“A wop bop a loo mop, alop bom bom…”
Popular music, and rock music in particular, has a reputation for producing lyrics that are, shall we say, pretty inconsequential.
They’ve been mindless, silly, cutesy, or just plain fun:
“Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby…” 1955
“She loves you, yeah yeah yeah…” 1963
“Na-na, na-na-na-na, hey hey hey, goodbye…” 1969
“Play that funky music, white boy…” 1976
“Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-my Sharona…” 1979
Or, on the other hand, they’ve been negative, angry, dark and disturbing:
“I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man…” 1965
“Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away…” 1969
“I’ve seen the needle and the damage done…” 1972
“The lunatic is in my head…” 1973
“Every breath you take, I’ll be watching you…” 1983
At the same time, some of our more savvy, literate lyricists in the genre were writing songs with deeper meaning — songs about the angst of relationships, songs that mourn death, songs that urge us to care for our environment. Perhaps most important are the songs that inspire us, teach us, give us shining examples of how life can be lived in a positive and giving way.
It’s not too much to ask, is it? Can’t we have compelling music that also allows us to absorb philosophical life lessons as we come of age, or we age, or become aged?
Of course we can. It’s been going on since long before rock and roll’s debut. Take, for example, the 1944 Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer classic “Accentuate the Positive.” The “Wizard of Oz” composer and “Moon River” lyricist combined forces to write an Oscar-nominated piece for the 1944 film “Here Come the Waves” that is a shining testament (#2 on the pop charts) to the welcome belief that thinking positively will affect the outcome of your life: “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, don’t mess with Mister In-Between, you’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum, bring gloom down to the minimum…”
Since then, amidst the joyously frivolous lyrics of many pop songs, we have been treated to the carefully considered words of song craftspeople who have provided us with words of serious substance to accompany our memorable melodies. Simon, Bowie, Mitchell, Dylan, Wonder, Santana, Lennon, Bono, Taylor, Townshend, Browne, and so many more… All of them have given us words to live by, lyrics that can keep us on the right path for many years to come.
Here, then, are 15 songs about life philosophies, and I hope you absorb them, evaluate them, consider them, and make use of them as you continue life’s journey, wherever it may take you.
“Secret o’ Life,” James Taylor, 1977
“The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time… The secret of love is in opening up your heart, it’s okay to feel afraid, but don’t let that stand in your way, ’cause anyone knows that love is the only road, and since we’re only here for a while, might as well show some style, give us a smile… Try not to try too hard, it’s just a lovely ride…”
This says it all for me. Hey, we’ve been given the blessing of life, let’s not squander it. Don’t spend it being angry, or fearful, or resentful. Enjoy each day while it lasts.
“I Love My Life,” Todd Rundgren, 1989 “I said me and my creator, we got a funny love thing, it’s happening now and not later, yeah, that’s why I sing, first came thought, then came deed, I got caught, now I’m freed, all I need is to love my life, I love my life…”
This song hints at the perils of getting caught up in bad habits that can lead you astray. Better to be grateful for what you have.
“The Word,” John Lennon, 1965 “Spread the word and you’ll be free, spread the word and be like me, spread the word I’m thinking of, have you heard the word is love, it’s so fine, it’s sunshine, it’s the word ‘love’…”
Two years before he spread the message that “All You Need is Love,” Lennon was already telling us that love is the whole point.
“The Circle Game,” Joni Mitchell, 1970 “And the seasons, they go round and round, and the painted ponies go up and down, we’re captive on the carrousel of time, we can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came, and go round and round and round in the circle game…”
This one reminds us that life goes on — with us and without us — and there’s no sense in dwelling on the past. The carrousel always moves forward.
“Change Your Mind,” Sister Hazel, 2000 “If you’ve had enough of all your trying, just give up the state of mind you’re in, if you want to be somebody else, if you’re tired of fighting battles with yourself, if you want to be somebody else, change your mind…”
We all have crazy thoughts, dark thoughts, conflicting thoughts, confusing thoughts. The key is to let them go on by, and instead focus on productive, healthy, loving thoughts. Just change your mind!
“Golden Years,” David Bowie, 1976 “Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere, angel, come get up, my baby, look at the sky, life’s begun, nights are warm and the days are young…”
Stop being so negative and self-pitying, this song is saying. Look up, it’s a new day, the sun is shining. Embrace the possibilities.
“All Things Must Pass,” George Harrison, 1970 “The darkness only stays at nighttime, in the morning it will fade away, daylight is good at arriving at the right time, it’s not always going to be this grey, all things must pass, all things must pass away…”
The Eastern philosophies fascinated Harrison, especially those that said pain and grief are worthwhile because they teach you about patience and inner strength.
“Forever Young,” Bob Dylan “May your hands always be busy, may your feet always be swift, may you have a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift, may your heart always be joyful, may your song always be sung, may you stay forever young, forever young, forever young…”
As we age, we sometimes stay set in our ways. That’s not always a bad thing…but we must be willing to embrace change and new ideas. Grow old, but stay young!
“Blue, Red and Grey,” Pete Townshend, 1975 “Some people seem so obsessed with the morning, get up early just to watch the sun rise, some people like it more when there’s fire in the sky, worship the sun when it’s high, some people go for those sultry evenings, sipping cocktails in the blue, red and grey, but I like every minute of the day…”
In his whimsical way, Townshend is saying that all of each day has something good to offer, not just morning, or midday, or evening. It’s all good.
“Humble and Kind,” Lori McKenna, “Don’t take for granted the love this life gives you, when you get where you’re going, don’t forget, turn back around and help the next one in line, always be humble and kind…”
Country music is overflowing with lyrics about spiritual growth and the importance of the Golden Rule. This track, made famous by Tim McGraw, reminds us that the crucial thing is to just suppress your ego and be nice.
“Get Together,” Chet Powers, 1964 “If you hear the song I sing, you will understand, you hold the key to love and fear in your trembling hand, just one key unlocks them both, it’s there at your command, come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now…”
It took a few years and several different attempts by multiple artists before The Youngbloods made this into a peace-and-love anthem of the Woodstock Nation in 1969. The lyrics still ring true today, even if their lesson (can’t we all get along?) hasn’t been fully learned…
“One,” Bono, 1991 “One love, one blood, one life, you got to do what you should, one life with each other, sisters, brothers, one life, but we’re not the same, we get to carry each other, carry each other…”
This one is all about looking out for our fellow man. Bono instructs us that we’re part of a global village now, and selfishness just isn’t going to work. Notice the last phrase: We don’t “have to” carry each other; we “get to” carry each other.
“Years,” Beth Nielsen Chapman, 1991 “And I let time go by so slow, and I made every moment last, and I thought about years, how they take so long, but they go so fast…”
What is it they say about time? It goes slowly while it’s happening, but it races by in retrospect. So very true. Live in the now, and be present.
“Wond’ring Aloud,” Ian Anderson, 1971 “And it’s only the giving that makes you what you are…”
The older I get, the more I appreciate this truism: There’s far greater pleasure, greater satisfaction, in giving than receiving. By being of service to others, we grow and improve as human beings.
“Beautiful Boy,” John Lennon, 1980 “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans…”
One of life’s most important lessons is learning to be flexible. When life throws you a curve ball, adapt. Make lemonade from lemons.
“A Better Future,” David Bowie, 2003; “American Tune,” Paul Simon, 1973; “Deeper, Dig Deeper,” Santana, 1987; “Landslide,” Fleetwood Mac, 1975; “All You Need is Love,” The Beatles, 1967; “Both Sides Now,” Joni Mitchell, 1968; “Teach Your Children,” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, 1970; “Fountain of Sorrow,” Jackson Browne,” 1974; “Spirit,” Santana, 1983
Very interesting and thought provoking topic! Arguably, the number of rock lyrics about life philosophy probably rank second only to the number devoted to love, although there is probably a lot of overlap between the two. Notice I say “rock” lyrics, since “pop” songs are, by definition, meant to be lite and fun, and generally not focused on the deep issues of the meaning of life.
In my humble opinion, “philosophy” is the esoteric interpretation of life’s meaning, while “wisdom” is the true understanding of the same, gained only with experience and age. Both are about seeking “truth” — the former being a prediction or template, but the latter being a realization, tempered by both sweet and bitter experiences. . With that in mind, I’d offer a few additions, when the relatively young artists seem to show an uncanny amount of “wisdom” about life’s realities.
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” — this is a very revealing understanding of how life actually works. The Rolling Stones, at a young age, showed a keen insight into the realization that life rarely gives you those things you desire (i.e. perfect relationships, lots of money, great opportunities), but at the end of the day you realize that you got those things necessary to enjoy life — “you just might find, you get what you need.”
“Breathe” by Pink Floyd — “All you touch and all you see Is all your life will ever be” is another example of life lesson learned through experience. Actually, the whole Dark Side of the Moon album, has a lot of philosophical lyrics.
“I’ve Seen All Good People” by Yes, especially the advise to avoid being self-centered, “don’t surround yourself with yourself, move on back two squares.” Of course, I was usually so stoned listening to this album in the 70’s, they could have been singing commercial jingles and I would thought it was “too deep”.
And, finally, “The End”, on the infamous side B of The Beatles “Abbey Road” album — “And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make”. A variation of the “you get what you give” philosophy — the whole basis of Karma — but it says it in the language of love, which is the greatest human emotion and binding social force. Not just physical love, but the unconditional love of a parent for their child; the deep and life-time love between truly committed partners, the joyful love of a grandparent, even God’s love for humanity.
It’s a great statement of love as it’s own philosophy, which is the ultimate wisdom gained in life’s experiences. And, of course, the lyric comes at the culmination of the best produced side of any rock album ever, with McCartney and George Martin seamlessly blending a 16 minute medley of great music. Fun fact – “The End” also features the ONLY Ringo Starr drum solo from any Beatles song.
Then again, I was so stoned……