It’s that time of year when we roll down the ragtop, crank up the radio, and give full voice to our inner Thia Megia. Nothing is more American than hitting the open road with a song in your heart that bursts unchecked onto your lips, causing the guy in the next car over to wonder if you’re spastically seizing or merely rocking out.
Singing along with our favorite popular tunes is a great warm-weather pastime in this country, ranking right up there with foreign invasions. Though both often involve a brutal assault, the sing-along’s casualty counts are far more contained, with only your fellow passengers suffering. If only innocent Libyan, Iraqi and Afghan civilians could simply wait for the next stop light to hop out of harm’s way.
I try to limit collateral damage by taking the advice of American Idol judges and “making the song my own.” I’m not content to regurgitate well-worn lyrics verbatim; I like to modify the words to fit my personality. This allows me to still feel the original songwriter’s spirit while accommodating my own peculiar pecadilloes.
For example, I like to try to clean up the grammar and syntax. As a former copy editor, it bugs me no end to hear supergroups like the Supremes, the Rolling Stones and the Who mangle our language. So I take a few liberties, knowing I’m probably beyond the long reach of ASCAP as I tool down Interstate 77 in my Honda Civic. So “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” becomes “There Isn’t Any Mountain The Elevation of Which is Higher.” The classic interlude of “Satisfaction” is changed from the huffing “Can’t get no…/Can’t get no…” into “I can’t get any…/I can’t get any…”. “Summertime Blues” is transformed from a passionate working-class teenage lament into a well-reasoned labor complaint:
Well, I’m going to raise a fuss and I’m going to raise a holler
About working all summer just trying to earn a dollar
I went to the bossman and I tried to get a break
But the boss said “No dice, son, you have to work late”
Sometimes I wonder what I’m going to do
Because there isn’t any cure for the summertime blues.
Note the absence of abominations like “gonna” and “ain’t” and “gotta”. Think about how much more likely I would be to have a Schedule Variance Form approved by my supervisor than a whiner like Roger Daltry.
I’m also not comfortable singing certain songs in the first person. I’m not one to wear my emotions on my sleeve, and prefer instead to croon about hypothetical feelings. I might’ve wanted very much to hold her hand, or became extremely agitated when I saw her standing there, but I don’t like to admit it. It works better for my own personal style to comment on the angst of others:
Oh, yeah, he’ll tell you something
He thinks you’ll understand
When he says that something
He wants to hold her hand
Well his heart went boom
When he crossed that room
And he held her hand
In his …
Well, they danced through the night
And they held each other tight
And before too long they fell in love with each other
I don’t have to actually become the Alan Parsons Project:
He was the eye in the sky
Looking at her, he could read her mind.
… and I can belt out one of the most clever song lyrics in the history of rock without feeling gay:
He walked into the party like he was walking onto a yacht
His hat strategically dipped below one eye
His scarf it was apricot
He had one eye on the mirror as he watched himself cavort
And all the girls dreamed that they’d be his partner, they’d be his partner
He’s so vain, he probably thinks this song is about him
He’s so vain, I bet he thinks this song is about him
Doesn’t he? Doesn’t he?
Finally, I try to put certain songs in a more realistic perspective. When these classics were current hits some 40 or more years ago, they reflected our youthful yearnings. Now that we’re older and more concerned with losing our hair than losing our baby, it only makes sense that we adapt those charmingly naive lyrics to reflect lives that are well lived but mostly over. So a favorite Beach Boys oldie requires a few changes:
Wouldn’t it have been nice if we had been older?
Then we wouldn’t have had to wait so long
And wouldn’t it have been nice to have lived together
In the kind of world where we would’ve belonged?
You know if would’ve made it that much better
When we could’ve said goodnight and stayed together
Wouldn’t it have been nice?
Maybe if we would’ve thought and wished and hoped and prayed it might’ve come true
Baby then, there wouldn’t have been a single thing we couldn’t have done
We could’ve been married, and then we would’ve been happy
Oh, wouldn’t it have been nice?
I can still be an inveterate romantic and a huge fan of Lennon and McCartney’s timeless songbook, yet still retain my respect for Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.