I am way, way, way too fascinated by parenthetical remarks in song titles. Take the Simple Minds song “(Don’t You) Forget About Me.” “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” To give you an idea how insane I think that title is, I got it completely wrong the first time. I thought the (Don’t You) part was in parenthesis. That made little sense. The way it actually is makes even less sense.
Look, these quotes might not be quite as powerful if we had used parentheses:
“(All We Have To Fear Is) Fear Itself.”
“(Ask Not) What Your Country Can Do For You.”
“(A House Divided Against Itself Cannot) Stand.”
Best I can tell there are three (or four, maybe) kinds of parenthetical song titles. The first is the kind where the words in brackets actually counter the rest of the title, giving it the opposite meaning. People think the Rolling Stones classic is titled Satisfaction. But it isn’t. The song isn’t about satisfaction. He may try and try and try and try but the bottom line is he can’t get no satisfaction.
And the song title, of course, is: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
This of course also has all sorts of double-negative ramifications too — is he saying he CAN get satisfaction since he cannot get no-satisfaction? — but we’re focusing on the parentheses. We can’t get into the grammatical and logical crimes of music. We’d spend 200,000 words on Steve Miller alone.
Blue Oyster Cult wrote a song that seems to be called “The Reaper” but without the parentheses that might be a song about how awesome The Reaper is, how frightening, how intimidating, how fun he is at parties, how much his name must be celebrated with cowbells. But only after you add a little message in a parenthetical preamble do you understand.
It’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” After all, seasons don’t fear the reaper.
The second type of parenthetical is the kind that more or less explains the song title. I particularly like these sorts of bracketed words — they are like helpful little signs that guide you through. For instance “The Shoop Shoop Song.” What is that? The parentheses explain. “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss).” OK, now I get it.
Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” is another well-placed explainer.
Sly and the Family Stone are saying “Thank You.” That’s nice. But thank you for what? Thank you for buying the album? Thank you for not smoking? Thank you for the flowers?
It’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).”
Well, that clears it up — and offers one of the fun word puzzles in music history.
The third kind of parenthetical adds critical and often surprising information. These are like Sixth Sense parentheses that twist the song in directions you didn’t see coming. Elvis Presley’s song is “Teddy Bear.” This could be a remembrance of a favorite stuffed animal or a fit of jealousy about someone’s love toward their teddy bear or, well, anything else.
But then with the parenthetical you understand. The song is “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear.” Ah. Got it now.
The two best explainer parentheses in music history, in my opinion, are Aerosmith’s “Dude” and Elvis Costello’s “Red Shoes.” There is absolutely no way whatsoever to draw from those titles what the songs are about. Aerosmith could be doing some country song about some Dude ranch guy or The Dude in Big Lebowski.
The parentheses clear up all confusion. The song title is actually: “Dude (Looks Like A Lady).”
Red Shoes’ parenthetical comes entirely out of nowhere. Red Shoes? What could that be about? And here’s the song title: “(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes.” Whoa.
In this genre you have to include Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion).” And I think you have to also add R.E.M.’s “IT’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I feel Fine)” to the list, though I have mixed feelings about that one. I’m thinking R.E.M. is giving away a little too much, sort of like those movie trailers where you feel like you’ve seen the whole movie.
But then, I guess there’s a fourth kind of parenthetical — this is the kind where the parenthetical seems to add absolutely nothing at all to the title. These bother me so much that I probably need to get psychiatric help about it. I mean, sure, I get the gag parentheses like The Kinks “(A) Face In the Crowd” but some of these people add bracketed comments that add nothing — absolutely bleepin’ nothing — to the title. And they don’t seem to (notice). They don’t even seem (to care). Arrrgh (Arrgh!).
Here, from my small amount of research, are the ten most useless, pointless, worthless, extraneous, repetitive parenthetical song titles.
10. “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do).” Darryl Hall & John Oates.
Why? Just … why? “I can’t go for that” is plenty explicit. No need for deeper explanation. Why?
9. “Sad Songs (Say So Much).” Elton John.
Do they now, Sir Elton? Not getting the message across with simply “Sad Songs?”
8. I Ran (So Far Away), A Flock of Seagulls.
You write a song called “I Ran” we’ll just assume you covered some ground.
7. “(Shake Shake Shake) Shake Your Booty.” KC & The Sunshine Band.
I’m not as angry about the words themselves as I’m angry they put those first three shakes in parentheses. They are every bit as important as the fourth “shake.”
6. “Bang A Gong (Get It On)” T.Rex
I almost put this in the (explainer) category, but no. “Bang A Gong” is sufficient for a song with the verse, “Well you’re built like a car, you’ve got a hub cap diamond star halo.”
5. “I’m Just A Singer (In A Rock And Roll Band).” The Moody Blues.
We did not think you were a singer with the New York Metropolitan Opera.
4. “(I Got That) Boom Boom.” Britney Spears.
There’s so much stupid happening here it’s kind of hard to separate one boom from another.
3. “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long.” Chicago.
Who else would be searching? Title also features the faux dropped-G-replaced-by-apostrophe trick to give the song attitude and grittiness.
2. “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes.
Those two words, “I’ve Had” have taken two years of my life. The song itself took off another five.
1. “All Night Long (All Night)” Lionel Richie.
If anyone ever deserved to be arrested for a song title it is Lionel Richie.