Pop song lyrics

14 June 2012 | Fiction, Prose

A ‘short special’: a previously unpublished text (written in the 1960s) from Luonnonkierto (‘Nature’s circle’, Siltala, 2012). Introduction by Jarmo Papinniemi

The pop song is a wide, mysterious world. It is like an ocean. Like a snow-covered desert. Like a rose garden. Like a perfume factory. The pop song is as mysterious as spring. The pop song is as whimsical as the restroom of the city hotel in Samarkand. The pop song is as coarse as your father’s eldest brother. Pop songs snag everyone, especially the young and the old. The best pop songs are foreign, because the words make no sense. Pop stars rise into the sky. Lovely young women step into the arena smelling of perfume and sing about love or tell playful stories about animals or nursery rooms. And then on the other end of life the stars go out and start to look for a place to be buried. But before dying they drone on in their gruff voices about the temptations of the big city, and love, which in a certain sense tortured and wore out those concerned…

Up here in Finland, we write and set pop songs to music as well. But I have to say that they aren’t any good. We also translate and water down a lot of foreign hits as well. Well, of course they’re all popular and people hum them in parishes in the city and in the country, but from a critical perspective they stink. Usually the weak point of a pop song is its execrable lyrics.

If a pop song’s lyrics aren’t convincing, the whole structure collapses, even if the tune is absolutely divine. Sticky sweetness and intrusiveness create the worst dissonance. You can’t sing about granddad’s silver locks, unless it’s really and truly unavoidable. Your home town has also been sucked dry as a topic.

I can shyly admit that I’ve written some pop songs myself, although just to stick in my desk drawer. I haven’t published them, since I don’t know any composers who could have set them to music. But since it’s time for Eurovision again, I will take the liberty of publishing a few here in hopes of finding a composer. This one I’ve been thinking of probably as a brisk march or cha-cha-cha:


I sail upstream as a UN expert,
I trade for ivory with the natives,
In the dugout I’m enjoying the tasty, nutritious gruel
whipped up by the new cookie,
and then head back to the lines to shoot my machine gun.
I fall off the cliffs onto the sand of the beach with a splat,
I vomit my experimental breakfast in the first aid tent
oh-yeah, oh-yeah- tram-pam-pa!
I vote for the emergency powers act
I undercut the average bid for the Haveri job
by six thousand, da-da-da.
I fry potatoes and sausages too,
perhaps shall I win the slalom in Zakopane,
I’m gonna buy a Boxer Rebellion-era musket from
a second-hand shop, oh-yeah, oh-yeah, ahoy, ahoy, ahoy!

Well, what do you think? Pretty peppy isn’t it? Nice and catchy. If it had a good melody, everyone would be singing it.

There is one kind of pop song that is particularly difficult to write. I mean pop songs for a woman who has experienced the fundamental miracles of life but still wants to speak with the words of a child and sing like a little girl. Songs about puppies and kittens are an option of course, but those have been beaten to death too. I call these sorts of stars la-di-da singers and I’ve written the following little samba for them:

The Big Dipper

Marja likes Veijo
and Veijo likes Marja.
Veijo likes Pave
and Pave likes Veijo.
Veijo likes Antti
and Antti likes Veijo.
Veijo likes Tuomo
and Tuomo likes power
and caviar,
And Veijo likes Maiju
and Maria and Joikki
and Volter and Pena.
But Pena doesn’t like cliques,
he likes Ansu Röttö.
And Veijo doesn’t like Wennu
and Wennu’s Väiski.
And Väiski doesn’t like Veijo
and other satellites.*

There are situations and times when the human heart is at its most vulnerable. I mean summer in Finland, Midsummer Eve, headlands covered with birch trees and a boat on the calm lake. Clearly at these times we can countenance something more melancholy:

Home shores

My thoughts fly home from the Atlantic,
my melancholy heart wings to my family.
Bear your sorrow, sister dear, with bravery,
do not sob sadly nephew,
your uncle’s yearning is not for you
but for Iita of Imatra.
Have you already buried our old gelding Ahti,
and can you still hear Vahti
barking out behind the outhouse?
Is auntie Iita’s ear still festering?
In my thoughts I bring her pansies.
Forgive me if I drink at sea.
I kiss you my most beloved,
vows of love I swear to you.
To forgive me is all I ask.

Problems, so many interesting problems that Finnish pop songs still haven’t addressed. To name just a few: ‘Sister’s letter to brother in the army’, ‘Reindeer gelding in Vuomaselkä’ (polka), ‘Home seamstress skis along marked path’, ‘Going to the Midsummer Eve dance in a compact car’, ‘Now I know where Pussy’s kittens came from’, ‘The social secretary’s silver hair’, ‘Hug me in a ju-ju-ju-jumper’ and ‘Adam Tertsunen, I’m going to tweak your ear’ (can-can).

Yes, obviously there’s plenty of open ground ready for cultivation by pop-song writers. But even the cleverest and most lovely melody goes to pot if the singer falls short of the hopes set for her. And that is often what happens. Either the singer pronounces her ng-sounds too softly or draws out the vowels a league long or then drags along like a stick against a picket fence. Some are far too playful and others gasp so strangely you can never make out what they’re saying. But as soon as more intelligent, personable women, preferably with master’s degrees, choose pop singing as their professions, the level of Finnish pop song art will really start to rise.

And I recommend ‘Hasag’.

Translated by Owen Witesman

*) This crazy ‘samba’ actually refers to the eminent literary people – writers, critics, publishers –  of the time, some of them working at Otava, Huovinen’s publisher (from 1976 to the late 1980s); the Big Dipper is Otava in Finnish.

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