Perhaps this isn’t a widespread view, but there are times where no matter how good the music is, a song can be made unlistenable when the lyrics are garbage. They can’t be run of the mill dumb. Depeche Mode, Neil Young, and The Beatles (yes, yes sacrilege blah blah) have plenty of songs with doofus words strung together. It doesn’t have to be chaff that every band and musician has filling out their catalog. This includes some truly great songs like Monkey Man by the Rolling Stones which contains the lines
I'm a cold Italian pizza
I could use a lemon squeezer
What you do?
What the hell is that? That is some dumb stuff to say, yet it is still a great song. Hell, Robert Pollard (Guided by Voices) has based his entire career on goofy stuff like this. That’s the thing though it’s stupid, but you’re more apt to call it silly, but not bad per se. No, what I am talking about stuff that is rock stupid throughout. Shallow, but self-serious, and joyless.
It may not be the most egregious example of this, and certainly not the most recent one, but the first song that came to mind is Sail by AWOL Nation. Strangely when I first heard the song I was willing to overlook its flaws for the simple reason that I thought it was techno.
So context also matters. Techno can get away with a lot of this stuff because of the purpose it serves: dancing or zoning out. If you need proof of that all you need to do is consider The Test by the Chemical Brothers. AWOL Nation though is an actual band and not some socially awkward turntablist with a laptop. Awww.
It’s got everything bad. The band name is awful. It has cringe worthy emo video. The chorus is a single word repeated ad nauseam (and the Fred Durst style vocals don’t help). The verses are meandering, trite, and incomprehensible. They could have been better if they were reorganized. Not great, but better. Now you might say that this was intentional and supposed to mimic the thought process of someone with Attention Deficit Disorder (as the speaker in the song is sure to tell us over and over again he has). That’s nonsense, and here’s why: that’s not how ADD works. ADD sufferers will start on one subject and then see all sorts of different things that are connected to that subject and the story will either get lost in tangents, peter out, or somehow tie it all back together. They won’t tell you the story backwards like Sail does. This is just false profundity.
At that’s really what kills it. It can’t even manage to be stupid but fun like any other worthwhile singers have managed from Chuck Berry through the British Invasion, Glam Rock, New Wave, Hip Hop, and to where we are now. It really is the shame, because the music is legit. You hear the ethereal eeriness of shoegaze or trip hop. The heavy ambient drone of that you might hear in minimalist modern compositions of Phillip Glass of Hans Zimmer. This may date me a bit, but it also has the steady marching tempo and time signatures of '90s pop alternative. If it was an instrumental it’d be perfectly serviceable. Alas the lyrics just killed the whole thing. It’s sad when that happens.
If you believe in Sturgeon’s Law that a large percentage of everything is crap, then considering you have to play quite the numbers game to have good words and good music. The last paragraph has one solution: there is always instrumentals. That’s kind of a cop out and ignores the fact that the human voice is itself a powerful instrument. You can’t constantly avoid something because it has the potential for it to go wrong.
But worry not! I have a solution for you in Part II