Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published July 14th 2019
Abuse can create art
The best of songs are generally written when the writer has some genuine investment in the sentiment portrayed. Love songs are probably the most obvious of these, followed by break-up songs, but it does not matter what the feeling, it's the true emotion in a song that often sees it rise above the pack.
From the heart, through the hands…
However, there is another emotion that comes out in various songs – anger. Some anger songs can be incredibly nasty and acerbic while being good songs ('You're Shit' by Laura Imbruglia stands out as an awesome example of that), while others are more measured in their anger.
But when that anger is directed at one specific person, the results can be quite incredible.
And when that anger is directed unsubtly… well, then we have what has become known as the Diss Track. (For those unsure – Diss is an abbreviation of Disrespect, usually used to describe intentional disrespect, not accidental.)
Many people seem to think the Diss Track is something borne of the ego-driven world of rap and hip-hop, but it predates that musical genre by many, many years. This, then, is my list of my favourite Diss Tracks. But a few caveats. 'Get In The Ring' by Guns N'Roses disses more than one journalist, while 'You're So Vain' by Carly Simon is apparently about 3 different people, even if Warren Beatty likes to think it is actually all about him. Oh, and there's no 'Kim' by Eminem because I am not a fan of that track. And I have not included any comedy songs because sometimes it's hard to tell if the dissing is due to anger or just comedic intentions.
One track before I start. 'Like A Rolling Stone' (1965) by Bob Dylan is sort of a diss track about Andy Warhol ("Napoleon in rags…"), but it is more a warning to his girlfriend at the time, Edie Sedgwick, who was a member of Warhol's circle. He was warning her that she was being used and abused by those people. Unfortunately, he was right – Sedgwick died broke and alone after running through her trust fund with a drug habit.
That's a depressing way to start…
So, with that out of the way, to my list! (In order of year of release.)
1) 'How Do You Sleep?' by John Lennon (1971)
John Lennon and Paul McCartney had what could be described as a "falling out" when The Beatles broke up. On McCartney's album Ram he had a song called 'Too Many People' that was a subtle dig at Lennon. Lennon, however, felt it was anything but subtle, and he shot back with 'How Do You Sleep?', which took pot-shots at McCartney all over the place. "The only thing you done was yesterday/ And since you've gone you're just another day…" Ouch! It took many, many years for the rift to be patched up.
2) 'Sweet Home Alabama' by Lyrnyrd Skynyrd (1974)
'Sweet Home Alabama' is a classic rock song that any aficionado of that sort of music knows and has heard at least a thousand times. But it was written in response to two Neil Young songs – 'Southern Man' and 'Alabama', where Young rails against the politics of the time. The whole thing is not only saying how wonderful the south is, but how wrong Young is: "I hope Neil Young will remember/ Southern man don't need him around anyhow…"
3) 'Death On Two Legs' by Queen (1975)
Queen are one of the greatest bands ever (I won't hear a thing against that), but they had a few issues early in their career. Trying to get the technology of the time to match what they heard in their heads was only the tip of the iceberg; worse, they had a manager who seemed to have done the wrong thing by them. So how would they respond? By writing 'Death On Two Legs', all about said manager, one Norman Sheffield. "Screw my brain 'til it hurts/ You've taken all my money/ And you want more…" Subtlety went out the window somewhere there.
4) 'Go Your Own Way' by Fleetwood Mac (1977)
Fleetwood Mac were a band that constantly re-invented themselves, and hit their commercial peak with the line-up that included long-time lovers Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. However, during the making of the album Rumours, all the band members were in various states of relationship break-ups. Nicks and Buckingham were one of those disintegrating pairings. And so, as musos are apparently want to do, Buckingham wrote this song about what he saw as Nicks' infidelity. "Shackin' up's all you wanna do…" Years later, Nicks said whenever she heard that line when they were performing live, she would wince at it. Sometimes the rawness doesn't go away.
5) 'God Save The Queen' by The Sex Pistols (1977)
Well, this one is pretty self-explanatory. The Sex Pistols are having a go at Queen Elizabeth II and, in particular, what she represents. "… our figurehead/ Is not what she seems…" While it does diss her Maj, it is more about the country that she rules over, where the rich (of which she is one of the richest) get richer and the poor poorer… and now I'm getting political, which is not my intent, so I'll stop there.
6) 'Dude (Looks Like A Lady)' by Aerosmith (1987)
This is one of the better songs from Aerosmith's 1980s output. While it might seem a funny song about mistaken identity, it is about one specific person – Vince Neil, lead singer of 1980s poodle rock band Motley Crüe. Apparently, while drunk/stoned, Aerosmith's Toxic Twins (Steve Tyler and Joe Perry) were cruising bars. Tyler saw a person in a dress from behind and fell in love… But when said person turned around, it was Neil. "She had the body of a Venus/ Lord, imagine my surprise!" Neil denied it for years, but he eventually came clean in his autobiography years later…
7) 'Don Henley Must Die' by Mojo Nixon (1990)
Who? Well, Don Henley is the drummer and one of the singers for the Eagles who went on to have a successful solo career in the 1980s… What? Oh. Mojo Nixon. They're a band who I first heard of with their track 'Elvis is Everywhere'. This track, though, just pierces Henley and what his music was said to stand for: "Poet of despair/ Pumped up with hot air/ He's serious, pretentious…" However, to the surprise of the band, while performing it in concert one time, Henley himself got up on stage and performed it with them…
8) 'I'll Stick Around' by Foo Fighters (1995)
Dave Grohl has been involved in some great music. Nirvana were really good (despite the fact everyone says they were really good) and Foo Fighters have kept guitar rock alive in the modern musical world. But, as a member of Nirvana, he not only knew Kurt Cobain, but also Cobain's partner… and the subject of this song: Courtney Love. " How could it be I'm the only one who sees your rehearsed insanity…" They apparently do (did? I don't keep up with that sort of gossip) not like one another, and this song makes that perfectly clear. Apparently, it's worse because I have read Grohl introduced the two of them.
9) 'You Oughta Know' by Alanis Morissette (1995)
While she has not come right out and said it, the object of this song has put his hand up. And that object? Actor Dave Coulier, who played "Uncle Joey" on the TV sitcom Full House and, as far as I am aware, on Fuller House as well. The song is a wonderful example of pure anger, and the fact it was aimed at one poor guy is almost hard to bear. "I'm here to remind you/ Of the mess you left/ When you went away…" That song was everywhere in the 90s, so poor Coulier copped it everywhere he went. He does not come out of this well.
10) 'Cry Me A River' by Justin Timberlake (2002)
Yes, I'm allowed to like a Justin Timberlake song, leave me alone… Well, this one is one of his earlier songs that has become something of a modern classic. I have been told that this song appears in those singing "reality TV" shows I avoid like the plague a reasonable amount, and that the versions are invariably not as good as Timberlake's. The thing is, this song is about Britney Spears (although Timberlake hasn't said so, the song's co-producer Timbaland (no relation) confirmed it and, well, you know…). They had a relationship that it seems did not end particularly well: " You don't have to say what you did/ I already know, I found out from him…" Still, beautiful song…
Diss tracks, showing that great art can come out of all sorts of pain.
And in case you were wondering why this is my topic du jour, I had a recent discussion with some-one who I introduced the song 'Sweet Home Alabama' to (she's in her 20s; I'll let it slide) and I told her it was written to basically have a go at Neil Young. She asked (a) who Neil Young was, and (b) why would people write a proper (her term) song to abuse one person? She thought only rap artists did that. I told her about 'Cry Me A River' (a song she likes) being about Britney, and she was stunned. So, this is for her and because of her… 😉