Songs Shouldn’t Need Subtitles or a Translator

Songs Shouldn’t Need Subtitles or a Translator
Listening to pleasant music with meaningful lyrics creates a relaxing environment. (Biba Kayewch)
Randy Tatano

Recently, I was at an elementary school for a special ceremony in which the principal honored the students who had read the most books during the year. Kids walked on a red carpet, enjoyed a special lunch, and then danced to some of their favorite songs. Of course, for those “of a certain age,” the poor diction of rap and hip-hop made the lyrics unintelligible. Not that there’s a message in that genre anyway.

Then, suddenly, a familiar song filled the room. Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” I figured a teacher snuck that one into the playlist, until the students began singing along. I asked a girl seated nearby, “You guys know this song?”

“Sure!” she said.

She went back to singing with her classmates, who all of a sudden sounded like crazed Red Sox fans.

I was surprised that children not only knew the words to a 1969 song but also actually seemed to like it. And it made me think.

How have song lyrics gone from those of my childhood to what passes for music today?

Growing up in the ’50s in an Italian household, the air in our home was filled with the smell of pasta sauce and the sounds of Frank Sinatra. By the time I was 7, I knew the lyrics to his songs by heart. Even the tunes of other singers were so easy to understand that they were soon burned into your brain. Songs had a theme, a message, even. They were simple but catchy and memorable. Some, so beautifully written, were poetry set to music:
Pennies in a stream Falling leaves a sycamore Moonlight in Vermont
Icy finger waves Ski trails on a mountain side Snowlight in Vermont Others just spiked your adrenaline:
Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away If you can use some exotic booze There’s a bar in far Bombay

And listening to Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife” inspired me to learn how to snap my fingers.

Listening to pleasant music with meaningful lyrics creates a relaxing environment. (Biba Kayewch)
Listening to pleasant music with meaningful lyrics creates a relaxing environment. (Biba Kayewch)
Songs usually told a story and had a message. Sure, there were a few outliers:
There she was just a-walking down the street Singin' doh wah diddy diddy dam diddy doh
But they were still fun. And you could understand the words, even if they made no sense.
And then there were songs that really made no sense. To me, anyway:
I am the egg man They are the egg men I am the walrus Goo goo g'joob
In 2006, things went downhill off a ski jump at the Academy Awards, when “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” took home the Oscar for Best Original Song. It kinda stuck out on the list of previous winners, which included “The Way You Look Tonight.” In one night, we went from:
Someday, when I’m awfully low When the world is cold I will feel a glow just thinking of you And the way you look tonight
To these classy lyrics:
That’s the way the game goes, gotta keep it strictly pimping Gotta keep my hustle tight, making change off these women

(Note: I had to do an internet search for the lyrics to the latter, since I couldn’t remotely understand them. As for the song’s message, maybe ask a bail bondsman or a public defender.)

Curiously, country music singers seem to have embraced good diction and storytelling, and those lyrics are pretty easy to understand.

So why does most everything else in today’s music have to be impossible to understand, with a “message” (if you even want to call it that) that isn’t exactly something most parents want to impress on their children?

Still, there’s hope. If a bunch of elementary school children can enjoy a song from my generation, it might be a clue to songwriters and singers that it’s time for music to go back to its roots—with beautiful lyrics, perfect diction, and a story.

In the meantime, I’ll put on a stack of old 45s. They sound scratchy on the record player, but I can still understand them. It’s simply a musical time machine from the days when songs actually meant something. As Sinatra sings, I can close my eyes and almost smell the pasta sauce.

Randy Tatano is a former local television reporter and network producer who now writes political thrillers as Nick Harlow. He grew up in a New York City suburb and lives on the Gulf Coast with his wife and four cats.
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