Mixtape: ‘I Want It That Way,’ ‘Is This It?’ and 18 Other Unclear Songs

This is a mixtape composed of songs that make you go, huh? Songs that, like The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” The Strokes, “Is This It?” and Meatloaf’s “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),” contain a part of speech– usually a this, it or that– that is entirely ambiguous. I’m sorry, you want it what way? What is the this that’s not it? Wait, what exactly won’t you do? There are hundreds, if not thousands, of these songs. (Some that aren’t on this mix, but could be, include “Stir It Up,” “That’s the Way I Like It,” “It’s Your Thing,” “Gotta Get Thru This,” “Let It Loose” “Absurd Without It,” “DC Will Do That to You,” and “Say It Right,” to name just a few.) In other words, the following mixtape is not exhaustive, it’s a sampling– but it’s a sampling of some of the best syntactical mysteries in pop music. Prepare to be befuddled by The Unclear Parts of Speech Mixtape.

(‘DiggThis’)1. I Want It That Way, The Backstreet Boys

The Backstreet Boys’ best song is a perfect example of a This It That song: What exactly is the ‘that way’ the boys so desperately want? The lyrics don’t do much to clarify: in one instance the band croons, “Believe when I say/ I want it that way,” only to warble in the chorus,” I never wanna hear you say/ I want it that way.” Make up your minds dudes, is “that way” a good or a bad thing? Or is it anal sex?

2. “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That),” Meatloaf

Another famous example of the genre, is this incredibly, incredibly long song from Meatloaf. Despite being 10 minutes, when it was released in1993 it helped give the Loaf a second act. (And helped launch Michael Bay’s career. He directed the mesmerizing, so-bad-it’s-good video, involving a heavily made-up Meatloaf, a chick, gauze, a motorcycle and some Phantom of the Opera allusions. More subtle than anything he’s done since, though no less ridiculous.) Meatloaf has said that each verse contains two things he’ll do for love and one he won’t, with the mysterious “that” referring to the thing he won’t do. I.e. He would “run right into hell and back.” He would “Never lie to you and that’s a fact.” But he would “never forget the way you feel right now.” No, he won’t do that. Except that makes even less sense when you’re listening to the song.

3.”Can You Get To That,” Funkadelic

The phrase “Can You Get To That “ is a variation on “Can You Dig?” What, you want me to define slang from 1971 without using other old fashioned slang? I’m sorry, Funkadelic is too funky to be contained by straight talk, even 39 years later. The song presents a piece of wisdom, “I read an old quotation in a book just yesterday/ Said “Gonna reap just what you sow/ The debts you make you have to pay,” and then asks “Can you get to that?” Meaning, can you dig? i.e. Do you agree with/understand the aforementioned statement? (That last bit is meant to be read as though Chris Rock’s were saying it while doing his best impersonation of a white person.) Later in the song, Funkadelic explains, “When you base your life on credit/ And your loving days are done/ Checks you signed with love and kisses/ Later come back signed ‘insufficient funds,'” before insisting, “Y’all get to that.” I know I will.

4. “That’s Entertainment,” The Jam

Things that constitute entertainment in this song from the British punk band: A police car and a screaming siren. A baby wailing, a stray dog howling. A smash of glass and the rumble of boots. Lights going out and a kick in the balls. Pissing down with rain on a boring Wednesday. Opening the windows and breathing in petrol. Cuddling a warm girl and smelling stale perfume. Two lovers missing the tranquility of solitude. Isn’t it funny how these Brits, back in1980, knew exactly what old-school New Yorkers would miss 30 years in the future?! But no, really, as punk rock as all this is, your life would be much better if you could find these things entertaining.

5. “Push It,” Salt N’ Pepa

Yeah, the ‘it” in this song is pretty definitively ween.

6. “Is This It?,” The Strokes

The Strokes cri de coeur brings us into the existential phase of the mix, where “This” and “It” stop standing in for various love and sex acts, and start to sub in for that crazy thing called life. Sure, there is a sex component to “Is This It?” as Julian Casablancas is singing about getting into a girl’s apartment. But given who The Strokes were at the time– young, scrappy New York City kids hell bent on revitalizing rock—and that they chose this as the name of their album, it means more. The “this” in “Is This It? can be read as a reference to the album itself, in which case it’s a coy way of suggesting that this album ought to be examined for “it-ness.” Perhaps, The Strokes imply, we’re the shit? But it’s also a much humbler, sadder question, especially when you hear Casablancas deliver it, all jaded and bummed out. He sounds like he seriously hopes that “this” is not “it.” There’s got to be more to life.

7. “This Is It,” Ryan Adams

This is as close as indie rock comes to a diss track. Ryan Adams’ song is a pretty straight-forward rejoinder to The Strokes: “Don’t waste my time/This is it/This is really happening.” While it seems petty to insult The Strokes’ music, there is something to the sentiment—stop navel gazing and get on with it! Of course, Adams really isn’t the right person to be delivering that message (glass houses, stones etc.)

8. “I Feel It All,” Feist

Another song in which “it” stands for the whole shebang. Never has a song about being wholly vulnerable to the world– with all the heartbreak and lies, but also the experience and soaring,that entails—sounded so determinedly, convincingly optimistic.

9. “And It Stoned Me,” Van Morrison

Van Morrison apparently said this song was about a quasi-mystical experience he had when an old dude gave him some water. You get that from the song– “Oh, the water/Oh, the water/ Hope it don’t rain all day/ And it stoned me to my soul”– until the next line– “Stoned me just like Jelly Roll.” Now, this may very well refer to Jelly Roll Morton, as Wikipedia claims, but it still sounds mad weird, and leads one to believe this is not just a song about being metaphorically stoned. To recap, “It” is “the water,” “Jelly Roll” and later “going home.” This song could probably be called “And Getting Stoned Stoned Me.”

10. “I Lost It,” Lucinda Williams

The likely “it” in this song from the inimitable Williams is lost love, her heart or something similar. The lyrics are wonderfully specific– ”I think I lost it/ Let me know if you come across it/ Let me know if I let it fall/ Along a back road somewhere”– but there are a few tip offs towards heartsickness: “And I know I’m never gonna find/Another one to compare/ Give me some love to fill me up” and “If I give my heart/ Will you promise not to break it?” Whatever “it” is, it makes for a good song.

11. “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” Nico

Written by Bob Dylan in 1964, the song was released on Velvet Undergrounder and Warhol pal Nico’s album Chelsea Girl in 1967. It has possibly the best turn of phrase on this mix– entirely ineffable, but all the sweeter for its ambiguity: “But if I can save you any time/ Come on, give it to me/ I’ll keep it with mine.”

12. “Whip It,” Devo

At first, we’re on firm ground with this 1980 track from the famously bizarre new wave outfit. “When a problem comes along /You must whip it /Before the cream sits out too long /You must whip it /When something’s going wrong /You must whip it.” Ok, I’m not sure most problems are best solved with violence, but I totally agree that it’s best to make butter before the cream spoils. Things get weirder from there. “Now whip it/ Into shape/ Shape it up/ Get straight/ Go forward/ Move ahead/ Try to detect it/ It’s not too late/ To whip it/ Whip it good.” Possibly we’re still talking about butter, but I doubt it. This one’s a mystery. I wouldn’t expect anything less from these guys.

13. “Oops! I Did It Again,” Britney Spears

The lead single from Spears’ 2000 album of the same title is best remembered for its video, which featured Brit in a red pleather body suit, macking on a hunky astronaut. A close textual analysis reveals it’s nominally about Spears’ bad habit of making dude’s she’s not into fall in love with her (“Ooops! I did it again/ I played with your heart”), but songs, like things you didn’t say, can accrue meaning in time. When it came out, Oops was seen as a knowing, tongue in cheek nod to Britney’s enormous success (Oops! She made another hit record). See, back then, it had not been confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that Spears had no idea what she was doing. That would take another four plus years. Oops! She never really did it again.

14. “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” Snoop Dogg

There’s a number of things “it’ could refer to in this song: I refuse to believe any of them but poop.

15. “Any Way You Want It (That’s The Way You Need It),’ Journey

Yes, this song is about the sexy time: “Oh, she said/Any way you want it/ That’s the way you need it/… Ooh, then we touched /Then we sang / About the lovin’ things /Ooh, all night, all night.” And thank god, because it’s central supposition—that any way you want it, is the way you need it— basically only applies to sexytime activities. Do you want that pizza with extra cheese and pepperoni? Those $500 boots? Never to pay taxes? Absolutely not the way you need it! Honestly, for the greater good, the fortune cookie caveat should apply to this song, meaning it’s title should actually be “Any Way You Want It (That’s The Way You Need It)… in bed.”

16. “This Is How We Do It,” Montell Jordan

Jordan’s meaning is pretty clear: This is how we party. He gets into the details: “It’s Friday night, and I feel all right/The party is here on the West side/ So I reach for my 40 and I turn it up.” But this is one of those phrases that’s proliferated, and in doing so, has become much vaguer. When Jordan said, “This is how we do it,” he meant drinks, girls and fun on a summer night in South Central. When your neighborhood Dungeons and Dragons master says it, he means a raucous night of tang and rolling the 20-sided die so the apprentice can kill the ogre with a slingshot. Jordan did not know what he was starting. (Which reminds me that MJ’s “Wanna Be Starting Something” could be track #21.)

17. “It Covers The Hillsides,” Midlake

This song from the Texas band’s 2006 album begins and ends with, “It covers the roadways/It covers the hillsides/ It covers the houses/ It covers the frozen pines.” Probably “it” is the snow, because the tune is all about being cold and there’s been a blizzard (“We had the snowfall”) but it’s not definitive, and they end up going to the ocean.

18. “That’s The Way Love Goes,” Janet Jackson

One of the singles off Ms. Jackson If Your Nasty’s 1993 smash Janet., “That’s The Way Love Goes” seems to make the claim that love goes “Like a moth to a flame/Burned by the fire.” You know, passionate, painful, stupid. (For those keeping score, this is the second time that the fire-desire rhyme has appeared on this playlist.) Entirely irrelevantly, even if moth is better for the rhyme scheme, it’s weird to equate anything good or sexy with a moth, the butterfly’s furry, twitchy, deranged relative.

19. “All These Things That I’ve Done,” The Killers

This anthem from Brandon Flowers and Co. could feature on another mixtape I’m plotting: best nonsense lyrics, for its rousing, unstoppable refrain, “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier.” What does that even mean, Flowers? Who cares! It sounds fun! Let’s make out. The phrase “All These Things That I’ve Done” doesn’t show up until late on this track, way after the soul/soldier/gospel choir climax, in this couplet: “While everyone’s lost, the battle is won/With all these things that I’ve done.” Despite being opaque, it’s got The Killers’ trademark grandiosity. Nothing is modulated with these guys, it’s always everyone, not someone, always battles, not skirmishes, and always, always about their own accomplishments and potential.

20. [Bonus Track] “Epic,” Faith No More

“Epic,” rap-rock-punk-fusion band Faith No More’s 1989 breakout single doesn’t fit in with the rest of this mix, insofar as there is no ambiguous part of speech in the title. But the lyrics more than make up for this, and so, it’s here as a bonus track. The words to this song speak for themselves– or more accurately, they don’t do anything of the sort, being so wholly unknowable. Here there are in abridged form: “Can you feel it, see it, hear it today?/ If you can’t, then it doesn’t matter anyway/It’s so cool, it’s so hip, it’s alright/ It’s so groovy, it’s outta sight/ You can touch it, smell it, taste it so sweet/ You’ve got to share it, so you dare it/ Then you bare it and you tear it/ You want it all but you can’t have it/ What is it?/ It’s it.” It’s it! It is it! Exactly!

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