The vast majority of music is written around some pretty well-worn lyrical themes: love, unrequited love, sex, unrequited lust, etc. But what of other, less obvious subject matter? Some of our finest lyricists (and, um, some of our less fine lyricists) have indulged some pretty wacky lyrical obsessions over the years, either focusing on an unconventional topic for a fleeting period, or cultivating a career-long obsession with an idiosyncratic theme. We’ve explored a few of our favorites after the jump — as ever, we’re open to suggestions. There must be loads more, eh?
Nick Cave: kittens
Key songs: “As I Sat Sadly By Her Side,” “God is In the House”, “Where Do We Go But Nowhere”
Key line: “She stroked a kitten in her lap/ And we watched the world as it fell past”
The weighty lyrical preoccupations that have characterized Cave’s career have been well-documented over the years: God, death, love, murder… all the good stuff, really. But for a fleeting period during the late 1990s and early 2000s, his lyrics were overrun with… kittens. Well, OK, “overrun” is probably an exaggeration, but it’s noticeable how often young cats get mentioned throughout No More Shall We Part.
As far as we can tell, they’ve not featured in another Cave song before or since, As reader Robert L points out, they also feature in “Where Do We Go But Nowhere”, from Cave’s previous album The Boatman’s Call, and the singer’s fondness for felines is well-documented — he narrated Eddie White’s animated film The Cat Piano, and is also an avid collector of the work of Victorian-era cat painter Louis Wain.
Brett Anderson: hired/rented cars
Key songs: “High Rising,” “The Asphalt World,” “My Dark Star”
Key line: “Sometimes we drive in a taxi/ To the edge of the city/ Like big stars in the back seat/ Like skeletons ever so pretty”
Suede’s early songs played out in a very well-defined landscape — basement flats, high rises, grim hypermarkets, “pebble dash graves.” Brett Anderson’s characters were forever in the gutter, staring at the stars, and the means of egress from satellite-town drudgery was always the same: a hired car. In Anderson’s lyrics, taxis became de facto limousines, the vehicles that transported his characters into a world of desperate glamor and dissipation.
Black Francis: aliens
Key songs: “Planet of Sound,” “The Happening,” “Motorway to Roswell,” “Velouria”
Key line: “They’ve come so far/ I’ve lived this long/ At least I might just go and say hello”
The Pixies’ singer has cultivated many, many curious lyrical obsessions over the years — broken bodies, incest, religion, and plenty of others. (There’s an exhaustive and thoroughly entertaining catalog of his motifs here, if you fancy an amusing read.) But even by his standards, his biggest preoccupation around the time of Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde was particularly unlikely: Roswell, and aliens, and the idea of making contact with extraterrestrial life. Even Kim Deal was somewhat bewildered by it all: “I’d like to sing more [in the Pixies]… But I started The Breeders to prove I can do that. Do I write the same kind of songs as Charles? No! Get outta here! I don’t care about the Bible! I don’t care about UFOs! Who wants to know about that stuff?”
Iggy Pop: dogs
Key songs: “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “King of the Dogs,” “Dog Food”
Key lyric: “Woof! Woof!”
Yes, obviously there’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” but even apart from The Stooges’ classic, dogs are a recurrent motif in Iggy’s lyrics. You get the feeling that the singer has a pretty strong identification with man’s best friend — they’re often tied into the idea of being from the bottom of the social heap, another strong theme in Iggy’s work (cf. “Dirt,” for instance), but also as a symbol of freedom and lack of inhibition. There’s a great passage in his supremely entertaining memoir I Need More where he recalls dealing with a promoter who made demands that he considered unreasonable. We don’t have a copy on hand, so we’re paraphrasing loosely, but Iggy was so disgusted that he was unable to bring himself to speak to the man — instead, he rolled around the floor and barked like a dog to express his contempt, much to the promoter’s (understandable) bewilderment.
Maynard James Keenan: anal sex
Key songs: “Stinkfist,” “Four Degrees,” “Maynard’s Dick,” “Prison Sex”
Key lyric: “Lay back and let me show you another way”
Depending on your point of view, Tool’s singer either uses anal sex as a constant metaphor for emotional closeness, or he’s just really into buttfucking. Either way, his songs tend to be characterized by some pretty graphic imagery of anal intercourse, both consensual (“Four Degrees”) and non-consensual (“Prison Sex”). And then, of course, there’s “Stinkfist,” just the most, um, tender song about anal fisting ever.
Kurt Cobain: anatomy
Key songs: “Heart-Shaped Box,” “Drain You,” “Moist Vagina,” “Rape Me”
Key lyric: “I wish I could eat your cancer”
Cobain’s fascination with physiology and anatomy — and particularly deformity, abnormalities, and disease — manifested itself most obviously in his artwork, with the packaging of In Utero and Incesticide serving as obvious examples. But it also worked its way into his lyrics — “Heart-Shaped Box” juxtaposed images of cancer and pregnancy to disconcerting effect, while “Rape Me” spoke of “open sores” and “Drain You” used the imagery of birth to catalog Cobain’s failed relationship with Bikini Kill drummer Toby Vail.
Wesley Willis: anti-schizophrenic bestiality
Key songs: “Suck a Cheetah’s Dick,” “Drink a Camel’s Cum,” “Suck a Caribou’s Ass”
Key lyric: “Suck a cheetah’s dick,” “Drink a camel’s cum,” “Suck a caribou’s ass,” etc.
We discussed the strange story of Wesley Willis here recently — the paranoid schizophrenic and often homeless Willis released a slew of records of his, um, idiosyncratic songs, which largely consisted of him ranting at the demons that he thought followed him everywhere. His most distinctive songs consisted of inciting his demons to perform various adventurous acts of bestiality, apparently because this would “gross them out” enough to leave him alone for a while. The idea of a clearly mentally ill man performing decidedly weird songs on a cheap Casio keyboard raised all sorts of questions about whether the whole spectacle verged on exploitation, but there’s no denying the singular charm of Willis’ music.
David Bowie: insanity
Key songs: “All the Madmen,” “Quicksand,” “The Bewlay Brothers,” “After All”
Key lyric: “I’d rather stay here/ With all the madmen/ Than perish with all the sad men roaming free”
Bowie’s always written interesting lyrics, but his early ’70s output makes for particularly fascinating reading, drawing on Nietzsche, H.P. Lovecraft, Aleister Crowley, and recurrent imagery of madness. Bowie had first-hand experience with mental illness — his brother Terry, about whom “The Bewlay Brothers” may or may not be written — was a paranoid schizophrenic, and in his younger days, the singer was apparently frightened of going mad because it “ran in his family.” But equally, his lyrics show an ambivalence about the idea of insanity, stemming largely from Crowley’s ideas of “breaking through” and achieving transcendence through what society in general might deem a descent into madness. “Quicksand” catalogs Bowie’s struggle with this idea, while “All the Madmen” looks at the inmates of an asylum with something approaching admiration.
Kazu Makino: horses
Key songs: “Equus,” “The Dress,” “Elephant Woman”
Key lyric: “Horse loves you when you move with him”
It’s perhaps not surprising that horses dominated Blonde Redhead’s 2004 masterpiece Misery Is a Butterfly — singer Kazu Makino was thrown from a horse in 2002, sustaining injuries that delayed the recording of the album by two years. The incident didn’t diminish Makino’s love for animals — “When I was in the emergency room, all I could think about was the horse: if he was OK, if he got hurt,” she told Oyster last year — but the album is full of imagery about being injured by innocence.
Lil Wayne: bathrooms
Key songs: “We Be Steady Mobbin’,” “Talk That,” “Money on My Mind,” “La La”
Key lyric: “Big house, long hallways/ Got ten bathrooms, I can shit all day”
Weezy is, um, down to earth, shall we say? He’s never been shy with rapping about his daily ablutions, nor with talking about them, as this MTV interview demonstrates only too well.