As a current Creative Writing graduate student, who spends seemingly infinite hours a week breathing in literature, drinking in poetic craft and technique, it’s no secret that I love the process of studying words and their power. When I think about my infatuation with the influence of words, I can trace it back to before I could read or write; I trace it back to some of the first songs I ever belted out from the back seat of my mother’s old Buick in the early 90’s. My first love was lyricism.
Have you ever explored what makes you love a certain line in a song or poem?
I’ve found that some of my most favorite musicians are incredibly skilled in their use of figurative language. Say Anything is the perfect example of one of my favorite bands that excels at creating memorable, and at times, haunting lyrics.
I’ve been enamored with Say Anything since– let’s say, 2005. I was immediately attracted to their experimental nature of unique sound within their genre (a blend of punk/alternative rock/emo), and lyrics that instantly captivated me. Over the past ten years, I have found myself inspired by Max Bemis, lead singer and composer of Say Anything, just as much as, and sometimes, even more so, than some of the great poets I was introduced to in my youth: e.e. cummings, Maya Angelou, Emerson, Gary Snyder, and so on. In order to understand why, I’ve decided explore just a few slices of genius within Say Anything’s lyricism; I will highlight some key elements of figurative language Max Bemis masters, in a few specific fan favorites, from the punk band’s most notable albums, spanning from the early 2000s to present.
Throughout his entire songwriting career, Max Bemis has excelled at using figurative language in order to create lyrics that cast a spell on his audience. He is a master of employing hyperbole, metaphor, and allusion, to name just a few key elements of his lyrical repertoire:
1. A Master of Hyperbole
This song functions as perhaps one of the most hyperbolic love songs in contemporary punk music, as Max Bemis reveals the lengths he will go to, for a great love. The song begins with Bemis endearingly proclaiming that he will “condemn his race to genocide…/spit upon a Bible…/forfeit grandma’s civil rights” and a series of other wildly extreme measures as he croons the refrain “Anything for you”; He dives further into this narrative that he will sacrifice himself, enduring excruciating pain for love:
“If Satan showed up with a gun, threatened , ‘be disloyal I or I’ll shoot’/ I’d take it in the kneecaps…/I’d throw up every morning, pull my nails out, take a wrench to all my teeth/To put a ring upon your digit, have you fidget in your bed with me/ Anything for you.” Anarchy, My Dear 2012.
There’s just something to be said about the kind of love that you’d do absolutely anything for. If taking a wrench to all his teeth ain’t enough, I don’t know what is!
2. A Master of Metaphor and Simile
Traveling back to 2004, on Say Anything’s official debut album, Bemis uses metaphor in the hit “Yellow Cat (slash) Red Cat” in order to create nuanced, flawed characters he both relates to, and is revolted by, in hopes that fans might also see versions of themselves here, and reflect on their own inner turmoil :
“Lou is bugged and shot up with drugs./He sweats this bird he hardly knows/All that he wants/Is to see someone he respects without their clothes/… like some hybrid mother/lover she’d soothe and heal his wounds.” “Yellow Cat, Red Cat”. Say Anything is a Real Boy. 2004.
Next, in the track “Peace Out,” from Anarchy My Dear (2012), Bemis uses a simile to express an apparent critique of drug-culture in the U.S. (and if you tune into the rest of the lyrics, his own personal journey of rising above that). He effectively creates a social commentary on functioning addicts and their peers which likely draws on his own past experience and seeks to dramatize it as a sort of call to action:
“You snort a line of syphilis and run the marathon/Your mentally deficient friends just ask you what you’re on/I was the kind to ask what wrong-doing had injured Dahmer’s pride/The beat thumps loud you sweat it out and grind on them for drugs/You hug that pole like a firefighter falling in love.” “Peace Out”. Anarchy, My Dear. 2012.
3. He casts a spell on his audience through allusions to both historical events and current pop-culture (the title of their album Say Anything is/was A Real Boy itself is a clearly recognizable allusion).
If we journey all the way back to 2001 (when Bemis was just sixteen), before the band signed with a label, we can observe the use metaphor and allusion to Alice in Wonderland in a power teen-angst-anthem of sorts, “All My Friends”, from the early and little-known independent album Baseball . The band effectively pairs these strategies which have become a staple in their lyrical approach throughout the years, to strengthen lyrics about young friendships gone awry:
“I am so damn trusting I do not see their malice /In this blackened wonderland I am the darkened Alice/I’m the ball, they’re batters/They’re climbing social ladders.” “All My Friends“. 2001.
Fast forward to 2004, to the band’s official debut album, Say Anything’s Is a Real Boy, for which they received widespread recognition and quickly became a favorite among the emo/punk/indie scene. In what has become one of the most well known, powerful singles from the album, “Alive, with the Glory of Love” , Bemis alludes to Treblinka as a both a nod to his genealogy (his grandparents were Holocaust survivors), as well as an expression of love you’d go to the end of the earth for:
“Our Treblinka is alive with the glory of love!/Should they catch us and dispatch us to those separate work camps/Should they kill me, your love will fill me, as warm as the bullets (yeah) I’ll know my purpose. This war was worth this. I won’t let you down.” Say Anything. “Alive with the Glory of Love”. Say Anything is a Real Boy. 2004.
In another song steeped in social critique, from the band’s self-titled album in 2009, Bemis draws on classic literature in the song “Narcissus” using it to tell the story of an ill-fated romance that crumbles as a result of obsession with one’s own physical appearance:
“in love with yourself/you first met on the rainy steps/where your conscience left/…the acid rain/shot through your veins/I’d rather die than let you get away with this/you are my antithesis/narcissist.”
After reflecting on this small sample of Say Anything’s lyrical content, perhaps they are so much my favorite, because they are the most literary band I listen to. Lyrical Gangstas (murder-ahs), if you will. Through these techniques, they challenge contemporary culture in the U.S., including flawed systems and ideals. The theme of social and cultural criticism is present in majority of their songs, but most obviously in songs like “Admit It” from Say Anything is a Real Boy,
Here Bemis establishes a confrontational, and accusatory tone through careful word choice and consonance. He enunciates each syllable as he speaks the prelude to the track:
“Admit it/Despite your pseudo-bohemian appearance /And vaguely leftist doctrine of beliefs /You know nothing about art or sex /That you couldn’t read in any trendy New York underground fashion magazine /You adhere to a set of standards and tastes /…determined by an unseen panel of hipster judges (bullshit).”
This song is revisited in their 2012 album Anarchy My Dear, with the track “Admit it Again”, as Bemis once again, attacks flaws within particular elements of popular culture, taking a jab specifically at mainstream pop music in the process:
“Your entire facade is a line that you feed to anorexic actresses/Don’t wanna hear about how the latest Rihanna single is a post-modern masterpiece/Stop punishing me!/Fueled by a potent mixture of cocaine and latent insecurity/Now you pass your pestilence on to your Ritalin addled children/Well my mother didn’t raise no fool”
Referencing their previous work seems to serve as an acknowledgement that they are still very much connected to the mission of their earlier work and continue to build on it. Their single “Burn A Miracle”, also from the album, Anarchy, My Dear, is a radical reminder that in order to deconstruct the systems you find fault with, you must begin to make the changes you want to see in society:
Through another effective simile/metaphor combination, Bemis moves from the experience of a sort of resurrection of self discovery, and furthers this by imploring his audience to also ‘wake up’, in perhaps, his most direct call to action yet:
“Now I’m coming alive/like a weed through fields of/placid posies thrive/I need to ask you children a question/Do you really wanna stand stiff, at attention?/Burn a miracle if you’ve got a soul.”
Front-man Max Bemis possesses the fearlessness of exposing the raw truth of any experience: be it painful, neurotic, laughable, or all of the above (as is often the case with Say Anything) through lyrics we can’t help but tune into, because of the careful dedication to craft. While some may argue that literature and art can never really make anything happen, it’s my firm belief that there are works of art that aim to speak to each of us, which are in fact, capable of waking us up from our slumber – and that, is influence.