Rockin' Rollin' Grammar

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Rock ‘n roll lyrics can make sticklers for good grammar like Lane Parker cringe, but if the English is perfect, is it really rock ‘n roll?

I love words and language in general. I also love rock ’n’ roll music. Yet these two combined passions have frustrated me, because once I’d outgrown Schoolhouse Rock I began to notice the bad grammar ubiquitous in rock ’n’ roll.

The first song that got me was the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” As much as I liked the song, that double negative, “I can’t get no,” stuck in my craw, and I didn’t even know what a craw was. Sure, “I can’t get any satisfaction” would change the flow of the tune, but what about “I can get no satisfaction”? Then came the Bo Diddley tune made popular by George Thorogood and the Destroyers. Why not growl, “Whom do you love?” Yes, who do I love? Well, someone who uses proper grammar. And in “Breathless,” Jerry Lee Lewis caterwauls, “This love was meant for you and I.” Great balls of fire, Jerry, you should have caterwauled, “you and me.”

True, for many songs, if the grammar were corrected then the rhyme scheme would crumble. Plenty of times, though, the lyrics could be written using correct grammar without affecting the rhyme.

Apparently, Starship built this city on rock and roll, which, as we’ve seen, was built on shaky grammar. But note that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was built in Cleveland, Ohio, chose to go with the full conjunction “and” in its official title.


Okay: Sometimes I’m a slow learner. It took me a long time to understand that if rock ’n’ roll didn’t misuse and even abuse the rules of grammar then it wouldn’t be rock ’n’ roll. The very nature of the genre and its associations is meant to fly in the face of convention.

And in spite of, or because of, its bad grammar, rock ’n’ roll can communicate important ideas about culture and society and the often complicated relationships between the sexes. So now, I’d be disappointed if rock ’n’ roll sounded like the performers just stepped out of a freshman English Comp class.

These days I can listen to rock ’n’ roll and appreciate all that bad grammar. And I can’t not help but not get no satisfaction. I think.

With a Perspective, I’m Lane Parker.

Lane Parker is a writer and editor in San Francisco.