Monday, March 31, 2014

Irony in Music: BNL's "Shopping"

Last year before April Fool's, I wrote about Rickrolling, or infusing an otherwise innocuous piece of music  with new, comical meaning. This week, I want to write about irony in music, or using music to make lyrics mean exactly opposite their surface meaning.

I've recently been listening to the Barenaked Ladies (BNL) 2003 album Everything to Everyone, and one song on that album is a perfect example of musical irony: "Shopping". Here's the song: 

And here are the lyrics:

Well you know that it's going to be all right,
I think it's going to be alright,
Everything will always be all right, when we go shopping.

Well you know it's going to be all right, when we go shopping.

It's always la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la…shopping spree begin,
la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la…everybody wins.

So shut up, and never stop,
Let's shop, until we drop.


It's always la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la…shopping never end,
La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la…shopping with our friends, shopping once again.

It's always la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la,'s always la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la…

It's never enough, until you've got all the stuff.
When the going gets rough, just shop with someone tough.

Chorus (2x)

It's always la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la...when we go shopping, when we go shopping, when we go shopping.
It's always la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la…

Fluffy looking and sounding...

At first glance, the lyrical content of "Shopping" is pretty flimsy. Mostly it's just "all right", "shopping", and "lalala". And the instances when it's not, the rhymes are all short, masculine (meaning one-syllable), and inane. And don't always rhyme very well.

The music at first seems to mimic the lyrics—it's peppy and electronics-heavy and something one might hear at a store in the mall. The problem comes when one thinks about actually having these lyrics playing in a mall. The music in the mall is designed to get people to buy things—but actually stating that in the music would pretty much negate any chance at compulsion. It's just too much.

Also, BNL as a band is usually pretty verbose in their lyrics, and even in the funnier songs usually display some lyrical depth. The fact that the band chose to have such simple, silly lyrics must be purposeful. The only conclusion is that they must be making fun of shopping—meaning their true message is that everything is not all right "when we go shopping."

...but really pretty complicated

A closer look at the musical form of "Shopping" reveals that it's much more complicated than it initially seems, too. No musical material is ever presented the same way twice. For example, the first chorus has an extra line, the second chorus plays once, and the third chorus plays twice. And there's little complex touches, like the vibraphone and the ethereal "hahaha" laughing, that show extra thoughtfulness to a song that wouldn't seem to deserve that detail.

The string quartet right before "It's never enough…" is the final cherry on top of this irony sundae: the strings attempt to add some gravity to music that on the surface seems completely fluffy and light. And not coincidentally, the string quartet entrance highlights the one line that leaks the real intent of the words: "It's never enough, until you've got all the stuff". If everything is always all right when we are shopping, why is the shopper unsatisfied? Suddenly, other lines seem problematic, too, like "everybody wins"—we know this is not true when we consider conditions for garment workers in Bangladesh, for example. Shopping in a modern store, as much as they try to hide it, can actually mean dooming some people in other parts of the world.

The take-away I'm hoping to convey here is that analyzing a song's lyrics without also looking at the music is really not getting the whole picture—not by half, at least.

Do you have any examples to share of musical irony? I'd love to hear them.

Vocab: lyrics, vibraphone, string quartet, chorus, masculine rhyme


  1. Replies
    1. I still need to see the Lego movie. It's on my to-do list.

  2. Did you know I'm a huge BNL fan? If I want to come across as snobby (and I sort of do) I'll also add that I liked BNL long before "One Week" was a hit. I love the in-depth analysis.
    (This is Jaren Hinckley, by the way.)

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