — well, we’ll cut these young men some slack thus far — “for to” — oh dear, they lapse into a construction that might work in a folk song, a genuine folk song or an earnest imitation, but sounds painfully artificial in pop — “to give you no fame” — start with the triple negative “Ain’t. . . no. . . no. . . ,” then raise it by the power of the nonexistent expression “to give fame.” It’s a masterpiece of lyrical bad-osity.
But again, “Horse With No Name” attains sui generis badness status. If we look for a sublunary rival, what about Rod Stewart’s couplet from “Maggie May”:
I laughed at all of your jokes
My love you didn’t need to coax
Again, “jokes”/“coax” works; in fact, it’s a delightfully unpredictable pair that someone such as Cole Porter could have forged into a classic. But this pair’s second line transgresses every convention of English-language expression. The rest of the song has its plusses and minuses; Margaret doesn’t like it, but the band projects a strong, loose, semi-ragged conviviality that I admire. But that couplet comes around, and I have to wince.
Akma, Akma, Akma!
It’s a song, not a dissertation! They are not attempting great english prose, but a song. Besides, have you read Shakespeare or e.e. cumings or even Dickens? It’s about communication of an idea, which, since you have listened to these songs multiple times I’m assuming you got, and not about writing the great American novel as approved by Diane Hacker.
Please tear up the terrible grammar in my research papers, but don’t mess with America or Rod, they’re classics. In a word (or rather, a phrase), lighten up, Akma! 🙂
[It’s a critic’s job to distinguish better from worse; your comparison to Shakespeare, Dickens, and cummings reinforces my point, since they wrote fewer clunker-per-page than (let’s say) Dan Brown or LaHaye & Jankins. That’s what makes their work stand out.
Much as I likeEvery Picture Tells A Story, the couplet from “Maggie May” impairs my enjoyment of the song and album because it blemishes an otherwise very-impressive work. As to America, well, tact induces me to drop the subject.]
The young fogey said:
Yes, America should have taken that line back wherefrom they brung it.
Then there was that line of theirs about ‘alligator lizards in the air, in the aaaaaair’. Bad trip, man.
I don’t mind the Rod Stewart rhyme.
Here’s an all-time low of bad rhyme *and* syntax from early-1970s mellow-pop pros Bread:
Baby, I’m a-want you
Baby, I’m a-need you…
What’s this, a dialect I’ve never heard? A go at stage broken English like Chico Marx or ‘Borat’? Or more likely ‘I’ve got the tune but can’t make the words fit’?
The young fogey
Your post “More Bad” lyrics contains one small oversight. The lyrics from the America song are as follows:
“In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain ”
It doesn’t change the ‘lyrical bad-osity’ but it comes closer to making sense. Further down in the link posted above are liner notes from one of America’s albums. It contains the following:
“(Dewey) Bunnell adds an aside about his choice of language in the song: “I have taken a lot of poetic license in my use of grammar, and I always cringe a little bit at my use of ‘aint’s,’ like ‘ain’t no one for to give you no pain’ in “Horse.” I’ve never actually spoken that way, but I think it conveys a certain honesty when you’re not picking and choosing your words, and you use that kind of colloquialism.”
I am not “lyrically pendantic” but when I was reading your post I just did not remember those words. The song kept going through my head and I was forced to look up the words just to help get the song out of my head. I think the technical term for this is “Earworm.”
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Mt. Lebanon, PA
[I stand corrected, Andy (and thank you for clarifying that; in all my years of America-listening, which actually (unwillingly) number from the very beginning of their career, I had never heard that word correctly). Now, the rhyme is slightly impaired — “pain” and “name” make a slant rhyme, which I won’t cavil about, but note for the record. On the other hand, I had been construing the couplet to claim “when no one calls attention to your name, you forget it” (a dubious premise), but on the corrected version the couplet claims “I someone isn’t hurting you, you forget your name.” I have a hard time thinking that improves matters.
But at least I now have Dewey Bunnell’s word on the correct bad couplet.
John adds that he always heard the couplet from Maggie May as (I think I’m getting this right)
I laughed at all of your jokes, my love
“You didn’t need to coax”
a sort of dialogue between Rod and Maggie. I’m not exactly sure about this, because he was messaging Margaret who was then reading his messages to me. This sounds way too subtle for Rod Stewart and the song itself, and I haven’t found it attested on any lyrics site on the web (not probative, since I haven’t found an offical Rod Stewart site with lyrics, but it suggests that I’m not entirely off base).