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Pop Tunes and Grammar

For many years I’ve had a framed drawing sitting on my bookshelf. It’s from the New Yorker magazine, and it’s by the brilliant cartoonist Roz Chast. It depicts a record album titled Miss Ilene Krenshaw Sings 100% Grammatically Correct Popular Tunes.

Songs include “You Aren’t Anything but a Hound Dog,” “It Doesn’t Mean a Thing if It Hasn’t Got That Swing,” and “I’m Not Misbehaving.”

Note that all three songs, in their original form, contain ain’t: “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Houn’ Dog,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing,” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Also two of the three tunes feature words with the colloquial lopped-off g (nothin’, misbehavin’). Saying ain’t and dropping g’s are timeless trademarks of popular music. They send the message that formality is out … prim and proper prigs and prudes can drop dead … let’s party!

For decades, “Miss Ilene Krenshaw” and her fellow nitpickers have cringed at the English-mangling pop music embraced by the young. Nowadays they especially deplore the damage it’s doing to a literacy-challenged generation.

But pop music’s coarseness is part of its scruffy charm. Here are some examples I heard growing up:

“Everybody Loves a Lover”  This justly forgotten trifle was a hit for a slumming Doris Day in the late 1950s. I’ll bet that back then, sticklers’ teeth were grinding over this couplet: “I should worry, not for nothin’. / Everybody loves me, yes they do.” In Miss Ilene Krenshaw’s perfect world, Ms. Day would have sung: “I should worry, not for anything. / Everybody loves me, yes he or she does.”

“It’s Now or Never”  A torrid love song from Elvis at his absolute peak. The King had the ladies screaming and swooning when he first warbled this tune in 1960. Nonetheless, it contains one of the clunkiest mixed metaphors of all time: “Just like a willow we would cry an ocean.” What the …?! OK, weeping willow, got it. And “cry an ocean” echoes the old ballad “Cry Me a River,” a nice touch. But a tree that cries an ocean? Weird. Is this a torch song or a Guillermo del Toro movie?

“Touch Me”  It was a smash in 1968 for the Doors and their lead singer, troubled heartthrob Jim Morrison. I was a stickler-in-training when “Touch Me” came out, and I hated this line: “I’m gonna love you till the stars fall from the sky for you and I.” My gripe: it should be “for you and me.” The sky-I rhyme might make it poetry, but it sure isn’t good grammar. So I kept trying to rewrite it. Alas, the best line I ever came up with was “till the stars fall in the sea for you and me.”

“Lay Lady Lay”  This gorgeous, mildly risqué love song raised a lot of eyebrows in the late sixties. It was a big hit for Bob Dylan, who had recently reinvented himself as a Nashville crooner, with a mellifluous baritone no one at the time dreamed he had in him. The title gave the grammar patrol fits. Strictly speaking, it should be “Lie Lady Lie,” which sounds awful, as if he’s saying his lady is a compulsive liar. Sing it like that and you can kiss your hit record goodbye—along with your street cred.

Tom Stern

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