I’ve long maintained that as a culture, we are a people who listen only to the chorus and not the verse — the real meat and potatoes of a song beyond the catchy refrain. That’s all well and good when you’re driving down the freeway singing “Now you’re just somebody that I used to know” or “Yeah. / Uh-huh. You know what it is / Black and yellow / Black and yellow.” However, there are quite a few songs that have retained some relevance that, on the whole, are not as lyrically upbeat as their choruses might suggest.
Join me on a journey of discovery as we delve into a delightfully dysfunctional discussion of ditties that aren’t quite what they appear to be.
“Flowers On the Wall” – The Statler Brothers (1965)
At first listen, it seems as if country quartet The Statler Brothers (a band which, incidentally, only contained two brothers, none of whom answered to the surname “Statler”) are just prattling on about typical stuff you do at home when you’re bored: playing solitaire, smoking cigarettes, and watching Captain Kangaroo. Upon further analysis, it becomes apparent that the protagonist is not merely holed up in his casa watching Bob Keeshan party it up with Dancing Bear and Grandfather Clock, but there is some deeper reason why he’s shunned the light of day and taken to hanging out all by his lonesome.
That’s right. The protagonist is actually a prime candidate for a nice stint in the cookie jar. His friends are worried about his well being and pay him periodic visits to be sure he hasn’t gone completely bonkers. They come to find he’s become more sensitive to the outside world than a mole rat and taken to wearing soft, fuzzy slippers in lieu of real shoes. When not being visited by a cadre of concerned friends, our boy is dressing in formal wear and pretending to gad about town without leaving his domicile, declaring that “as long as I can dream / It’s hard to slow this swinger down.”
Deal with that image for a moment. Some guy is wearing a top hat and tails, fixing himself some scrambled eggs and dry toast to watch kiddie programming.
Kind of like how I wear a sequined gown and tiara to vacuum and watch shit tons of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
The lyrics give no other clues as to what caused this dude’s chip to slip and disconnect him from reality. It could be a bad break up, long term unemployment, or a hereditary predisposition to being whacky.Nevertheless, the chorus itself suggests that our Captain Kangaroo-lovin’ pal isn’t playing with a full deck (literally and figuratively), indicated by playing game after futile game of solitaire with only 51 cards. Upon more thorough listening, “Flowers on the Wall” is less of a springy little finger-snapper and more of a cry for help.
“Born in the U.S.A.” – Bruce Springsteen (1984)
Everyone knows this song! It’s the tune that put The Boss on the map. It’s the album cover that put Springsteen’s dumper on the map. And from a cultural standpoint, it’s also the tune that then-President Ronald Reagan held up as a shining example of “the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire.”
Maybe ol’ Ronnie put Bonzo to bed before the monkey could clue him in that “Born in the U.S.A.” is not quite the patriotic anthem the President thought it was. Sure, taken separately from it’s verses, the chorus to Springsteen’s angst-riddled anthem seems poised for a yankee doodle dandy of a campaign sound bite. But when you listen to the song as a whole, it’s plain as day that “Born in the U.S.A.” laments the gradually diminishing options afforded to the working class.
Sung from the point of view of a returning Vietnam vet, Springsteen utters such “messages of hope” as: “You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much / Until you spend half your life just covering up” and “I’m ten years burning down the road /Nowhere to run / Ain’t got nowhere to go.”
Granted, Springsteen isn’t renowned for his pristine enunciation, but a quick gander at some liner notes and a good, hard listen to the song nails home its true message. Suddenly, the picture becomes clearer that the seemingly patriotic refrain is actually one of music’s most misappropriated exercises in sarcasm and dissidence.
“99 Luftballons” – Nena (1983, 1984)
In a nutshell, “99 Luftballons” (or “99 Red Balloons”) is the most happy, cheerful, dance-tastic song about nuclear holocaust ever. Originally recorded in German by Teutonic pop chanteuse Nena during the peak of the Cold War, Nena and her band (who actually wrote the tune) remade it in English one year later.
While the chipper refrain of “99 red balloons / Floating in a summer sky” just makes you want to skip up the street all the way to Party City, closer examination of the verses reveal a trigger happy reaction to an innocent release of 99 cheerful, crimson-hued sacks of helium.
The lyrics tell the string of events that lead to the world going BAH-BOOM: One clear summer day, a couple crazy kids spend their allowance at a toy store. They buy and release 99 red balloons. Meanwhile, back at some government base, there’s a technological glitch in the radar that cannot determine whether these 99 flying, red objects are UFOs, foreign missiles, or (duh) balloons. Some “Worry, worry / Super scurry” ensues before troops are dispatched. As 99 red balloons go by, some overly-anxious knucklehead pushes one shiny, red, candy button triggering all-out nuclear war which charbroils the globe like a $9.99 special at Applebee’s.
The song ends with the storyteller reminiscing about his or her friend and the world before it became shoe leather:
“It’s all over and I’m standing pretty /
In this dust that was a city /
If could find a souvenir/
Just to the prove the world was here /
And here it is /
A red balloon/
I think of you and let it go.”
The final mental picture of “99 Red Balloons” is far bleaker than what its skippedy-doo-dah title initially invokes. It’s a downright Debbie Downer designed to make listeners reflect on an all too common urge to act with little thought to consequence. Further rumination on the song’s lyrics taken as a whole yields a valuable lesson: If you have 99 red balloons in front of you, just make them into 99 red balloon animals instead of sending them up to the sky.