Popular Music and Me by Rae Armantrout

Some people take pride in liking certain songs. They think of their musical taste as a badge of identity. Not me. I usually like songs against my will. The songs I love skillfully circumvent my inhibitions and let me revel (wallow) in attitudes and feelings I would normally suppress. Pop songs typically invite us to identify either with the singer or with the person (it’s almost always a person) the singer is addressing or describing. They give us room, alone in our cars, if nowhere else, to be vicariously proud, angry, or abject. Even Bob Dylan, that songwriter we all love to love, appeals to identifications my better self finds suspicious. When I sing along with Dylan in my head (and I’m guessing you’re not so different) I get to take part in his oracular certainty – the authority with which he delivers his often cryptic lyrics. Despite my misgivings, I plan to name and write something about my favorite rock/ pop songs. Some of these songs date from the 60’s and some from last year. I consider this a confession. It will, of course, tell you more about me than you would find out any other way.


I might as well plunge in head first and start with that band not everybody loves to love: The Rolling Stones.  They certainly invite us to be our bad selves – but they have a sense of humor about it. If you don’t know their music well, you may not realize that. “I hope we’re not too messianic/or a trifle too Satanic,” Mick sings in “Monkey Man.”  The chasm between the Stones and your average metal band is in the word “trifle.” Singing that lyric, Jagger is both Satan and your grandmother. And he knows it.

“Gimme Shelter” from Let it Bleed is definitely my favorite song. This list will be in no particular order – but I will start with G.S. There are only a handful of songs that give me chills and this is one. What did Emily Dickinson say, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head had been taken off, I know….”  Like all the music I like best, it is both ominous and alluring. I would even say it is horrific and beautiful. It is, one supposes, an anti-war song. “War children, it’s just a shot away.” Or is it a shout away? That makes a difference, of course. There can be a war in your bedroom that starts with a shout. Later, the singer Merry Clayton makes a guest appearance singing “Rape and murder, it’s just a shot (or a shout) away” in an incredible high-pitched banshee yelp.  And, with each new war, we learn again that “combat” segues smoothly  into rape and murder. The greatness of the song, however, isn’t in the lyrics. It’s in the way the soundscape (and I would call it that) surrounds and supports the lyrics. The opening bars sum the song up. In them, a beautiful falsetto voice, singing only “Oooh, oooh,” floats as if overhead while, underneath, as part of the rhythm track, there is the scratching of metal on metal. It suggests a ratchet or a vise being tightened.

Now let’s go to the real heart of darkness here, that inexcusable Stones song, “Midnight Rambler.” How was this song even allowed on the air? It came out shortly after the Manson murders and it may have been inspired by them. In it, Jagger warns us, then celebrates, then becomes a sadistic intruder. Here is a taste of the lyrics:  “If you ever see the midnight rambler/coming down your marble halls/well, he’s pouncing like a proud black panther.” Or is it Black Panther? The political implications are there to be found if you want them. He goes on to sing, “Oh just that shoot ‘em dead brain-bell jangler.” So now it’s your head not your body that is, apparently, being messed with. So, do I want to meet the midnight rambler? No! Do I want to be the midnight rambler? No! But what? The harmonica part in the song is so sly, so inviting. It starts slow and accelerates to the place where Jagger breaks in repeating, “Oh, don’t do that. Oh, don’t do that! Don’t you do that!” etc. So now he’s the victim. Role reversal is one of Mick’s specialties. The high point is the cat and mouse interchange between the harmonica and the guitar about two-thirds of the way through. They seem to bait and probe one other somehow. (The instruments, I mean.)It’s the sexiest thing I can think of off the top of my head.

“No Expectations” from Beggar’s Banquet is a stark, economical ballad. Each repeated guitar riff – and it sounds like only one guitar playing – ends on an unresolved note. Somehow it expresses both yearning and resignation. The lyrics, likewise, are stoical about the impossibility of enduring love: “Our love was like the water/that splashes on a stone./Our love is like our music./ It’s here and then it’s gone.”  Speak for yourselves, boys. Oh, maybe you were.

I can’t believe I went through that whole discussion of the Stones without even mentioning the mysterious, instantly recognizable authority of Keith’s opening riffs. When you hear the opening chords of “Satisfaction” or “Start Me Up,” you know you are in the presence of Something.


I’m drawn to the mid-career Cohen especially, his work from the 80s and 90s. I listened to him when I was young. Everybody liked “Suzanne.” But then I kind of forgot about him. When I next heard him, his voice seemed to have dropped an octave. For some reason, I am attracted to really low voices. Go figure. Cohen is like Dylan in that he barely sings but his voice has tremendous gravitas.

The other thing that draws me to Cohen (Why don’t I call him Leonard the way I call Keith “Keith?) is what we might call his negative theology. He’s a Jewish Buddhist who uses a lot of Christian iconography in his songs and who is, nonetheless, an agnostic. His songs consciously and steadily face toward the emptiness where  God would be if God “existed.”  The lyrics exude the same mixture of longing and despair (or stoicism) I identified in The Rolling Stones’ song “No Expectations.” I guess I always fall for that. (Cohen territory is close to what my student Lorraine Graham called “sexy death” (as trope) when  discussing Michael Palmer’s poetry in class. She meant it as a criticism, and I get that.  But it gets me as well.) Cohen both doubts and, paradoxically, affirms not only God but also love and art.   Perhaps his best known song, and one of my favorites, is “Hallelujah.” It comes in two version or flavors. One is about lost love; the other is about song/poetry/art. 

I like them both, but I’m going to quote from that second incarnation of the song as it appears on The Essential Leonard Cohen cd: “You say I took the name in vain/I don’t even know the name/but if I did, well, really, what’s it to ya?/There’s a blaze of light in every word./It doesn’t matter which you heard/the holy or the broken hallelujah.” He sings it defiantly. I can imagine him saying this to the Republicans who want to defund the NEA because it gives grants to “obscene” art.  Then a soaring chorus comes in singing  “hallelujah” and overrides the various skepticisms expressed in the verse. And I just want to say, “Amen” too, though I’m not sure what I’m agreeing with.  I’m saying “hallelujah” too, somehow,  even when my poems are cynical, despairing.  (“Hallelujah” gives me chills in the same way that “Gimme Shelter” does).

Speaking of “dark” I want to briefly touch on one of Cohen’s less well known songs. It comes right after “Hallelujah” on the cd.  It’s called “If It Be Your Will.”

I may well be misinterpreting the lyrics, but, the way I hear/read them, they always make me want to cry. They go, in part: “To your children here/in their rags of light/In our rags of light/all dressed to kill/in endless night/if it be your will, if it be your will.”

Here we are, over-dressed in these fancy brains, with which we torture ourselves and others, ready for the party that never seems to start – if that’s the way you want it. Then, again, I picture his “rags of light” more literally as scraps of starlight. Stars are beautiful and deadly, mortal and alone in a space which they barely begin to light. And they are willing to continue, if it be Someone’s will. Apologies Leonard.  Probably not what you had in mind.


Ok, yes, my tastes are not original. I told you this would be a confession.  Why, why do I like her? It can’t be the lyrics. Although, who wouldn’t want to be able to “Set fire to the rain,” if the mood struck them. I don’t even know what it means and I want to do it. And there is something touching in the lyrics of “Someone like You.” There she asks only to be remembered by a past love. It’s such a small thing, such a big thing. But that’s not it. It’s that I’m a sucker for a woman (think Janis Joplin, think Tina Turner) singing passionately, full voice, no holds barred.  And Adele has an amazing voice. I know – so does Celine Dion, so did Whitney Houston, and they never did a thing for me. But Adele’s contralto (is that a contralto?) hits the high notes like a race car breaking though a paper barrier going 200 miles an hour. Her performance has a ferocity. It makes me feel the way more cultured people probably feel when they listen to Maria Callas. The song that makes my favorites list is “Rolling in the Deep.”

It is the third song on this list that gives me “chills.” I should be able to affix a little shiver emoticon to the songs that do that. She’s singing about lost love and anger. In the early verses she is practically speaking over a driving rhythm track then the chorus takes off like…well, no more metaphors. When she says, “We could have had it All./ Rolling in the Deep,” I do have it all and I am rolling in the deep. It’s ecstatic.


The King Is Dead is one of those rare albums (like Let it Bleed) that is good to the last drop. And it’s more than just a collection of songs. The title actually seems to set out a possible thematic for the record. Will this be “The king is dead; long live the king” or not?  A comic version of royalty is presented in “Calamity Song” when the singer sings, “And I’ll be crowned the community kick-it-around.”

That sounds humble, but it’s also a sly claim to the counter-cultural throne. “Calamity Song” is a jaunty, witty ditty about the end of world as we know it and whatever comes next. Along the way it takes a stab at the powers that be in the form of “Hetty Green/Queen of supply-side bonhomie bone-drab/You know what I mean.” Actually, I’m not positive who or what he means, but some names do come to mind: Margaret Thatcher, Sarah Palin – one of those women who are  good-old-boys.

I don’t know enough about contemporary music to know if The Decemberists’ sound, their instrumentation, is really novel.  It seemed so to me. It’s a dense mix of familiar and unfamiliar instruments including a banjo, an accordion, a bouzouki (I don’t know what that is), a mandolin, etc. I’m guessing this band is revisiting the territories explored by The Incredible String Band and, in fact, The Band, groups whose turn to the (faux) backwoods was part of a generational wish to give up on “changing the system from within” (by demonstrating or voting) and (instead)  go “back to the land” to recreate society. Most of the results of that former movement fell somewhere between disappointing and horrifying – think Manson ranch – but some of the music was good. The Decemberists are clearly aware of that history and their gestures towards utopianism are guarded, if not conflicted.  That’s part of what I like about them. The first of my two favorite songs on this album is “Rox in the Box,” a dystopic work song in the form of a Celtic jig: “And it’s one, two, three on the wrong side of the lee/What were you meant for/What were you meant for?/And it’s seven, eight, nine/Get your shuffle back in line..” Etc. 

My other favorite, the one that “gives me chills” since that is the standard I’m applying, is actually less experimental and less political. Oh dear. It’s the one hit from the album, “Down by the Water.” 

I suppose it’s the minor key harmonica and accordion I really go for. The lyrics are fairly simple but effective. “See this ancient river bed/See where all my folly’s led/Down by the water/Down by the old main drag.” It seems to be about someone who’s going to give in to his own worst impulses. (That’s a standard of rock and roll, of course.) Here the fact that the songwriter is going over familiar ground is subtly inscribed in the song itself, unless I’m reading too much into it. After all, the singer’s desires do take him along an “old main drag” and an “ancient river bed.” He’s covering a well- worn path , both in his desires, whatever they are, and in the song itself. The fact that he acknowledges this adds an extra dimension.


Bob Dylan is best known as a lyricist but, if I’m remembering right, he said in his memoir that there was a certain sound, a silvery, jangly sound, he heard in his head and was always looking to recreate.

He gets his sound in large part from his harmonica playing which is somehow quizzical and wry.

Thinking about the sound Dylan is attracted to again and again reminds me of the sound,  the particular tonality, that most attracts me in the songs that make me shiver.  I hear it in “Gimme Shelter,” “Rolling in the Deep,” “Hallelujah,” and “Down by the Water.” I also find it in one, only one, Dylan song – and not when played by him. Now you know what’s coming next. It’s “All Along the Watchtower,” as performed by Jimi Hendrix. (I told you I wasn’t original.)

The lyrics are relatively simple, for Dylan, but the scenario they create is a bit mysterious. Members of some elite, presumably under attack or at least under threat, are taking turns at a watchtower, looking out for trouble. It’s about vigilance. The only actual sign of possible (?) trouble comes at the end. “Two riders were approaching/and the wind began to howl.”  These guys aren’t an army. Who knows what they portend. If we take the Romantic view, the winds of change are about to blow. But we’ll never know. This song would have been a great theme song for Game of Thrones if it hadn’t already been used in the recent Battlestar Galactica. The thing that makes this rendition chill worthy, though, is the way Hendrix’s guitar is the wind rising. His notes reach out across space towards those riders, whoever they may be.

If I could understand precisely how or why these five songs give me chills, I would know something about myself. Maybe something I don’t want to know.

That said, I have to quote some of Dylan lyrics. Like many other people, I think “Visions of Johanna” is a great song.

It contains the only rock lyrics I actually wish I’d written: “Inside the museums/infinity goes up on trial/Voices echo this is what/salvation must be like after awhile/But Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues/you can tell by the way she smiles.”  This implies, well, so many things -that art (futilely) attempts to capture infinity, that people futilely attempt to evaluate  art, that we don’t really want the permanent place (whether in a museum, in the canon, or in Paradise) we think we do,  and that meaning, value, beauty are always fugitive. But, of course, he said it much better in the song!

I have so many favorite Dylan songs. I feel like briefly mentioning a couple more.  There’s the one that goes, “Ah, mama, can this really be the end/to be stuck inside of Mobile/with the Memphis blues again.”  (I’m just saying.) And I also want to praise the first song on his recent album Together through Life, “Beyond Here Lies Nothing.” This is a song about two mature, shall we say, lovers. The lyrics are sweet but also stark. “What would we do without it/without this love that we call ours/Beyond here lies nothing/nothing but the moon and stars.” Notice the gentle irony in the lyrics.

It’s not really their love, it’s a love that they call theirs. And it’s not, in fact, the case that beyond them and their love is “nothing.” Beyond them and their love is the whole universe; it just isn’t (any longer) for them.  Earlier I talked about the way some songwriters and poets play with something I called (or really Lorraine Graham called) “sexy-death.” Keats, remember was “half in love with it.” Dylan shows us love and he shows us death. He doesn’t conflate them. There is something sobering there.


In the 80’s it was, and still is really, pretty thrilling to see a woman put on and play with the trappings of power. The fact that (many of us) still get a kick out of this demonstrates that sexism isn’t dead. And Annie Lennox put those trappings on with class. I love the beginning of the Eurythmics’ song, “I Need a Man.”

It doesn’t exactly sound like it’s going to be a feminist anthem, right?  She starts out in persona of a shy, insecure woman/child saying, “Is it my turn? Do you want me to sing now? Ok.” Then she blasts the microphone with a shriek that would rival Mick Jagger’s.  That makes me laugh. She growls the rest of the lyrics which include accusing some guy of being a “low down woman hater/Yellow-bellied alligator.”  And then there’s “Sweet Dreams,” a perfect song to end with. 

In “Sweet Dreams” Lennox plays the part of a jaded man/woman of the world who’s seen it all, all the tawdry fantasies, and is willing to accept and use them. She talk- sings over a new wave synthesizer riff: “Sweet dreams are made of this/Who am I to disagree?”

Who indeed?

There are a lot of other performers I wish I could have discussed – for starters Chrissie Hynde and The Pretenders, Bob Marley, Lady Gaga, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, but sadly, I’m out of time and I’ll have to leave it here.



If a wolf

sees itself

in a pond

in a boy’s dream

in a movie,

that enhances

my self- image



If my clothes were put

in a strange closet

in a half-built house

in a new development,

I need to locate them

before my co-


start to move around.


Poetry’s stretchy

off-white blouse

“of morning”

gets stuck

and I can’t

pull it down

Rae Armantrout‘s most recent book is Money Shot (Wesleyan, 2011). Her book Versed won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize. A new book called Just Saying is forthcoming from Wesleyan in the spring of next year. She teaches writing at UC San Diego.