Mac McCaughan writes pretty wonderful lyrics. Even though he's better known as part of Superchunk, I've always been more attuned to his songwriting in Portastatic, possibly because the Superchunk songs were often too loud to pick out the lyrics. And now that Mac's writing Portastatic songs in English again (Seriously, man, what was going on with that De Mel, de Melao EP?) there are some new reasons to appreciate him.
I downloaded a new Portastatic song a couple weeks ago (From Catbirdseat? Don't remember, but always happy to link to that site, and I'd be even happier if he updated it more often.), and finally got around to listening today. Nice song – Mac's voice seem's less constricted than usual. Then, somewhere around the 4 minute mark I was taken by surprise with a lyric containing a Public Enemy reference: "Don’t think that you can lose me ‘cause love is like an UZI – it weighs a ton. Oh yeah, my love weighs a ton."
Besides being a clever double metaphor, I liked that Mac did this because he's basically borrowing a lyrical technique from hip-hop music. Nearly every hip-hop song I've ever liked, and a few of the ones I don't like, make great use of the "like [POP CULTURAL THING], I'm [QUALITY ASSOCIATED WITH POP CULTURAL THING]" rule of simile. I'm always amazed by the capacity for hip-hop artists to remember some of the things that make their way into their songs. Here are a few examples of that wordplay in hip-hop, off the top of my head:
"Like Mario Puzo, I'm The Don – W-W-I'M-THE-SHIT-DOT-COM"
- Chubb Rock, Mr. Large (on Prince Paul's 'Prince Among Thieves')
"Like Sam the butcher, bringing Alice the meat."
- Beastie Boys, Shake Your Rump
"I'm like young LL, cuz I'm hard as hell/Makin' niggaz blue-faced like Gargamel"
- Roots, The Web
"Like Jimmie Walker, I'm DYN-O-MITE!"
- Beastie Boys, Pass the Mic
"Like Common and Cube I see The Bitch In Yoo"
- Canibus, Second Round K.O.
"Close like Starsky & Hutch"
- Notorious B.I.G., Hypnotize
"Bust this, I'm kickin like Segall, Out for Justice"
- Wu Tang Clan, Bring Da Ruckus
"They call me Jaws / my hat is like a shark's fin"
- LL Cool J, Bad
(this song also contains two of the most innocuous lines meant as intimidation/bravado: "forget Oreos, eat Cool J cookies!" and "I'm notorious, I'll crush you like a jellybean!" Jay-Z wrote a better version of this second threat on '99 Problems': "you couldn't bust a grape in a fruit fight.")
(and one of my favorites)
"I'm fancy man I tickles LIKE the French / Not Johnny but like a Bench I Press-On like Lee / I Stan like Lee, while you Stagger like Lee"
- Common (Sense), Chapter 13
Hip-hop seems to have a ready willingness to explore universals (the same way most pop music, and even indie rock, does) while still remaining steadfastly anchored in details that are totally particular to a cultural moment. (Hip-hop artists are notorious for name-checking both themselves, and the year of their recording. In fact, on one of Missy Elliott's albums, she literally begins each and every track by announcing, "this is a Missy Elliott exclusive...")
Listening to hip-hop is like staring at that crazy poster where you have to identify all of the proverbs illustrated in its surreal scene. ("Ah! There's a clock with wings. Time flies! Now pay me one licorice whip!!") I like deciphering all of the references in hip-hop lyircs. It's the closest I've ever come to subscribing to GAMES magazine, or completing a New York Times crossword puzzle. (In fact, if there were a hip-hop equivalent of the Sunday Times crossword, it would be the Beastie Boys' album Paul's Boutique, possibly the most reference-heavy album of its time. Elaborate, almost scholarly documents have been created in an attempt to collect all the samples and references.)
By contrast, indie rock music tends to eschew self-referential tendencies, in favor of remaining timeless and precious. And when indie rock does actually acknowledge itself, it becomes both a novelty and source of mini-media attention. (Anyone remember how many interviewers grilled Pavement about "Range Life?" Me neither, but I'll bet it was A LOT.) I kind of wish indie rock were more like hip-hop in this respect. Here are some things I'd like to hear on some of my favorite bands' next albums:
The Magnetic Fields
"Like Lloyd Dobbler, I'd Say Anything to make you leave"
"You're salty sweet contradictions / a real Chubby Hubby / I Shamrock Shake my Milky ways while you a-Grimace in the kitchen"
"You're the streets, the sidewalks, you jumped the shark / You're Fonnnnnnzie"
(half-sung, half-spoken in a thick scottish accent) "What do ya do when the whisky un pills run oot, huh? When yoor face-doon in the shower, shagged more times than Austin Powers? / Like Bruce Willis, it's haaaard to die, inn'it? / Oh, but you try, lamb, you try / Yeah, like Revenge of the Nerds, you Tri Lam"
"In the Meadow, the Lark and the Lemon / The Basket and the Ball / I parachuted from your parapet, and Trotted across your Globes"
Belle & Sebastian
"There are people in the tubeways / fashionably clashing with their long bangs and new wave / I tried my best to keep up with the latest / but like Arch Hall, Jr., time is just a sadist"
The Fiery Furnaces
"Old Mister Granville, he hit his dog with Big Daddy's Kane / Rex was Asiatic royalty and nobody's equal / I prayed there wouldn't be a sequel / couldn't believe the pain I saw / Perched on a cooler, the dog and the ruler / Bark bark snap slap in the park, well before dark / It was a Sunday mid-July morning / all bleached-out like the King of Pop"
"You were an Incident and an Accident, a Hint and Allegation / spouting the gospel of Paul Simon / like a holy proclamation / You always called me Evel when I Jumped to those conclusions / You're a Daredevil to me / Yes, you're a dear rebel to me"