An ode to the social realism of ‘boring’ lyrics – from The Kinks to The Streets

An ode to the social realism of ‘boring’ lyrics – from The Kinks to The Streets

The majority of chart artists content themselves with writing lyrics about relationships, breakups or their lavish lifestyles. Take the current top 10 song, Prada by Cassö, RAYE & D-Block Europe. As one might expect from the title, it speaks of designer clothes, fancy hotels and expensive cars. Other artists, however, satisfy themselves with something a little less glamorous – songs about the everyday, with lyrics about the ordinary and banal.

Social and literary realism have long been valuable tools in detailing the everyday lives of people, and they have been a staple in popular music for decades. When The Kinks released The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society in 1968, it was perhaps the first album to actively focus on the mundane, everyday aspects of life as lived by the average person in Britain.

It was about as far removed as it was possible to be from the psychedelic introspection that was popular among the biggest selling bands of the time (led, of course, by The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society delighted in detailing the smaller joys of life, with songwriter Ray Davies singing about strawberry jam, draught beer, custard pies and Desperate Dan in songs that gave an insight into a world that was familiar and relatable to its listeners.

The Smiths to The Streets

The Kinks started a trend. In the 1980s, The Smiths chose the name to be as unglamorous and bland as possible, positioning themselves as the antithesis to the Spandau Ballets and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Darks of the music world. Lead singer Morrissey told an interviewer: “It was the most ordinary name and I thought it was time that the ordinary folk of the world showed their faces.”

With lyrics that portrayed a life of rented rooms, high-rise estates and motorway service stations, Morrissey was writing lyrics about unexceptional, everyday experiences that jarred with the glitz and glamour the New Romantic bands were singing about.

And while The Smiths provided an alternative to the pomposity of early 1980s music, The Streets’ debut album Original Pirate Material was released in 2002 into a UK music market dominated by cheesy lyrics like “I’m flying high ‘cause your love’s made me see” and “Baby I would climb the Andes solely to count the freckles on your body”. Its lead vocalist Mike Skinner instead wanted “to write good lyrics about contemporary British life”.

His songs about Playstations, London Underground travel cards, cans of Carling, bottles of Smirnoff Ice, smoke-reeking jeans, McDonald’s and KFC documented the lives many of us were actually living.

Could Well Be In by The Streets (2004) includes lyrics about JD Sports, playing pool and ITV.

When COVID swept the world in 2020 and we were confined to our houses, gazing out of our windows at a world that was off limits, songs with everyday lyrics became even more important.

After all, did we really want to be listening to Ed Sheeran’s boast about how he’d found love in a bar when we couldn’t go to bars, or Dua Lipa going on about how she was once again dancing her ass off when we couldn’t go to clubs? What many of us really wanted were lyrics that showed solidarity with our situation and represented the lives we were living, with all the glamour, excitement and gloss wiped off.

Lyrics to 2021 songs like Niko B’s Who’s That, What’s That? (“Copped a Big Mac, milkshake and some large fries … take the gherkin out of the inside”) or Lady Leshurr’s Quarantining (“I went Sainsbury’s just to get bog roll”) became poignant.

Even love song supremo Paul McCartney got on board, pondering in the track When Winter Comes (2021) how he must “dig a drain by the carrot patch” and “fix the fence”. Not a hint of “patron”, “poolside drinking”, or “Margarita rounds” in sight (sorry, Drake).

The future of the banal

Sixty years since champions of the everyday The Kinks came onto the scene, the ordinary lyric is alive and well. Mike Skinner is back releasing albums as The Streets after a decade-long hiatus, and new pretenders to the throne of the mundane, Leeds’s Yard Act, are about to release their second album Where’s My Utopia.

The band have been praised for how their songs have documented modern life in Britain. With lyrics like: “We’re gonna put Poundshop terracotta frogs everywhere / And wrap solar power fairy lights round the gutter … I got a prosecco o’clock poster half price in Ikea”, they continue to fly the flag of joyous banality.

Songs about love, breakups and extravagance will undoubtedly continue to dominate the charts, but in among it all, it seems, there’s always room something a little more ordinary.

Looking for something good? Cut through the noise with a carefully curated selection of the latest releases, live events and exhibitions, straight to your inbox every fortnight, on Fridays. Sign up here.

Post Comment