Monday, January 19, 2009

FBO: 'Bans 'If You Know What I Mean' from Future Rock Lyrics'

Listening to the pumping cow bell and throaty vocal of 'Mississippi Queen' -- somehow still a classic-rock radio staple 39 years after its release -- one can be forgiven for imagining it played by a six pack of denim-wearing southern-drawlsters who hail from a place like Black Oak, Arkansas. The truth is the short-lived band is led by a Jewish guy from New York's suburban Long Island, who apparently has a keen interest in maps and topography. He changed his name from Leslie Weinstein to Leslie West, named his band Mountain, and hit it biggest (#4 in Canada) with 'Mississippi Queen.'

All this would escape much FBO notice if not for a single act of tenacity. One that can't be excused.

In the opening, Leslie belts 'Mississippi Queen! If you KNOW what I mean!' Actually, Les, we have no idea. Perhaps your wink-wink seeking for confirmation ('if you know what I mean') refers to an underground drag scene on the Delta's Highway 61 area? Or borrowed royalty traditions from Louisiana's Napoleonic Code? Les, we guess that you had sex with someone in Mississippi. But give us some biscuits before passing the gravy, friend.

--> Thesis: The phrase 'if you know what I mean' is not only a lazy lyrical phrase used over and over in pop/rock songs, but it rarely means what the lyricist think it means. It's insulting to the listener, who may or may not excuse the easy rhyme scheme.

The FBO believes it all started with the Beatles' 1963 single 'I Saw Her Standing There,' when Paul McCartney gives us the best possible version of the expression, when he sings 'Well, she was just 17, and you know what I mean.' No conditional 'if' needed. Paul seems to be saying, yeah, you're intelligent listeners, you know what's meant here. She was 17, not 16, not 18 -- meaning an age where she can go to R films, can't vote, can't sign up in the military, and where statutory rape is an issue for courters. WE GET YOU PAUL.

Similarly Schoolhouse Rock used the phrase correctly, albeit with the conditional 'if,' a decade later with 'A Noun is a Person, Place or Thing' by making sure the young audience got a term referring to old rock songs from way back when: 'I put a dime in the drugstore record machine, oldies goldies started playing if you know what I mean.' Considering this may be the first time their audience hears the term 'oldie goldie' Schoolhouse Rock is being conscientious.

Check the 2:12 mark:

There are, however, far more abuses of the overused phrase.

Coweta, Oklahoma's newest offering to the kid-band scene Crooked X doesn't quite get it right, in their we-travel-around-the-world-with-guitars anthem by singing in a new song 'Rock'n'Roll Dream': 'I am livin’ the life - if you know what I mean, all of us need a rock'n'roll dream!' This fails on many levels. First of all, singer Forrest French (OK, great name) has spelled out exactly what he means by the life, so he doesn't need to check with us if we get it, then tries to be inclusive of us -- watching him, downloading him -- by including him in the 'dream.'

Racoon, a band, says 'if you know what I mean' at least 13 times in their song called, 'If You Know What I Mean.' In not one instance does it mean what they think it means. For example: 'Don’t need no diamond ring, if you know what I mean' -- yes, we know. Everyone does. You're not into marriage. Next!

Edie Brickell, in her immortal 1988 pre-Paul Simon anthem, 'What I Am,' begins, 'I'm not aware of too many things' -- try laying off the Deep Ellum bong, Edie -- 'but I know what I know if you know what I mean.' Not exactly.

On the other hand, when Bon Scott wails in AC/DC's 'TNT' that he's 'out for all that I can get, if you know what I mean,' we really do.

Rock Star Supernova -- already a bad band just by their name -- has a faux T Rex 2006 single called 'Leave the Lights On' -- because it's 'better for the cameras, if you know what I mean.' He's implying, to quote B-Sege, that various 'night moves' are going to be captured on digital video or film. OK.

Neil Diamond did a better job with the phrase in 1976. He ends a 3:40 song of remembrance and nostalgia, with this: 'When we gave it away for the sake of a dream in a penny arcade, if you know what I mean.' He's using an analogy that a person in his past is asked to compared with their real life scenario. Neil, you've done it right.

Then there's Busta Rhymes. In his song with Puff Daddy 'Body Rock,' Rampage breaks in a verse: 'I'm the man with the gangsta lean, what, what, yo, I split your whole spleen if you know what I mean.' I have no idea what he's talking about, and appreciate that Rampage stops to check if we follow. We don't, so realize the conversation wasn't intended for us.

Successful usages of the phrase are rare. And the FBO thinks this phrase has run its course, and bans the use in future rock lyrics for three years. Those who use it are banned from this site for four years. We can do better. Know what I'm saying?

FBO Admin
Mobile/Semi-Permanent HQ -- Brooklyn, NY


pseudosu said...

This post made my lunch break-- but I almost sprayed my laptop with Diet Coke.

Get me dudes? Follow me? Feelin' this?

See what I did there? Flagrantly flouting your rule, yet not exactly breaking it enough to get me banned?

Also, consider the possibility that Leslie was simply referring to an enjoyable, wholesome outing on a riverboat named "Mississippi Queen". That's totally a plausible topic for a rock song right? While the rest of them dudes was a gittin' their kicks-- he was enjoying a nice glass of iced tea in his khaki slacks & sports jacket on the boat. Effin rad.

Ok, back to work.

THE FBO said...

Leslie didn't seem to have a boat in mind when describing his 'kicks' received during the course of the lyrics though. Apparently it was enough to warrant acknowledgment from the heralded Long Island Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and yes one exists.