The Ridger has a post about when song lyrics aren’t considered as a whole. She considers the use in an ad of the song “Major Tom”, by Shiny Toy Guns, a reworking of the story from David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity”. They’re using it to hawk a car, to make the car seem space-age. “Loaded for liftoff,” is one tag line in the ad. “Reach higher,” is another.
Only, as The Ridger notes, in the song, Major Tom lifts off... but doesn’t return:
Sure, if you don’t know the song, it sounds cool[...]YouTube has the advertisement, and the full song. Lincoln has another ad that uses “Space Oddity”, as covered by Cat Power; on YouTube here.
But if you know the song, do you want to buy that car? Major Tom dies!!!
The question is this: Does it matter? Will anyone really notice, apart from a few of us who wouldn’t buy the car anyway?
Most people don’t have a clue about most of the lyrics in most of the songs they hear. Yes, a few of us really absorb them, internalize them, treat them as poetry. But for most people, “Space Oddity” consists of “Ground control to Major Tom,” something about “planet Earth”, and a bunch of music. “La-la-la-la-tin-can, dum-dum-dum....”
That’s especially true if the song has a catchy tune: the tune takes over, and people remember few of the lyrics, apart from one or two lines in the refrain.
Take “The Gambler”, written by Don Schlitz and on the pop charts by Kenny Rogers in 1979. Everyone knows the song, right? Everyone knows the chorus, about knowing when to hold ’em and knowing when to fold ’em. Does everyone know what happens? The gambler dies in his sleep on the train. But most people never listened to it closely enough to get that.
Speaking of Kenny Rogers: he had a big hit in ’69 with the Mel Tillis song “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”. It’s got a good, bouncy rhythm, very cheerful. But listen to the words: the singer is a paralyzed war veteran (Korea, but when the song was written it could as well have been Vietnam), Ruby is going out cheating on him, and he’s begging her not to. “Oh, Ruby, for God’s sake, turn around.” It’s a serious song, about a difficult subject... but how many people don’t think about that, because the title is all they know and the tune is up-beat?
I’ll throw one more out there, from one of my favourite poet-songwriters, Leonard Cohen. “Hallelujah” easily sounds like a nice, spiritual song, and many folks take it as such. But as with most of Cohen’s work, there’s a lot of metaphor, there are several layers of meaning, and nothing’s straightforward. Listen to the words next time. It’s not a gospel song.
Those of us who really listen to lyrics can cluck about the inappropriateness of a particular song, sure. But the mood is set for most people, and it works.