Kevin E G Perry runs down the clunkiest and most baffling song lyrics
The great American author and humorist Mark Twain was not known as a songwriter, but he offered some words of advice that all budding lyricists should bear in mind. “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter,” Twain wrote in 1888. “’Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Writing song lyrics is a tricky business. Done well, it can produce poetry with the power to move a person to tears. But choose the wrong word, or even just the almost right word, and your song will only move people to want to turn it off.
And then, of course, there are those times when lyricists don’t even get it almost right. The stinkers, the clunkers and the just plain baffling.
23. Eminem: “Now you get to watch her leave out the window/ Guess that’s why they call it window pane”
Marshall Mathers is without question one of the most talented and inventive lyricists of his or any other generation, and he has written countless great bars. Even Em can drop a howler, however, like this physically painful pun from “Love The Way You Lie”, his 2010 collaboration with Rihanna.
22. Busted: “I messed my pants/ When we flew over France”
Pop-punk boyband Busted are often mocked for the line from “Year 3000” that goes: “I’ve been to the year 3000/ Not much has changed but they lived underwater”, but that’s a slice of nonchalant brilliance compared to the grim image conjured by this lyric from 2002’s “Air Hostess”.
21. Jason Derulo: “A hundred and five is the number that comes to my head/ When I think of all the years I want to be with you”
The opening lines of Derulo’s 2013 hit “Marry Me” are the singer’s personal favourites. “It’s one of those things… you want to wake up next to that person forever, so 105 is the number that I thought of,” he once told interviewer Ryan Seacrest. Clearly he thinks that’s a terribly romantic timeframe, but it does still seem oddly specific.
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20. David Guetta & Akon: “I’m trying to find the words to describe this girl/ Without being disrespectful/ Damn you’s a sexy bitch.”
Evidently neither Akon or Guetta were trying that hard to expand their vocabularies on 2009 collaboration “Sexy Bitch”, although they did add that the lady in question is “nothing you can compare to your neighbourhood whore”. The charmers!
19. Miley Cyrus: “Driving so fast ’bout to piss on myself/ Driving so fast ’bout to piss on myself.”
Cyrus’ 2013 album Bangerz successfully reinvented Hannah Montana as a pop superstar from the dirty south, but the urgent repetition of this line from Nelly collab “4×4” isn’t so much a rebel yell as a the frantic mutterings of an Uber driver searching for a public toilet.
18. Neil Diamond: “‘I am,’ I said/ To no one there/ And no one heard at all/ Not even the chair”
Diamond’s 1971 single “I Am… I Said” is a raging expression of existential angst that also happens to include this woeful line, which the humourist Dave Barry famously dunked on: “Maybe he expected the chair to say, ‘Whoa, I heard that!’ My guess is that Neil was really desperate to come up with something to rhyme with ‘there’ and he had already rejected ‘So I ate a pear,’ ‘Like Smokey The Bear,’ and ‘There were nits in my hair.’”
17. Peter Gabriel: “Let me introduce his frogness/ You alone can get him singing/ He’s all puffed up, wanna be your king/ Oh, you can do it/ C’mon lady, kiss that frog”
On his 1992 album Us, the former Genesis man offered us this crude reworking of the fairytale of the princess and the frog, and an image of his warty little toad you may never forget.
16. Iggy Azalea: “Said he wanna blow fish, I’m Hootie/ Follow my legs to my booty”
Darius Rucker and co could be forgiven for wondering how they ended up getting dragged into this less-than enticing image from Azalea’s 2012 single “Down South”.
15. Usher: “Honey got a booty like pow, pow, pow/ Honey got some boobies like wow, oh wow”
Usher seems like a smooth-talking type, so it’s somewhat surprising that he couldn’t manage anything more eloquent than this for his 2010 Will.I.Am collaboration “OMG”. Even more surprising is that he may have stolen the delivery from Homer Simpson.
14. Jessie J: “Am I asleep? No, I’m alive”
This line from Jessie J’s 2013 single “Wild”, which also featured Big Sean and Dizzee Rascal, is particularly annoying because “awake” would have fit, and made a lot more sense.
13. Kodak Black: “Say she pregnant, let me f*** so I can feed the kid”
A few bars before this truly awful line from 2017’s “No Meds”, Kodak Black worries that when his love is tested he might get an “F”. Presumably he already flunked Biology.
12. Train: “I’m so obsessed/ My heart is bound to beat right out of my untrimmed chest”
Remember what Mark Twain said about the lightning bug? There’s only one word in this lyric from Train’s dreadful 2009 megahit “Hey, Soul Sister” that stands out as particularly egregious, but it’s a hard image to shake once you hear it.
11. Drake: “Got so many chains they call me Chain-ing Tatum (They do, they do)”
A cringeworthy line from 2016’s “Pop Style” that begs the question: Do they, though?
10. Jimmy Webb: “As we followed in the dance/ Between the parted pages and were pressed/ In love’s hot, fevered iron/ Like a striped pair of pants”
Jimmy Webb wrote some of the finest songs of all time, including “Wichita Lineman” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, but his 1967 composition “MacArthur Park” has become a byword for bad lyrics. The bit expressing concern about a cake left out in the rain is more famous, but this trouser press analogy really confirms that Webb was having an off-day.
9. Kesha: “Zip your lip like a padlock”
Einstein once famously remarked that: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Kesha would have done well to heed that advice on her 2010 track “Blah Blah Blah”, in which she attempts to simplify the image of someone zipping their mouth and then locking it into a single zinger but ends up with this utter nonsense. Alas, padlocks don’t zip.
8. Will.I.Am: “And mix your milk with my Coco Puffs/ Milky, milky coco/ Mix your milk with my Coco Puffs/ Milky, milky right”
It was Shakespeare who said: “If music be the food of love, play on”, but it was Will.I.Am who perhaps expressed the connection between food and sex most eloquently on the Black Eyed Peas’ 2005 single “My Humps”.
7. Insane Clown Posse: “F***ing magnets, how do they work?”
We were all told at school that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, and on the face of it Insane Clown Posse do raise an interesting point here about a fascinating phenomenon that can help us understand the world at an atomic level. Don’t tell them that though – turns out they’re not actually interested in the answer. “And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist/ Y’all motherf***ers lying, and getting me pissed,” they continued on their meme-able 2009 hit “Miracles”. Thus our age of wilful mass ignorance found its theme tune.
6. J Cole: “You wanna know how I know I’m the s***? Cause I keep clogging up the toilet”
J Cole is a rapper who frequently reaches for a scatological reference, and this line from 2011’s “Disgusting” really lives down to the song’s title. Also, it sounds like maybe he needs to see a doctor?
5. Snap!: “I’m as serious as cancer when I say rhythm is a dancer”
German Eurodance group Snap!’s 1992 single “Rhythm is a Dancer” is a long-standing club classic which also contains a perfect example of how just one out-of-place word can transform an ordinary, workaday lyric into something as jarring as thinking about tumours on the dancefloor.
4. Des’ree: “I don’t want to see a ghost/ It’s a sight that I fear most/ I’d rather have a piece of toast/ And watch the evening news/ Life, oh life”
Sometimes a rhyming dictionary can be a lyricist’s best friend. Other times, as on Des’ree’s 1998 hit “Life”, that friend can betray you.
3. Nickelback: “I like your pants around your feet/ And I like the dirt that’s on your knees/ And I like the way you still say ‘Please’/ While you’re looking up at me/ You’re like my favourite damn disease”
As we’ve seen, bad lyrics often feature either misplaced sexual bravado or confounding word choices. Nickelback combined both elements on 2014’s “Figured You Out”, while also raising the question: What exactly is your favourite disease, Chad Kroeger?
2. U2: “Unos, dos, tres, catorce!”
It was hard to escape U2’s mammoth hit “Vertigo” in 2004, which must have been particularly frustrating for Spanish speakers forced to listen to Bono count in the song: “One, two, three, fourteen!” Hardcore U2 apologists will tell you this is a deliberate reference to Exodus 3:14, but when asked about the line by an interviewer from Rolling Stone, man of the world Bono conceded: “There may have been some alcohol involved.”
1. Lil Yachty: “She blow that dick like a cello”
On his 2017 single “Peek A Boo”, Atlanta rapper Lil Yachty was inspired by the Spongebob Squarepants character Squidward to dream up a graphic simile for oral sex. Sadly, however, the instrument Squidward plays is a clarinet, not a cello. Writing on the lyrics website Genius, Lil Yachty acknowledged his mistake before attempting to shift the blame: “OK, let’s stop for a second,” he wrote. “Before you come at me, I’ma let you know. I’ma blame my A&R. Because he listened to that song many times and he allowed me to say that… I guess for a second, I thought a cello was a woodwind instrument and it is not. And nobody ever said s***. Nobody ever pulled up a pic and said, ‘Hey man. I don’t know if you know what this is, but it ain’t that.’ I fucked up. I thought Squidward played the cello. He don’t. That’s a flute. I f****d up. But it do sound good.”
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