Some people find insults coarse, base and a sorry excuse for invective from the intellectually feeble. I call those people "bloggers who read the comments section."
But seriously, a good insult is a work of art. If you don't believe me, well, "I do desire we be better strangers," (Shakespeare). You're clearly "one of the numerous and varied legion of dullards, of half-animated abortions..." (Dostoevsky). Apparently, "If your brains were dynamite, there wouldn't be enough to blow your hat off" (Vonnegut).
In music, no one has mastered the insult better than the cunning linguists of rap. They've elevated the barb beyond art and into an all-new Webster's-approved synonym -- "diss." I'd pit today's best rap artists against Billy Shakes or MC Fyodor any day in an insult battle. If you disagree, well, go do something "with no Vaseline, just a match and a little bit of gasoline," (Ice Cube).
But, what about the hundreds of years between the Bard and Da Brat? Which songs from the pre-rap era serve the best crackbacks on some unwitting but probably deserving sap who never saw it coming? Are there any you could use for your own petty conflicts that don't sound too antiquated or too gangsta?
Why, yes, there are.
Big Mama Thornton, "Hound Dog" Ironically, Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton begins her version of the song by singing, "I want everybody to know that I was the one to say,...you ain't nothing but a hound dog!" The blues belter's version precedes Elvis Presley's breakthrough by a few years, but is it better? That's a matter of opinion. But if you're judging solely on the number of insults in the song, Big Mama's got Elvis beat without question.
She tells her hound dog of a man "you can wag your tail, but I ain't gonna feed you no more." She professes she can see through his ruse of being high-classed and ultimately delivers the biggest burn: she says she's sending him home. As in, "I think you better call Tyrone" eviction.
Thornton was living and playing the blues in Houston for the Peacock label, which asked legendary rock and roll songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to write a song for her. So technically, they penned these open-handed slaps. But Big Mama delivered them flush to the droopy cheeks of her dog of a man.
Sex Pistols, "No Feelings" Some people are gluttons for punishment. I call those people "bloggers who troll readers and then read the comments section." I'm no Freud, so I don't comprehend why anyone would subject themselves to verbal abuse, but it's a fact that some people are into it.
People like those are who Johnny Rotten is singing about here, when he's not singing about his "beautiful self." In this case, the insulted is reduced to nothing more than "a pretty pot of glue," whose "brains are locked away." This unfortunate individual is so barren of self-esteem that John Lydon figures he or she will still have his picture on their wall long after he's gone. Ouch.
Stevie Wonder, "You Haven't Done Nothin'" Last year, I got fired from a job I had for ten years. In case y'all didn't know, they will do that to you if insult your boss too many times. Looking back, I've come to realize I was right to do what I did. I have no regrets at all.
I could have been less vocal about my boss's ineptitude, sure, but I was spurred by music, like this burn on authority by Stevie Wonder. The song was written with one man in mind -- Richard Nixon. But take it from me, it applies itself well to any other bald-faced, know-nothing abusers of authority. Meddling parents, trifling spouses, your kids in a sofa coma induced by marijuana and video games -- it applies to them, too.
Adding injury to insult, Wonder's words are amplified by na-na-boo-boos courtesy of the Jackson 5, making "You Haven't Done Nothin'" funkier than yo' mama's breath, which is so bad her toothbrush learned how to pray.
Story continues on the next page.
Carly Simon, "You're So Vain" Klaus Voorman's bass intro is the sound of someone stumbling over his or her huge ego. But who exactly is that person? Mick Jagger, Warren Beatty and David Geffen have all been suggested, but, to her credit, Simo has never revealed the true identity -- if there is one -- of her mark.
Smart move. By not identifying an exact person, she's stoked the mystery for decades. Her official Web site devotes an entire page to the speculation, dropping hints with photos of Cat Stevens and Kris Kristofferson in the mix.
The first line of the song is so perfect. I know if I were an egomaniac, I'd totally walk into a party, Walmart, church or anywhere else like I was walking onto a yacht. The rest of the song is fairly routine "you dumped me" stuff; but that chorus. There's probably never been a recorded lyric that better sums up one's character than "You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you."
Queen, "Death on Two Legs (Dedicated to...) Queen's "Death on Two Legs (Dedicated To...)" is a terribly fun singalong because it's replete with putdowns and trash talk. Written by Freddie Mercury and allegedly toasting Queen's former manager, it's one line after the next of Mercury comparing his subject in unflattering ways to various beasts -- a leech, a mule, a diseased dog and a sewer rat.
Mercury is merciless in his attack, suggesting institutionalization and even suicide. He taunts his target a second time, then a third and ultimately for nearly four minutes on the opening track of A Night at the Opera. The best part of the song is how it ends with the words "I feel good!," then goes into the jubilant tra-la-la of "Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon," as if the door has abruptly been shut on the matter.
ROCKS OFF'S GREATEST HITS
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism