Metaphors can be like post-it-notes. You can find them almost anywhere and sometimes they never seem to stick, no matter what they were ostensibly designating in the first place.
Remember the neo-cult-classic 1993 film Airheads? In it, Brendan Fraser (playing a Gen-X rocker with a “loaded” squirt-gun) debates with Joe Mantegna (playing a grouchy former hipster and Baby Boomer) about the profundity of their respective musical generations. “You’re telling me,” Fraser cocks an eyebrow back at Mantegna’s sacred 60’s, “that ‘Purple Haze’ says something?”
Well…! Maybe! Right?
One has to be careful. A.) Sometimes a song really IS just about an actual thing. And, B.) truly…some songs aren’t about ANYTHING, really.
If anything, we hope this modest list gets you thinking about some of the ambiguity-laced lyrics that might be otherwise fluttering past your ears, chorus-to-chorus, as you stream the next batch of singles from the Best Of Whoever’s Next.
I mean, really, what did the B-52’s mean, in “Love Shack” when they shouted: “TIN ROOF….rusted!” We could be here for hours.
Here are 10 great metaphors in song:
Metaphor for: Daytime sex winning out over cold showers
Did anyone see the parody of this song on Arrested Development? No one expects a song that sounds so sweet and innocent to actually be so lascivious. Horny, really! It’s right around that “sticks and stones” part where everyone usually gets creeped out and stops singing-along.
Metaphor for: Achievement / career break-out / rap going global
If you walked a few miles in Run-D.M.C.’s shoes, specifically those laceless Adidas they rocked so well in the ’80s, then you’d notice that you were entering arenas, doing festivals and meeting and collaborating with some big name people. They may just be sneakers, but this jam was about a journey, a progression; it was during the moment of rap’s big arrival on the global scene.
Metaphor for: Deceptive evils of celebrity, materialism, music industry, California in general.
That “pretty face” is pretty tempting, right? But it sums up the fickleness and transient, fleeting and fake nature of all the glamor found out west in Hollywood-land. We know you’ve heard it a thousand times, but it’s gotta make the list.
Metaphor for: Sexism
With Tori Amos releasing a new album (Unrepentant Geraldines) just last month, we thought we’d include this song from her major label debut. Raised by a preacher and later tied to the third-wave of feminism in the early 90’s, this is Amos’ ballad that was a not-so-subtle challenge to the voices of authority, inside the church and out across a wider patriarchal society. The metaphorical device here, (the crucifix,) is a bit overt, but sometimes that’s needed; sacrilegious as some might have seen it at the time, it could also be read as merely anthem to stave off doubt and self-imposed limitations.
Metaphors for: Dangers of distraction, realizing its already too late: it’s doomsday! / compromises of fame
There are too many Radiohead songs we could have spotlighted. There are countless metaphorical songs from countless artists (Flaming Lips? Pink Floyd? Jimi Hendrix?), really. We decided, instead, to just nod to, essentially, the entirety of their 2000 album Kid A. Again, yes, OK Computer and, much more overtly, Hail To The Thief, are both rife with symbolism, but let’s just dance a bit to the foreboding hellfire of “Idioteque,” a mashing of the escapist dancers in a discoteque and the clueless, pitiable masses of, say, an “Idiocracy.” Listen to all the chaos in this song: everyone’s phones are going off and people are cramming into the bunkers, grasping their bank accounts, taking stock of the lives they spent, mostly surfing the internet, spoiled (and distracted) by their access to “everything all the time.”
Having secured substantial fame in the alt-rock world of the late ’90s with their Grammy-winning OK Computer, they kicked off their next album with this darkly dazzling mantra picking apart the false perceptions of perfection, when it comes to the famous people and how these avant-gardists were going to have to suck on a lemon every day to achieve the idyllic camera-friendly smiles. “What was that you tried to say?” Can you even communicate whatever it was you wanted to say to the pop-mainstream masses?
Metaphor for: Lysergic acid diethylamide
Everyone keys in on that not so subtle and wily wink of a subliminally set acronym, L.ucy In The S.ky with D.iamonds (i.e. L.S.D.). The Beatles released this song in 1967, and it still stands as likely the most iconic tripped-out batch of lyrics, imagining tangerine trees and odd pastry-loving rocking horses that look like people. With your “head in the clouds” (pretty high, huh?) “you’re gone…” Straight-trippin! But further reading would reveal to you that the title actually came from a drawing that then four-year-old Julian Lennon drew for his father. But, still, Lewis Carroll’s trailblazing “trip” through Wonderland also had an influence on Lennon, which should help explain how inherently “mad” the lyrics (and music) sound. Carroll comes up again, by the way, further down our list.
Metaphor for: Cold War tension and trigger-happy deterrence
That’s neun und neunzig, not ninety-nine. In original German, apparently, a bag of balloons are (innocently?/whimsically?) released into the air by a civilian and the East German Early Warning System stirs a panic when they think it’s a NATO attack. This could be the start of nuclear war, whose finger is on the button? Man…the ’80s!
Metaphor for: Nuclear Fallout / Arms Race / Apocalypse, generally
Basically, you’re umbrella won’t save you from this song. Allan Ginsberg (in the 2005 documentary No Direction Home) proclaimed this song to be “the moment” when the Beat’s torch was passed to the “folkies” around 1962. It popularized the notion that everything’s going to hell (in a hand-basket, if you must). But some have also found repudiations of the power elite and even a nods of solidarity with the Civil Rights movement. There’s a lot going on in it, really. Mostly, though, something’s dropping down on us, and you can’t get much more ominous than that.
Metaphor for: Hallucinogens, generally
The caterpillar could be your dealer and the men on the chessboard are certainly part of your visionary trip. When you’re “feeding your head,” as the Doormouse suggests, you’re probably just dropping another tab of acid.
Metaphor for: Fixations with (and fruitless searching for) the meaning of a song / overreaction to the lyrics of a pop song
For the longest time, no one really knew what the hell the Kingsmen were singing! (They didn’t actually write the song, it’s credited to Richard Berry, from 1955). But this notoriously indecipherable version has been immortalized over the decades—christened, famously, by the rowdy Deltas in 1978’s Animal House into becoming the unofficial anthem for drunken fraternity last-call-balladry. Of course, the “metaphor” we’ve given the song on this list was nowhere near on the mind of Berry or the Kingsmen—but it is now, in hindsight, hilarious to look back on history and see that the FBI actually had a file on this song for its potentially corruptible influence upon the fragile minded youths of America. What were they saying? What did it REALLY mean? How lewd, how crude, how puerile are all these un-melodious mumbles and what harm is it inflicting upon little Johnny and little Suzie’s wholesome morals? What a moment in time, right? Back to the boom of garage-rock and go-go dancers, muscle-car cruising and general nostalgified delinquency! We gotta go, now!