Saturday, December 31, 2022

From the Archives - Sting’s Lyrical Blunders


About fifteen years ago, my brother emailed me a blog post by Charles Petzold about a fairly major goof in Sting’s lyrics to “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.”  The essay had to do with Sting’s allusion to the book Lolita, and the age of Vladimir Nakobov’s evil pedophile character, Humbert Humbert. Sting refers to Humbert as “the old man,” but he simply isn’t old. Petzold’s post also recounts a more widespread criticism of the song, which is Sting’s inane rhyming of “Nabokov” with “cough.”

What follows is my original response to my brother (which I’ve fleshed out a bit for this presumably larger audience). But first, some background.

Highlights of Petzold’s post

Petzold’s blog post begins by quickly recounting the botched rhyme in Sting’s lyrics:

The music magazine Blender recently cited Sting as the worst lyricist ever (story here), in part for the atrocious lyric [It’s no use, he sees her/ He starts to shake and cough/ Just like the old man in/ That book by Nabokov]. At the time the song first came out, much was made of Sting’s ridiculous pronunciation of Vladimir Nabokov’s last name, which should properly be accented on the second syllable.

Then Petzold takes Sting to task for suggesting that Nabokov’s antihero is old:

The “old man” — the narrator of [Lolita] who adopts the pseudonym Humbert Humbert — is hardly old! In May 1947, when Humbert Humbert first meets Dolores Haze, he is 36 or 37 and she is 12. He dies at the age of 42, and she dies at the age of 17. This is not a matter of “inside knowledge” or reading between the lines. Nabokov is extremely precise in the chronology of the novel, and only the most superficial reading (or, more likely in this case, none at all) could [miss] all the signposts.

My commentary, informed by my long study of Nabokov’s work and the two years of Russian I took in high school, elaborates on both gaffs.

Sting’s Lyrical Blunders – October 11, 2007

Petzold makes good points. I have long been bothered by that mispronunciation (made all the worse for its being the very last word of the song). For years, when I’d sing this (e.g., in the shower), I would change the lyrics to “just like the old man in that book by Vladimir.” This fixes the meter, in that the great writer’s name isn’t accentuated on the wrong syllable, but of course my substitution fouls up the rhyme. Not that Sting’s rhyme was exactly right to begin with; “Nabokov” is correctly pronounced “Na-BOH-kov,” with the final letter being basically a “v” sound, perhaps slightly closer to an “f” than the classic English “v” but in any event a poor match with the simple “f” sound in “cough.”

So, to fix both the meter and the rhyme, and the age while I’m at it, here’s how I will sing the last two lines from now on:

It’s no use, he sees her
He’s feeling really queer
Just like the gross man in
That book by Vladimir

I suppose I’m not on completely safe ground with “Vladimir,” since a very strict Russian pronunciation would accentuate the second syllable, which would have a bit more of an “e” sound, so the word would more properly rhyme with “redeemer.” But I think enough Americans say “VLAD-i-mere” that this is a significant improvement.

Now, in case you’re wondering if it’s fair to say Humbert Humbert felt “queer,” I think it certainly is. At one point late in the novel, when Lolita is starting to distance herself from Humbert, he describes how “I sat down on the grass with a quite monstrous pain in my chest and vomited up a torrent of browns and greens that I had never remembered eating.” That would be a pretty queer feeling indeed (and in any case I don’t remember Humbert shaking and coughing at any point in the book).

What’s arguably even lamer than the rhyme itself is Sting’s effort to defend himself. His website,, provides this quote (taken from an interview):

Okay, I can defend that. Sometimes rhymes can be so bad they can shock you into listening to them. Most good, full rhymes are just Hallmark card stuff. Moon, June, erm, balloon. But I’ve used that terrible, terrible rhyme technique a few times. Technically, it’s called a feminine rhyme—where it’s so appalling it’s almost humorous.

Okay, let me get this straight: Sting deliberately mispronounced “Nabokov,” to make it rhyme with “cough,” just to shock the listener into listening? What was the listener doing before? Zoning out? Listening to something else? Yeah, right. “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” is actually a rather good song, and this is the very end of it; if there was any need to shock the reader into listening, that would more appropriately be done closer to the beginning.

Meanwhile, the bit about “feminine rhyme” further showcases Sting’s appalling willingness to shamelessly spout bullshit without regard to the possibility that he’ll be fact-checked. “Feminine rhyme” is not characterized by being appalling or shocking. As M.H. Abrams explains in his excellent Glossary of Literary Terms, a feminine rhyme “consists of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable” and, “since it involves the repetition of two syllables, is also known as a double rhyme.” Examples would be feather/heather and ending/bending. Does this type of rhyme get employed in pop music? Sure! Check out these lines from Eminem:

Yo! His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There’s vomit on his sweater already: Mom’s spaghetti

Feminine rhyme is what Sting should have employed, since “Nabokov” is a word whose final syllable is unstressed. What Sting actually made was a masculine rhyme, which “consists of a single stressed syllable” such as in bore/poor and louche/douche. If he wished to employ a feminine rhyme in order to achieve metrical accuracy, Sting should have rhymed Nabokov with “fuck off.”

A final note on the botched rhyme and Sting’s lame defense of it: twice on one page of, Nabokov is spelled “Nabakov.” This further suggests that Sting simply didn’t know how to pronounce the name; obviously, flubbing the penultimate syllable wasn’t necessary in order to achieve the single (masculine) rhyme with “cough.”

Getting to Petzold’s main point, the inaccuracy of “old man” in the final verse of that song: this hadn’t previously dawned on me, and it’s a very good observation. I suppose I’ve allowed the casting in the two Lolita movies to distort my perception of Humbert’s age (and shame on me, because I’ve read that book at least three or four times). Of course, Sting was pretty young when he wrote that song, but was he young enough to think of 36 as old? Well, we can do some rudimentary math here based on the line “this girl is half his age.” If we assume this is high school, the girl is between 14 and 18. (On his website, Sting recalls how “I’d done teaching practice at secondary schools and been through the business of having 15-year-old girls fancying me—and me really fancying them!” Eww.) So the narrator of the song is presumably around 30. Perhaps a little kid would think 36 is old, but not a 30-year-old.

I suppose Sting could try to argue that he meant “old man” as in “father,” as Humbert was in fact Lolita’s legal stepfather for most of the book. But would he really expect all his listeners to have read the book to know that? Besides, it’d be “her old man,” not “that old man.” No dice.

As a final Hail Mary, Sting could always deny that he was talking about the book Lolita at all—after all, there are plenty of shaking and coughing old men in Nabokov’s books. This would be a weak defense, of course, given the subject matter of the song, but there’s still hope: Sting could claim that he was alluding to The Enchanter, a Nabokov novella that’s also about a pedophile (and was an early precursor to Lolita). I can’t recall the age of its awful protagonist, but at least he is described as “balding.” But from the perspective of that hypothetical defense, Sting nullified it when he recorded a new version of the song in 1986 and changed “that book by Nabokov” to “that famous book by Nabokov.” I doubt anybody would call The Enchanter a famous book. And in interviews Sting has mentioned his admiration of Lolita.

I think it’s appropriate that Sting topped the list of awful lyricists. I saw a documentary about him from 1985, and he just came off as a pompous ass. In one scene, Sting asks his drummer or somebody whether “chasm” is pronounced with a “k” sound or a “ch” sound. This makes me wonder if he really writes his own lyrics to begin with. I mean, who would use a word he doesn’t even know how to pronounce? Oh, wait ... Sting, obviously.

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Friday, December 23, 2022

2022 Last-Minute Online Holiday Gift Guide!


I reckon you’ve arrived here after googling “last-minute Christmas gifts free overnight shipping” or perhaps after crying out, “Oh shit, Alexa, I forgot to shop for Christmas!” (In my household we’d be saying this to our older daughter Alexa by way of apology, as opposed to addressing an Amazon Echo.) Or perhaps your shopping is done and you just want to gloat, and see what acts of desperation the less-organized are resorting to. Either way, you’ll get a candid review of various products that, if nothing else, would be more exciting than another sweater or book.

Cooling weighted blanket - $30

Wait, what? A blanket that cools you? Does it have water running through it like a radiator or something? No, it’s just full of glass beads, to make it heavy. This apparently helps a person sleep. I guess it would be less warm than 15 pounds of blankets. If the concept is good, this could be the perfect gift: that is, the thing your recipient didn’t even know exists, and which solves a problem she didn’t even know she had. The manufacturer claims it “offers a natural way to calm your body for a restful night of sleep, feels like a hug and perfect for people who are under deep pressure that need a relaxing and good sleep. It will a be a best Halloween gift for your family.” Gosh, lots to unpack here. If I understand this correctly, if you’re under deep pressure, metaphorically speaking, the solution is to put yourself under deep pressure literally? As for it being a best Halloween gift, I wasn’t even aware I was supposed to give gifts for that. Maybe the scary costumes stress people out?

So does this thing work? The ratings are generally favorable, and one five-star reviewer wrote, “The material is soft and the heat transfer is on par with some of the golf shirts I own.” I’m not sure what that even means, having never worn a golf shirt. I looked at the Q&A and one respondent wrote, “There is NO cooling aspect with this blanket. If anything it makes me hotter.” That person liked the weight, though, and took care of the heat issue with a $2200 WiFi-connected mattress cover.

Let’s not forget that “the gift of giving” shouldn’t be neglected—in other words, let’s consider what benefit might accrue to you, the giver. Well, have you ever spent $11.45 to ship a $10 mug that weighs less than a pound? So annoying. This bad boy weighs over 15 pounds and ships for free.

Y2K Chill Pillow - $27

Is this pill-shaped pillow timeless? Perhaps. On the one hand, it’s touted as a “Y2K Fashion Room Décor Aesthetic” which would make it very retro, but it’s also “As Seen on TikTok.” One thing is for sure: it’s “perfect size & shape for soft for cuddles people.”

Insofar as “cool girls will love” it, and “you can use it as a way to relax, hug it when you cool down,” I might want this thing for myself, but it’s really touted mainly as a gift, for your “girlfriend, wife, nurses, med or law student, pharmacy techs, icu, therapist, or anyone in a stressful job.” You know what I’m thinking? This would pair really well with the cooling weighted blanket!

Be aware, though, that you will be sending your recipient a message: that you can tell she is really high-strung and really needs to chill out. “Take a chill pill” is often considered kind of a put-down. So be careful or you may take this pillow to the face.

Novelty candle - $20

I’m really not sure what the point of this candle is. I mean, in my experience, guys aren’t really into fancy candles, but women aren’t really into celebrating the nexus of illicit drugs and prostitution. So whom is this really for?

Meanwhile, I have to wonder, what scent is this candle supposed to imply? Does anybody know what cocaine actually smells like? I’ve never heard this smell described or even mentioned, which is kind of funny, considering that coke is snorted up the nose. When I google “the smell of,” Autocomplete suggests rain, money, rebellion, other people’s houses, and death … but not cocaine. As for the smell of a hooker, I would rather not think about it. I suspect it’s nothing like White Sage & Lavender, or Black Currant & Jasmine.

More wholesome novelty candles - $26

Let’s face it, the Cocaine & Hookers candle is a bit racy, but that doesn’t mean candles in general aren’t a great idea. Some people just can’t wait to light a new candle and appreciate its therapeutic benefits, while others will dig it out during a power outage and say, “Thank God I actually held on to this thing!” So here are a few safer options for a nice gift candle:

The aroma of these is helpfully provided on the manufacturer’s website, and each candle has its own. This creates an opportunity for a fun game: a houseguest can say, “Mmmmmm, I’m smelling sea air, rum, and wood … what could that be? A candle celebrating Admiral Vernon ofthe Royal Navy?” The host could giggle, “No, but you’re close: it’s Alexander Hamilton, and this candle recalls his ocean voyage to NYC!” Yay!

Escape reality interactive paperweight - $100

Is it just me, or do a lot of this season’s gifts reflect the need to cool down and relax? Well, insofar as I selected them, maybe it is just me. In any case, this paperweight purports to help you “escape into a magical realm of wonder,” like a little break from reality.

Feeling calmer already, eh? Naw, I’m just messing with you. The real magic starts when you download the free companion app and point your phone at the gemstone. Suddenly, it’s a magical holographic experience:

So, perhaps you’re wondering, why not just look at other magical, mystical videos etc. right on your phone? Oh, come on, be a sport. This is interactive. At least, for you. Others seeing you pointing your phone at this inert disk may think you’ve lost it completely.

I had the antique version of this experience, back in the ‘90s, by the way … which is also available as a gift:

On one occasion back then, my wife and I had a friend over who stared at our little lamp with a dumbfounded expression, trying to understand the point. Finally she said, “Oh, I get it … it’s because you guys don’t have a TV!

Luxury grooming tool kit - $75

Women, are you tired of your man having gross nails and a poor complexion? It’s time to do something about it—but in a loving and supportive way. This grooming kit comes with 16 tools to help make that man less gross.

This thing’s got it all: two fingernail clippers (I guess one’s for backup), toenail clippers, an ear pick, a dead skin fork (yum!), an acne needle (ouch!) and, among other things, a beautiful vegan leather man-purse to keep it all in. If he gives a perfunctory thank-you and then shelves it with the fancy lotion you bought him last year, well, he’s within spec even for a modern man. But if he actually uses this stuff, marry him—quick!

Boyfriend’s Mom Necklace - $35

This lovely necklace comes with a heartfelt card dedicating the gift: “To My Boyfriend’s Mom.” So it’s not a universal gift, but if you’re trying to suck up to the woman you hope might end being your mother-in-law, this should be just the thing.

In case you can’t read the fine print there, it includes this: “Your gentle smiles is a reminder to love more deeply and your accomplishments is a motivation to chase after my own dreams. And this card inspires me to go back to school and learn some grammar.” Okay, I made up that last bit.

Now, what if you’re actually kind of tired of your boyfriend, and/or his fingernails are gross and he’s got too many blackheads? Or if you’ve only been dating for like a month? Give the gift anyway! He and his mom will be so freaked out, they’ll run for the nearest exit! Mission accomplished!

There’s one more purpose for this necklace: if you swing both ways and you’d like to get with your boyfriend’s mom. She’s probably more mature and surely has prettier nails. Give it a whirl!

Crystal ball nightlight - $21

Suppose you’re an aunt or uncle, and your poor niece or nephew has those kind of modern permissive parents who never set boundaries. It’s time to scare this kid straight, and this incarceration-themed nightlight is just the way to do it.

That is just so creepy the way this poor little rabbit is clearly trapped in this strange torture dome. Look how stressed he is. And what is that, some kind of lightning bolt stabbing him in the back? I asked my daughter and she said no, that’s Pikachu, the Pokémon character! She showed me some pictures but no way, Pikachu is always smiling! He looks joyful! This little Pikachu is miserable because he knows he’s so screwed! And look at the effect this strange nightlight has on kids:

At first blush, the little girl looks to be smiling, but check out the clenched jaw and the look in her eye: she’s about to cry. And the boy looks really tense too. This toy teaches these kids a lesson: it’s not all rainbows and unicorns in this world! This could happen to you! (My own daughter said of this nightlight, “God, that thing would give me nightmares.”)

Gucci stuffed lion - $735

Of this item in their “Gifts for Women” catalog, Gucci declares, “Green mane and tail detailing complete the style for an authentic portrayal.”

I have no words.

Gucci wristwatch - $1850

Why should women have all the fun, getting incredibly expensive gifts? Look at this fancy wristwatch:

Never before has a gift so strongly inspired the words, “You shouldn’t have.” I mean, what the hell is this thing? Is Gucci just trying to be annoying? Imagine squinting at that watch face, trying to sort out what time it is.

I have racked my brain trying to understand this watch. At least there’s no way you’d scratch it, right? Maybe this is, like, an armored watch for the man with an incredibly rough-and-tumble lifestyle, like a stuntman? But the fine print suggests otherwise: “When possible avoid any impact that might damage your watch.” So maybe there is no point to this timepiece . Or, more likely, I’m just too pedestrian and vulgar to appreciate the finer things.

Something for the blogger?

With all this talk of gifts, I’ll bet you’re already thinking about what to get me, the tireless blogger who has tried all year to amuse and enlighten you. Well, I really don’t need anything, seriously. But if you must, how about performing an interpretive dance on TikTok that will make this blog go viral? Either that, or mail me a rubber spatula. I can never have too many of those.

Other albertnet holiday posts

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Thursday, December 15, 2022

Consumer Reviews: Videoconferencing Platform


Companies like to measure the quality of “customer experience,” or CX, that they’re providing, but gaining feedback can be difficult. I hate it when I’m asked to submit a “very brief” survey and then several minutes in I have to bail because it’s obviously not brief. I prefer the happy/neutral/frowny, green/yellow/red buttons in airport restrooms for reporting the cleanliness level.

A videoconferencing platform that I use a lot, at the end of every meeting, prompts me to “rate the overall experience of [my] meeting,” from 1 to 5 stars. What if they also had a notes field to type in, since their query is so incredibly general? Here’s what that might look like. (What follows is a blend of fact and fiction.)

The good

BEST. MEETING. EVER. We had one of those guys who turns on his camera even though everyone else’s is turned off, and based on your platform’s default settings, he ended up being on my screen the whole time (and everyone else’s too, I’ll bet). I actually got kind of tired of looking at him, but then he abruptly got up and left the room. So now we were all just looking at his empty chair, and people started talking shit about him! Freakin’ glorious. Nice bit of comic relief during a long, boring day of online meetings.


OMG, I will never forget the “overall experience” of this meeting. It was our All-Hands Call with like 60 or 70 people, and we all assumed we’d be muted by default but we weren’t. Most of us figured this out (I mean, it’s been like three years since we all started working from home, right?) but a few didn’t, so there was a bit of background chatter as people were joining. And then we all hear, clear as a bell, “Do you need to go potty outside?” I was already laughing and then, a second later, some other guy comes off mute and says, “Nah, I’m good.” I almost cried.


I really love the half-assed way your platform handles audio buffering when somebody’s Internet connection is bad. I mean, yeah, perfect buffering would make it easier to understand people, but who cares? Some motivational speaker once said, “Nobody will remember what you said but everyone will remember how you made them feel.” As cheesy as that is, it’s pretty much true. The highlight of my workday is usually when something goes wrong, so I love love love it when somebody’s speech slows down to this incredibly low-pitched crawl, like when something terrible happens on a stupid TV action show and they show a super-slo-mo of, like, somebody striking out with a knife and another guy throwing himself in the way yelling, “N-O-O-O-O-O-O” in the super-slow, low voice. And even better, when your buffering then catches up it overcorrects and the second half of the person’s sentence is like Alvin and the Chipmunks! I have to scramble for the mute button because I’m totally cracking up. Keep up the “good” work!


This meeting made my day. It started off with the usual BS, with people talking over each other and a lot of mansplaining going on, and then this blowhard named Bruce takes over the screen and starts sharing some dumb slide and blathering about it, and then someone else takes the discussion way off track but without taking over the screen share. So Bruce is still screen-sharing when he totally zones out and starts multitasking. He’s typing up some email on a totally unrelated topic and we all stop talking and just watch him for a bit. He’s so checked out he doesn’t notice how quiet it’s gotten until somebody tells him, “Uh, Bruce, you made a typo.” Bust-ed! Everyone starts laughing and I’ll bet he pretty much died of embarrassment. Which is good, because he’s such a tool. He got what he deserved!


The bad

Look, I really like your platform, but since you asked, my overall experience was not good. There’s this douchebag Carl who always commandeers our meetings to go off about animal rights. He refers to animal husbandry as “rape,” etc. and once he gets revved up it’s almost impossible to stop him, even when the professor cuts in and says, “We’re trying to learn Photoshop here.” I’m tempted to say, “Carl, whenever you open your mouth about animals, I add ‘veal’ to my shopping list. And I make good.” So anyway, couldn’t you install a feature where participants could vote to expel someone from the meeting? Like, you could have some AI widget monitoring the chat and if enough people type in “Eject Carl” it’ll just do it? I would be the biggest evangelist for your product if you built that feature…


I’ve just about had it. I work for a tech company in Silicon Valley and yet in this meeting that just ended, I could only understand about half the people because the other half had crappy Internet connections. I like how your software shows little green or red bars, so we at least know what the problem is, but couldn’t you take that a little further and speed-shame these people? Like, change their title banner to “TOTAL LOSER” if their throughput sucks? It’s 2022, people. Get a real Internet connection. I’d understand if this were some little school district in Cat Butt, Wyoming, but come on. This is Silicon Valley.


Overall a good audio/video experience, but I can’t give you more stars because I totally lost my focus during the meeting. Why? Because some guy was presented with this big award, and in his little impromptu acceptance speed he said, “I’m truly humbled to win this award.” In what universe is that true? Winning an award doesn’t humble anybody. It goes right to their heads, and then they probably feel all sanctimonious when they graciously say, “I’m humbled.” What a bunch of shit.


The main presenter in this meeting actually had a lot of interesting stuff to say, but I could barely understand him because a) the audio wasn’t that great to begin with, and b) he was wearing a frickin’ COVID mask! I mean, WTF? Does he really think he can spread an actual, non-metaphorical, living virus over the Internet? I never realized how much I rely on lip-reading when the sound is bad. Maybe this guy just wanted to make sure we couldn’t understand him? Whatever, dude.


Every meeting I’m on, we get people showing up late or not at all, and then apologizing because their PC rebooted  or their home Internet went down. It’s like the modern day equivalent of “the dog ate my homework.” I guess it’s not enough that you have a great conferencing app that runs on a smartphone so they don’t need their PC or WiFi. Could you offer a deluxe conferencing package with shock ring collars to remind people to use their fricking phones when their PCs are down? I’d totally pay extra for that.


How do I lock out late arrivals? I cannot find this in your help menu. Today some guy showed up 26 minutes late for a 25-minute meeting and then proceeded to hold the floor for the next ten minutes and I really had to pee.


Could you make the audio mute and video mute buttons farther apart, and/or more distinctive? Today I had both my audio and video muted, and then someone asked me a question, and I scrambled to un-mute and accidently un-muted my video but not my audio. So then I suddenly appeared onscreen, with my disheveled hair and 3-day beard, my mouth going 90 mph but no sound, and five people all saying at once, “You’re muted!” So embarrassing.


Can you improve the noise-canceling? So many of my colleagues work from home, the virtual meeting room sounds like a fricking day care. Just a suggestion since apparently some teleworking parents don’t believe in telling their kids to shut the hell up.


The ugly

Your video conference experience is mostly great. I like how I can tile all the participants, because with that other mode where it keeps switching to whoever is talking, I start to get dizzy. But could you add a feature where I can selectively mute someone’s video feed from my end? God forgive me, but some of these people are pretty homely.


Mostly great platform but man, you guys have got to do something about the fake background. It’s not just that I get sick of looking at a cheesy backdrop like the beach (though I do), but the way your software figures out the outline of the person just isn’t effective enough. Sometimes it looks like a person’s head is cut out of construction paper, or rendered with really bad VR like that “Money for Nothing” video from the ‘80s. There’s this one guy in my meetings who gestures a lot with his hands, and when he gets animated his hands keep vanishing and then reappearing on the screen and it’s totally distracting.


I want to start by saying your videoconferencing is amazing! I’m one of those people who can remember the very early days of this technology when the resolution was terrible, all grainy and pixilated with stops and starts and gaps and everything, and now it’s so smooth and hi-res. In fact, it’s actually a bit too hi-res. Which brings me to my request. You know how you can blur the background, so nobody can tell your home office is a mess? Well, could you maybe have a feature to blur the foreground, as in me? My HD camera is mercilessly clear and I’m ashamed of my eyebrow dandruff.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Ask A Guy Who Catalogs Inept References to Neon in Rock Music

Dear Guy Who Catalogs Inept References to Neon in Rock Music,

In all the years you’ve written this column, you have never pointed out the most common error songwriters make regarding neon, which is to describe it as being some other color than orange-red. One example that comes immediately to mind is Blondie’s song “Fade Away and Radiate,” with the line, “Wrapped like candy in a blue, blue neon glow.” How have you not called this out before?

Bill S, Arvada, CO

Dear Bill,

If you really want to get pedantic about it, neon itself is colorless. But that’s beside the point. While it’s true the first neon signs were orange-red, it’s a well established practice to mix gases, such as argon, in the tubes to produce other colors. Note that this doesn’t lead to anybody calling them “argon signs”—that’s just not a thing. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect rock lyricists to hew to the physical properties of a noble gas and the history of its use in signs.

Dear Guy Who Catalogs Inept References to Neon in Rock Music,

I’ve always suspected there’s something wrong with the line “Neon lights, Nobel Prize/ When a mirror speaks, the reflection lies” in the Living Colour song “Cult of Personality.” Am I missing something? I just don’t get the connection here.

Sandra A, Council Bluffs, IA

Dear Sandra,

To understand this line, it’s helpful to consult, which provides this explanation:

Neon lights highlight how celebrities in entertainment are similar to leaders with cults of personality in it that the purpose of the cult of personality and an entertainer are to amuse and distract from the substance of the person.

Does that help? Of course not. It’s pure malarkey. How does a neon light highlight anything? This is a typical stretch, by the bozos at, to sound knowledgeable and profound when there’s really nothing profound about the line at all. If Living Colour sang, “Tomato ketchup, Nobel Prize,” the gloss would say, “Tomato ketchup is like the sweet blandishments spread over a message to make it palatable to the unsophisticated masses.” Such BS. You’re right, neon signs really have nothing to do with the celebrity surrounding the Nobel Prize. I think the core of the issue is that neon isn’t used for lights, per se. It’s used for signs. And the purpose of a neon sign isn’t to light anything up; it’s just to be visible and draw attention to itself and its message, which is typically something really basic like “Open” or “Budweiser,” as opposed to anything abstract like celebrity. A spotlight would have been a much more fitting trope, or stage lights.

Dear Guy Who Catalogs Inept References to Neon in Rock Music,

Here’s one. In his song “Neon,” John Mayer sings, “She’s always buzzing just like neon, neon, neon, neon.” Think about this for a second: have you ever actually heard neon buzz? I haven’t. It just kind of hums, and not very loudly at that. Oops!

Scott T, Naples, FL

Dear Scott,

Not so fast. While neon signs aren’t supposed to buzz (except in movies, as suggested in this article), there are various reasons that they can. Compared to other signs, neon ones are fairly high-voltage, and require a transformer which can act up. Poor grounding can also cause buzzing. It’s entirely possible that John Mayer has plenty of real life experience with buzzing neon signs, especially when you consider this article in where musicians compare notes on the problem. One bass player writes, “Yes, [neon signs] do cause buzz and some are worse than others!” Another replies, “Yep. Definitely a buzz there. We had to get rid of some neon we had (back in the day) for that exact reason. Of course, that was before I knew about differential preamps and active drivers and all that.” So let’s give Mayer the benefit of the doubt, especially since he employs this buzzing neon metaphor to describe a woman who misbehaves a lot. (Oh, and one more thing: Mayer is in good company; Tom Waits also sings about buzzing neon lights.)

Dear Guy Who Catalogs Inept References to Neon in Rock Music,

To your mind, what’s the most disappointing example of a neon-related gaff in a rock song?

Robert B, West Milford, NJ

Dear Robert,

Wow, that is really a tough one. It’s a toss-up between “Airbag” by Radiohead and “The Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel.

Regarding “Airbag,” I’m referring to the line, “In the neon sign/ Scrolling up and down/ I am born again.” Needless to say, neon signs—being made of carefully shaped glass tubing—cannot scroll up and down. I suspect Thom Yorke was thinking of one of those digital signs, perhaps an early LED one, that did scroll. So why did he say neon? Who knows. Maybe he fell for its perennial allure … after all, neon is a popular word in rock songs, featuring in over 300 of them, by’s count. It’s too bad Yorke stumbled here; I expect more from Radiohead. Why haven’t they done a song, along the lines of “Fake Plastic Trees,” mocking those “Open” signs that are supposed to look like neon but are just plastic? I’m not just talking about the so-called “LED neon” signs (that honestly look pretty good), but the cheesy ones that are just pure plastic.

Okay, on to Simon & Garfunkel. “The Sound of Silence,” the breakout hit for this duo, is centered around a neon sign, so it deserves our close attention. Early in the song, the singer’s “eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light,” and in the “naked light” he “saw ten thousand people, maybe more,” who “bowed and prayed to the neon god they’d made.” Just picture this: ten thousand people gathered around this sign. It must be huge. Moreover, “the sign said, ‘The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls, and whispered in the sounds of silence.’” That’s a pretty verbose sign. The image here is pretty absurd. Over the decades I’ve been listening to this song, I generally assumed this sign could say various things to those bowing down before it, until it hit me that this is a neon sign, so it can only say one thing. So picture the scene: there’s this absolutely ginormous neon sign with this incredibly long message, that 10,000 people worked together to fabricate, presumably in the middle of a vast open space. And then you consider that the singer also sees these 10,000 people “writing songs that voices never share.” Really? That many people? In the middle of the night, with only a neon sign for lighting, are all writing songs? Like, in little notebooks? Oh, but this was a really bright neon light—it “stabbed” the singer’s eyes and “split the night.” Who know neon could be that bright? As I’ve said before, neon isn’t used in lights, per se. It’s not “naked light” at all and is not supposed to illuminate anything. But here it’s lighting up 10,000 people, like fricking stadium lighting? Please. Now, this being a famous (and excellent) song, I went the extra mile and consulted Paul Simon’s liner notes just to make sure I’m not missing anything. Simon explains that the neon sign represents “the superficial and ‘commercial’ level” of communication.” Q: How is the sign’s message, “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls/ And tenement halls/ And whispered in the sounds of silence,” commercial? A: Don’t overthink it.

Dear Guy Who Catalogs Inept References to Neon in Rock Music,

You accused a reader of being pedantic when he questioned the idea of blue neon, but at another time you called out the Ramones, in their song “Strength to Endure,” for asserting that neon glows hot, not knowing that neon signs actually run fairly cool. Hypocrite much?

Suzie L, Queens, NY

Dear Suzie,

Where you do think musicians get their ideas? Among other things, I imagine they notice things when they’re out in the world, such as when they’re hanging out in bars. Who hasn’t seen a neon sign that was a color other than orange-red? So I will continue to defend Debbie Harry on this one. But who ever felt heat coming off a neon light? Nobody ever. And it’s not just that the Ramones didn’t know neon runs cool, it’s that they sang “neon lights always glow hot” in the chorus. Within their song, the temperature of neon is a central metaphor, based on the mere assumption that neon lights glow hot. Always. That’s fairly emphatic for a statement the songwriter pulled pretty much out of his ass without bothering to fact-check. Plus, this is a pretty lame song to begin with so the Ramones don’t deserve any wiggle room. My column, my rules.

A Guy Who Catalogs Inept References to Neon in Rock Music is a syndicated journalist whose advice column, “Ask a Guy Who Catalogs Inept References to Neon in Rock Music,” appears in over 0 blogs worldwide.

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