Listening so much to my oldies radio station, I find I start to process things differently. For instance, some songs I love have really dumb lyrics. From this viewpoint of 50-plus years later, I wonder why they were hits songs.
For example, “White on white, lace on satin . . . I'll be waiting to kiss the bride . . .” Except she's marrying someone else, and I'm crying at the ceremony. Why are you even there!? How dumb can you be?
Or “You can run around, you can break my heart . . . I'll love you 'til I die; I can't stay mad at you” Until you die? Who puts up with that?
Then there were the “teenage tragedy songs.” Sometimes called “splatter platters.” Yeah . . . this genre still exists, but maybe not like back then.
A 1959 #1 hit, “Running Bear,” was a Romeo and Juliet song transposed to a native American setting. I guess it highlights the timeless popularity of Shakespeare's play.
The more maudlin “Teen Angel,” a #1 in the same year, was a real tear-jerker. I can't believe we got hooked into thinking a girl loosing her ring was so all-important that she risked getting hit by a train. But maybe I shouldn't be, since today we have mature, educated adults risking their lives for a manicure.
In 1961, we got Pat Boone's “Moody River,” with a suicide drowning. Three years earlier, “Endless Sleep” had the same ending, but the record company insisted on a happy ending, so the lyrics were changed.
Still, some kind of teenage angst made it perfectly logical to end your life because you had a fight with you boyfriend. As Skeeter Davis would sing, “Don't they know it's the end of my world?” Literally.
And judging by their Billboard placements, we bought those records in droves.
Or the ones that featured risk-taking, like “Tell Laura I Love Her, “Dead Man's Curve,” or “Leader of the Pack” (which was also about peer pressure).
Teen death songs thread their way through our rock music history, always serving the same purpose: to incite our senses to tears and anguish.
The genre wasn't invented by Tin Pan Alley, though. In the mid-1600's, a song titled “Barbara Allen” became popular enough for settlers to bring to America and preserve it in their Appalachian catalog. During the folk-rock era of the '60's, it became a staple on many record albums.
But these songs differ from the just plain dumb oldies which would puzzle teens today. Like “The Battle of New Orleans.” I have a friend who teaches college history, and he is always amused by his students' reaction when he plays it.
All I can say about “Mr. Custer," “Purple People Eater,” or “Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weenie [you know the rest]” is that they must have been good dance songs.
Then there's “Alvin's Harmonica,” which made the Chipmunks (a non-existent group) the latest fad. I still remember being excited when my uncle gave me a stuffed Alvin for Christmas.
Taking dumb songs a step further, you could cite several Ray Stevens' contributions. His parodies of society provided humorous entertainment. You can't beat “The Streak” (“Don't look, Ethel!”).
“Ahab the Arab [to rhyme],” “Shriner's Convention,” and “Santa Claus Is Watching You” make a good attempt, though.
I'm not sure why songs such as these became hits. Maybe they signify a more innocent era in American adolescence. And that's not to say they didn't also appeal to adults. I don't know--I wasn't one.
But I do know that music is a powerful tool to move the emotions. It can occur in any form, from “classical” to pop rock. Whether the composer is writing from a need to put the music in his head onto paper or to score a major hit for his bank account, we recognize the success of the endeavor.
Longing for love, unrequited love, love gone awry, tragic love--and also laughter--all of these provide fertile ground for writers. And we, as listeners, can fulfill our need to be emotionally moved by what we hear.