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  • Deborah Straszheim

Songwriting and the Socially Unacceptable


I have a favorite story from this couple about their most embarrassing moment with their four-year-old son.

It was Thanksgiving, all the relatives were seated at the table, everything was festively decorated for the occasion and the boy got crabby and tired. His parents, realizing he was not going to sit nicely with the guests, suggested, “Honey, don’t you think it’s time for a nap?”

With no warning at all, he replied (in front of the grandparents): “I ain’t taking no (expletive) nap.”

One of the best things about songwriting is just that; the ability to say totally unacceptable things in a way you would never say them in public.

Yet songwriters get away with this, and even revel in it, in all genres. Perhaps this explains the liberal use of the ‘F’ word by rap artists. It’s so freeing to speak unedited, they can hardly stand it.

Cheated on your spouse? Songwriting material. Walked out on the job? Songwriting material. Spent a month in the fetal position? Songwriting material.

You don’t have to say it nicely, either.

“Quit my job, flipped off the boss, took my name off the payroll. Screw you, man.” (First few lines of “Johnny Cash,” Jason Aldean).

But perhaps the best thing about the freedom to speak unfiltered is the ability, through music, to discuss nearly every situation and emotion people feel.

Remember the Dixie Chicks’ song “Goodbye Earl,” in which two women plot to kill an abusive boyfriend? The band cheerfully sings about poisoning a guy, wrapping his body in a tarp and stuffing it in the trunk of their car.

The song caused controversy at the time, and many people really objected to it. Yet even in that situation, the band still recorded, performed and sold it.

But back to the many unacceptable dinner party topics (yet acceptable song topics):

“I just got a sexually transmitted disease.” AC/DC, “The Jack”

“I have so many problems my parents think I’m on drugs, and they want to lock me in an institution so I don’t hurt myself.” Suicidal Tendencies, “Institutionalized”

“My girlfriend and I get loud in bed and everyone hears us get it on.” Trey Songz, “Neighbors Know My Name”

Whether the lyrics make you laugh or wince because they’re so over the top, that honesty, whether it’s preposterous, crude or dark, can be so refreshing in a politically-correct world.

It’s as if, for the three minutes of that song, we can be like the boy at the holiday table, and say something totally unreasonable like, “I Wanna Be Sedated.”

Goodbye Earl ~ Dixie Chicks

Institutionalized ~Suicidal Tendencies

Neighbors Know My Name ~ Trey Songz

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