Thursday, April 29, 2010

"Give me the business all night long": Layers in the Lyrics of Rock

Most of us don't expect much out of our classic rock n' roll lyrics. The most sophisticated devices we usually find there are some sarcasm or some overtly sexual double entendres. If we want our rock to have depth and meaning, we usually turn to folkier sorts of rockers, the ones who take up causes and provide scathing social commentaries. The Neil Youngs, the Joni Mitchells, and even sometimes the John Fogertys of acoustic- and vocal-driven rock wrote lyrics that were meant to be heard, and that delivered messages on several levels, between which they hoped their listeners would uncover layers of sometimes paradoxical meaning -- patriotism mixed with suspicion of the government, or naive nostalgia mixed with the wisdom of "there's no going back." But when we want to just rock out, we don't want the meaning to distract us. Arena rock, the best selling rock of the '70s and '80s, gives us that Dionysian escape through soaring vocals and repetitive driving hooks.

We might think it's futile to look for any sort of depth in our arena rock, our "popular" rock, but sometimes an overproduced, wall-of-sound, stadium filler screamed out by a "pussy god" in a muscle shirt can have a surprisingly layered message.

The song that made me start thinking about the words of arena rock was Billy Squier's "The Stroke." This song is an excellent departure from the usual subjects, because it uses some clever double meanings and analogies to deliver a somewhat unique message, and also to hook the listener in before they even know what that message is. The devices in the song are in no way sophisticated -- the analogy is obvious, as well as sexual like so many of the devices in songs from that era. But Squier used his audience's keen 1980s ear for sexy language as a way to pull them into a dialog that hasn't the least bit to do with that kind of sex, but another kind of expression of ownership or prostitution.

This song is being discussed all over the internet in song meaning forums where idiot kids leave comments like "totally about spanking it!" and "it's a hookup song." The kids obviously didn't notice that the speakers in the song keep addressing each other as "boy," and they don't mention anything about the song being "gay," so their ears must be so polluted they don't hear a thing. They do however, feel quite strongly that Squier's on-stage dancing is most "gay."

On the opposite end of the argument however, a bunch of rock nerd killjoys come into those forums and say "this song has nothing to do with sex," "Squier didn't mean that AT ALL it's about the record industry and nothing else," or my favorite, "it's so obviously about transactional analysis." Squier of course knew that "stroke" was a psychological term, but I doubt he sat there thinking "Oh yes, I'm going to write a clever song based on transactional analysis." TA is a post-Freudian type of analysis developed by Eric Berne, a guy who loved him some Freud (even if he disagreed with him and had to invent a new type of analysis because of it). No matter the origins of "the stroke," it's hard to avoid thinking about the term like a Freudian, that is, seeing it as a sexual metaphor applied to the psyche or ego. Whether this is valid or not, Squier knew people would initially hear it that way (along with the other sexual lyrics) and get pulled into the song -- hopefully hearing his real message by the end. Really, if it was all about a cool argument against the exploitation of musicians, would we have women rhythmically chanting "stroke!" a hundred times over?

Squier uses the girls chanting "stroke!" and the suggestive "stroke me" lines as a hook, but the lyrics to the verses and the ad lib in between the lines of the choruses use the sexual metaphors as more than just a marketing tool. (Ok, now you can start shaking your head every time I write "tool," "device," etc.) Once the transaction begins (firm handshakes and accusations of spreading "ear pollution"), the record exec gives the musician the once over and tells him he can "move quite well." Mm hmm. (More on that later.) After the first chorus of sarcastically asking for some strokes, the musician calls the record exec a "sinner." A strong word for someone who's merely a cheat or a scheister. It implies something a little more carnal, a cardinal sin. I think the most telling lyric comes in the second verse with "First you try to bed me/You make my backbone slide." Ok, "bed me" is a pretty obvious metaphor. "Bend over and sign this contract," is pretty much what the exec is saying. "Backbone slide" comes from an expression for losing your courage or giving into something (selling out in this case) but it has also been used to describe dancing, something the men are doing metaphorically during the transaction, and something the exec wants the musician to do quite literally, in order to earn his money. My absolute favorite line in this song, delivered in a tinglingly coy mix of disgust and seduction: "Give me the bus-i-ness all night long."

Who is speaking and who is being addressed in this song seems to shift around. It leads in with an announcement for the audience ("Have you heard?") and then describes the processes of the music business, and ends what could be another address to the audience, or another exchange between the musician and exec. But the overall meaning is not much altered if you aren't sure who's doing the stroking at any given time, or who is being sarcastically encouraged to participate. It's a two way street, with the record execs wooing the musicians and the musicians prostituting themselves with the help of some powerful pimps. Strokes are probably passed back and forth. Squier is disgusted with the record industry, but also with the musicians who allow it to dominate them.

It's also interesting to note that the album "The Stroke" comes from is called Don't Say No. Don't say no to signing me for this record? Don't say no to buying concert tickets? Who knows. But the message of "The Stroke" seems to be that, as far as record companies are concerned, even if musicians say "no" they always mean "yes." Please, yes!

I said I'd mention Squier's dancing, since the kids' "gay-dar" started bleeping when they watched the video. He doesn't look gay. He looks like a nerd who worked hard and made it onto the stage. (He's still a nerd. He works in public gardens and supports "native planting" efforts.) Well, the ladies certainly didn't find his "fancy dances" a turnoff. Sometimes he's a little Freddy Mercury-esque in his strutting, and sometimes he just looks like a silly Robert Plant imitation. But no girl would have anything bad to say about that hair of his, or his (sometimes pink) muscle shirts, or those 80s fit Levis. I was surprised to find he's already 31 years old in that video. Makes me feel pretty darn good about turning 30!

(I didn't launch into this post because of Billy's pelvic moves -- I've thought he was the shit since long before I knew what he looked like. I love Robert Plant's voice, and I always thought Squier had a similar sound but more masculine, and totally American. Plant, as great as he is, is like some kind of English folkloric nymph . Squier is a dude. I'd only seen one or two photos of him, so I watched his videos for the first time ever in order to write this! I was happy to find him a whole package deal of rock n'roll goodies. Im sorry, am I objectifying a man?)

So while most of the arena rock we listen to might not have anything interesting to say, I'm going to start keeping my ears open for little lyrical efforts on the part of the tight-pants-wearing, luxurious-hair-sporting musicians. Some of them are true artists, even if their album covers and concert ticket sales seem to somehow prove them otherwise. Someone was probably just stroking them "quite well."

Billy turns 60 on May 12.

"Lean on brick wall while holding guitar" must have
been the only executive-approved pose for his photo shoots.

"The Stroke" on YouTube


  1. I have heard that song a million times and never listened to what he was saying, only picturing him yelling at a rowing team. Thanks for making it something I might have sex to, or consider before I sign a record contract. You're the best R!

  2. Happy my interpretation could be of service, both at home and at the office!

  3. Mmmm, and I know so many who would interpret that last shot as one big "guitar-erection".


I publish all the comments, the good, the bad and the ugly. Unless I have no idea what you're saying. If you want to email me (with only good I hope), I'm at rbyrd [at] niu [dot] edu.