3
From lyric to anti-lyric: analyzing the words
in pop song
DAI GRIFFITHS

Introduction

The 'safesurfer' of Julian Cope's song is someone who sleeps around 'like HIV ain't never coming down'.1 The record turns round a commonplace of rock music: that in song, words give way to music, a voice's emotion, a guitar's virtuosity. 'Safesurfer' lets its instruments loose at beginning and end, enclosing this risk-taking gigolo's statements.2 When it arrives, his rap is determinedly prosaic, hard speech: senseless ramblings which create nothing but foreboding for what is to follow in the song. As his speech turns to song, to melody, he gets real: 'You don't have to be afraid, love, 'cos I'm a safesurfer, darling'. But he isn't: he's lying, and the record blisters and blisses and bleeps without words to its fade.

The safesurfer rides a wave between emotion and truth: full of feeling he may be, but what someone listening to him needs to know is the fact of his experience. What bothers sociologists about the words of pop songs is any presupposition that songs 'have inherent meanings which can be objectively identified, that the meaning of lyrics can be defined independently of their music, and that such cultural messages are effectively transmitted and received'. Peter J. Martin: 'none of these assumptions is easy to defend' (Martin 1995: 264). Simon Frith, too, is keen to blur any assumption of direct transmission and reception of words: songs, he says at one point, 'provide people with the means to articulate the feelings associated with being in love' (Frith 1996: 164). But the inarticulate speech of the heart should hardly prevent

____________________
1
Julian Cope, sleeve note to Peggy Suicide.
2
The song lasts just over eight minutes: the voice enters just after 2′ 50″ and disappears after 4′ 54″

-39-

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Analyzing Popular Music
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