Monday, February 13, 2012

The Absolute DUMBEST Alternative Rock Lyrics of the 1990s

Counting down the grunge era’s most idiotic libretto

You know, I really like 1990s alternative rock. I mean, a lot.

The thing is, even though it’s probably my favorite style and chronological point in music, that doesn’t absolve the genre from a few shortcomings, the most obvious of which was that, for the most part, the lyrics where incomprehensible, pointless, or  in many instances, just flat out stupid.

Sure, it’s pretty easy to look back on, oh say, the music of Cake or The Presidents of the United States of America and retroactively say that they were singing about some fairly stupid shit, but at least bands of the like tried to incorporate a little semblance of structure and narrative to their tunes. Granted, it may not have been exquisite poetry, but when you heard that bald a-hole singing about moving to the country so he could eat a lot of peaches, you kind of knew what he was talking about (presumably, he wanted to move to the country, most likely so he could eat a lot of peaches.)

Looking back on the alt rock standards of twenty years ago, finding songs that are even remotely that narrative-driven is a pretty daunting task. I guess we never realized it at the time, but the songs of our youth may very well have been the most oblique recordings in the history of recorded music. In more blunt terms: good lord, was our music stupid as all hell.

It wasn’t so much that our alt rock favorites were irreverent and irrelevant as much as they were stubbornly non-concrete. Abstract is one thing, but it seemed like in the 1990s, alt rock radio was ruled by refrigerator magnet poetry. Not only did the lyrics make zero sense most of the time, the stringing together of words to make those lyrics seemed an affront to English itself. I don’t care how much smack you have flowing through your veins, word jamming of the like is something that’s inexcusable even for such all-time juiceheads as that dude from The Brian Jonestown Massacre and that guy from Blind Melon that kicked the bucket before he could even collect his first royalty check from “No Rain.”

As such, I’ve decided to turn the dial back to two decades ago, and yank out the five worst examples of dumb, idiotic and irritatingly pointless lyrics that the NAFTA years had to offer. Some people call these tunes classics, and others call them stupid, absurd and intelligence insulting pieces of shit. And today? Buddy, we ain’t celebrating nothing for being “classic.”

Number Five
“Creep” by Stone Temple Pilots

Stone Temple Pilots were/are arguably the worst band to come out of the 1990s with the initials STP. While originally decried as a poor man’s Pearl Jam, Scott Weiland and his unfortunately non life-destroying heroin habit managed to parlay their success into a now twenty year plus career of being a poor man’s Pearl Jam, proving those egghead critics wrong as wrong can be.

The inherent awfulness of “Creep” is pretty self-evident. Granted, it’s kind of unrealistic to expect a band to churn out some high quality, Chaucer-like prose every time they enter a recording booth, but with lyrics like “feeling uninspired / I guess I’ll start a fire” and “everybody run / Bobby’s got a gun,” it kind of makes you wonder if the band even comprehended how rhyming works. It seems like Weiland is trying to make some sort of altruistic point with the chorus of the song, but he follows up “take time with a wounded hand / ‘cause it likes to feel” with “’cause I like to steal” which is followed up by a secondary chorus in which he bemoans being “half the man” he “used to be.” Using daily conversation as a framework, that’s like saying “nice weather” and “I’m a neurotic scumbag” without even bothering to throw in a comma somewhere.

Radiohead covered the same subject better, IMHO. Hell, even TLC trudged the same ground with more sure handedness. And as an eff you to English teachers the nation over, STP was ultimately saddled with a platinum selling record and even more drug money, proving that you can’t spell “success” in modern music without a fair amount of “suck” first.

Number Four
“Loser” by Beck

In the 1990s, a lot of music critics considered Beck to be something of a post-modern, generation-defining lyrical artisan. Also, a lot of music critics were high on angel dust all the time, so I think those two aspects might just be correlated.

As far as ‘90s standards go, they really don’t get anymore standard than “Loser,” a song that has been played so many times on modern rock stations that by now, Beck could probably buy his own archipelago and spend the rest of his days trying to hop from island to island on stilts made out of woolly mammoth bones. Some people say that the beauty of “Loser,” and by extent, Beck’s entire oeuvre, is in its disjointedness and absurdity. The reality is, Beck’s word salad is nothing that you wouldn’t hear spouted out of the mouth of your typical homeless schizophrenic, and when the works of Wesley freaking Willis have more substance than what you’re singing about, you know you’re just going through the motions.

“The forces of evil / in a Bozo nightmare,” Beck proclaims at one point, before going into a whirlpool of “phony gas chambers,” “burning down trailer parks” and random things “hanging from a chicken wing.” It’s like giving the play-by-play for a Luis Bunuel film to a blind person - yeah, you can condense the gist of it, but it’s a gist that will never, ever make any damned sense to anyone or anything. Beck was undeservingly hailed as a post-structuralist champion following the release of 1994’s “Mellow Gold,” which spawned this, his most popular track: incidentally, that was the same year SAT scores began a downward trajectory, wasn’t it?

Number Three
ANYTHING written by Rob Zombie 

Solo, in  a band, on a boat, with a goat, beside a moat, it really doesn’t matter: if you give Rob Zombie a microphone and/or an ink pen and a blank sheet of paper, pure bullshit is certain to follow suit.

Zombie doesn’t even ATTEMPT to make his “music” remotely lyrical. For one, to create lyrics, there has to be a sense of flow, intention and meaning, which are all alien terms to Mr. Zombie. Rather, he substitutes those things most people call “words” with random references to B-movies compacted with phrases that rhyme with the last word in those B-movie references to create the illusion of structure.

“El Phantasmo and the Chicken Run Blast-a-Rama.” Honestly, how much lyrical depth can anybody expect out of something with a title of the like? Meanwhile, half of “Thunder Kiss ‘65” is just the names of movies that came out in the 1950s, and “More Human Than Human” is almost entirely comprised of disjointed, unconnected things that kind of have stuff to do with “Blade Runner.” Not only does Zombie eschew composition in his work, he even found a way to eschew imagery in his lyrics, instead turning incoherent allusions and references to pre-existing texts into a literal formula for success. Virtually everything Zombie recorded in the 1990s, from “La Sexorcista Vol. 1” to “Hellbilly Deluxe,” followed the exact same pattern; self introduction, yeah, oblique nod to B-movie, yeah, a direct reference to a B-movie, yeah, chorus, rinse, repeat.

Man, it’s a good thing a guy that prone to the repetitive and formulaic never got into the business of making movies, huh?

Number Two
“Everything Zen” by Bush

Bush is everything wrong about the 1990s in one band. Really nothing more than a dime a dozen Brit-rock group, they were scooped up by Interscope Records following the death of Kurt Cobain and puffed up into the latest, greatest alt-rock stewards, based primarily on lead singer Gavin Rossdale’s Tiger Beat-ready hairdo.

Say what you will about Nirvana being overrated and over-celebrated (please do, because they were), but their influence on the market of alternative rock music is absolutely monumental. How many bands with wooly haired lead singers on heroin with rhythm sections composed mostly of feedback and wobbly drum noises can you recall from the years of 1993 to 1997? As long as you had something static sounding in the background and some guy just rambling on and on about incoherent nouns, odds are, you were mass marketed to the jaded, apathetic fifth-graders of America, the kinds of culture-deprived youths that would gladly save up two months worth of lunch money just so they could purchase the latest Sponge album.

Really, you can pick ANY song by Bush and label it as one of the most idiotically constructed lyrical abortions of this, or for that matter, any other year, but “Everything Zen” stands out because a.) it was the single that introduced the band to the masses, and b.) holy hell, are these lyrics super-duper-confoundingly-stupid.

There isn’t a single line in “Everything Zen” that makes a lick of sense. The structure of the lyrics simply do not connect from verse to verse, or even word to word. “There must be somewhere we can eat,” the song begins, already establishing the fact that we’re not in store for some Bob Dylan shit for the next three and a half minutes, before colliding into the couplet “Maybe I should find another lover.” And that’s probably the closest the song gets to anything resembling lyrical cohesiveness.

“Should I fly to Los Angeles?” the lead singer immediately follows, with the even more confounding line “and find my asshole brother?” Four lines into the song, and we have four separate narratives going on…and of course, the singer never ever returns to any of them throughout the rest of the track. Instead, we’re treated to complete nonsense about “faking with saints,” “rain dogs howling for centuries,” and in a line that brings Rossdale’s status as a non-retard into serious question, “Minnie Mouse has grown up a cow.”

Admittedly, it’s pretty hard to think of anything stupider than that…that is, until you take into consideration the virtual Rosetta Stone that paved the way for all of this lyrical absurdity to begin with.

Number One
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana

Without question, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the single most important song of the 1990s as far as lyrical composition influence goes. While obviously less heralded for the fact, it’s also far and away the stupidest song of the decade, an observation addressed by the guy that wrote it in several interviews.

What a lot of people never understood about “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is that the entire thing was an elaborate joke. Kurt, presumably under the influence of some more potent smack than usual, wanted to produce a song that was nothing more than “Louie, Louie” and “More Than A Feeling” merged together, with bullshit, exaggerated lyrics about angsty, disaffected youth staging a revolution against…well, stuff they really had no clue about. With a little, ahem, inspiration form Sonic Youth and The Pixies and the off-handed suggestion that he name the ditty after a line of deodorant, Smells Like Teen Spirit was birthed, inadvertently kicking off the greatest mainstream musical renaissance since the heydays of AOR.

People often call “Teen Spirit” a revolutionary anthem, which is sort of odd, since the lyrics of the song are about absolutely nothing. “Load up on guns, and bring your friends,” the song begins, before crashing into some junior high-quality, proto-emo poetry, “I’m worst at what I do best.” The structure of the song is incredibly disjointed, but it’s not until we get to the chorus where things get really, really idiotic.

“A mosquito, an albino, my libido…yeah!” Cobain yells, clearly indicating a countercultural call to arms against…uh, malaria, maybe? The song ultimately concludes with Cobain forgoing words altogether, spitting out a long, drawn out line of grunts that sort of rhyme with “sayonara” for about a full minute.

And like that, the great alternative rock movement of the 1990s began. With that in mind, is anybody really surprised that it was a decade dominated by half-hearted, nonsensical and chopped-to-all-hell fifth-grader prose afterwards?


  1. Instead of making it a point not to make sense of the lyrics, why not look deeper into the poetry and search inside yourself to find it's relation to you, personally. and of course, actually listen with the absence of criticism. But more importantly, allow yourself to process how the song makes you feel. Art is perspective after all. A souls unique interpretation of the emotion brought on by the art is beautiful, and the more in depth you look inside the song and the emotions they bring about inside of you, the more sense it will you. And I respect your criticism and personal opinion on these songs. every single individual opinion is valid, worthy of consideration, meaningful, equally important, unique, and perfect in every way regardless of if the artists meaning is the same or not. Similar to an intrumental that tells a story, it's up to you to tell the story, not the artist. The artist simply presents beauty through their creative outlet meant for the listener to absorb however they choose. maybe the mosquito spreads disease, perhaps it sucks life away, it might even be how small he feels. But it's all up to you my friend.

  2. Joey, I'd agree the songs were more about feeling than any sort of lyrical meaning. Jimbo is spot on. Dave Grohl, drummer for Nirvana, admitted that they'd pretty much string anything together and it was much more about getting Seattle college kids' toes tapping. Early Foo Fighters lyrics are, as admitted by Grohl, equally nonsensical. "Sell the kids for food. Weather changes mood." These Nirvana lyrics aren't deep, meaningful commentary. They're English phrases that happen to rhyme with the correct amount of syllables to fit the verse. That's it.


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