|Day 144: Tom Jones (Delilah)
May 12, 2022
The hypocrisy of Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) of the late 1980s and early 1990s drove me crazy. From every corner of every era, rock and pop music drips with references to sex, violence, masturbation and whatever other malfeasance offended white, middle and upper-class American parents.
Even well after Gore and her fellow pitch-fork mob evaporated into nothingness, I used music "labeling" as an exercise in critical thinking for my composition classes, bringing in a number of CDs with lyrics that could be offensive so the class could discuss why one might have the label and another not. More often than not, it tied to "difference," usually of skin color. This point often crystalized with Warren Zevon's Life'll Kill You, where the song "My Shit's Fucked Up" wasn't listed on the outside cover but still never merited a parental advisory sticker. I guess old, washed-up white guys didn't matter since the kids never would listen to them.
Nevertheless, getting rid of the annoying advisory stickers matters, but I also don't dismiss the critical thinking one should still apply to song lyrics. It's a fine line, I know, but some songs are disturbing precisely because they make it so easy to gloss over the lyric. Ice-T didn't bother me at the time because the whole point was to think about the anger behind the words. What's more bothersome is when you are tapping your feet, belting out beautifully melodic lyrics to the point that you don't realize you are singing something offensive.
Take Tom Jones' "Delilah," as catchy a song as ever written. We have "the voice," as simple as that, but also big band accompaniment, highlighted by flamenco flourishes. The hook of the chorus: "My, My, My Delilah/Why, Why, Why Delilah"-- Good God, what record producer wouldn't play this song to every band in a recording studio and say, "this is our goal!"
Speaking of goals, "Delilah" became the common rallying cry for several British teams: a Welsh rugby team and an English soccer (sorry, chaps, "football") team, much similar to how Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" is an unofficial anthem for the Boston Red Sox and University of Pittsburgh. "Sweet Caroline" shares the same kind of soaring chorus that entices group chanting. However, how do these songs associate with sports? If there's one thing we can thank Queen for is that they gave us dumb, obvious anthems in "We Will Rock You" and "We Are The Champions" to sing at sporting events.
The fact that thousands of people can stand in unison singing "Why, Why, Why, Delilah/So, before they come to break down my door/Forgive me, Delilah, I just couldn't take anymore" justifies exactly why I am disturbed. The song is about a man witnessing his lover having an affair, so he kills her. Plain and simple. There is nothing more. Nothing about how long they have been together. Nothing about his fidelity. Nothing about whether she shared the same obsessive, possessive love he had for her ("she was my woman," Jones growls).
Eventually (46 long years later), there was some significant backlash about the lavish use of "Delilah" at sporting events when a politician suggested it should not be the Welsh Rugby Union's official song. Jones defended the song saying it is just "something that happens in life that its [sic] woman is unfaithful to him and he just loses it." In some sources, he is quoted as saying "the great thing about the song that everyone picks up on is the chorus. I don't think they are really thinking about it."
Uh, yeah, that's the point, Tom. It's even more despicable when you add "if it's going to be taken literally like that then I think it takes the fun out of it. I think it takes the spirit out why it's being sung." Takes the FUN out of it? Yeah, songs about killing should be allowed to have some fun.
Again, I am not criticizing writing songs about violence or even about men killing women. The lyrical content needs to be addressed within the "spirit" (to use Tom's word) of the melody.
Take Johnny Cash's somber "Delia's Gone" (the Delilah/Delia similarity of names is striking here, although the Cash song predates Jones' by 6 years). For Cash's song, we have another "the voice," accompanied only by an acoustic guitar so that we have to focus on the lyrics. With Cash, the key is that the narrator is already in jail for the murder and haunted by her ghost ("I hear the patter of Delia's feet"). His serving penance for her murder proves the point ("so if your woman's devilish/you can let her run/or you can bring her down/and do her like Delia got done"). I am still disturbed by the violence, but there is no sugarcoating of it by Cash, and you won't hear this being sung by 100,000 fans at a football game.
The generic counter-argument here is that we can't take art out of the time and context it was created. I suppose these kinds of poppy hits with disturbing under-currents are still being written (what the heck would I know at this age?), but I go back to Ms. Gore and her concern about, well, often gore. When Jones was invited to perform "Delilah" on The Ed Sullivan Show (link below is to that performance; have you ever see a band director swing as much as this dude?), the censors did want him to change a line. Was it the one about stabbing her with a knife? Hell, no, they were more concerned about the line "at break of day when that man drove away," because it suggested a night of carnal activities. Really? That's all that bothered them? Let's not worry about the bodies in your basement, Mr. Gacy, where is your permit to dig?
And a P.S.: It's been several days since I started drafting this entry. Guess what earworm has been firmly implanted in my head? Yes, "my, my, my Delilah." I have to admit it is a better sound than "Love Will Keep Us Together," but the latter, ironically, makes me feel much less ashamed.
Jones, Tom. "Delilah." Delilah. Decca. 1968. Ed Sullivan Show Link here.
Day 143: Dr. Dog. "The Rabbit, The Bat, And The Reindeer."
Day 145: Nick Lowe. "American Squirm."
See unfinished list here.