It’s a reoccurring dream of mine: The Ed Sullivan Show stage, 1966. A young Mick Jagger saunters up to the mic, his bony knees bumping together with each step. He’s wearing some kind of tight pants and a smug grin accessorized by those British teeth. He grabs the mic, leans in, pans the crowd of screaming teenage girls, and parts his lips as the familiar bass line kicks in. I’m dying of anticipation by the time he delivers the first line, each syllable landing on a different note in the familiar melody: “I-can’t-get no-o sa-tis-fac-tion!”
The dream abruptly ends.
Really, Mick? I can’t get no?
Oh, no, no, no.
All this dreaming about the Stones has got me wondering: when is it OK and when is it not OK to use sloppy grammar? In the case of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the Stones’ fumbled modifiers are strangely powerful. It’s almost as if Mick is telling the world, “The Rolling Stones are rock stars, and we use language however we want!” There’s nothing more rock ‘n’ roll than that. And let’s imagine for a moment that Mick would’ve used the correct phrasing, “I can’t get any satisfaction.” Stretching that “any” across those two syllables in the melody line just doesn’t have the same effect as the “no,” does it? And anyway, no one seems to be complaining about the poor grammar. Almost 50 years later, this grammatically imperfect song is considered a perfect rock number by most standards. I kind of agree.
I love grammar as much as the next writer, but I also secretly love art that uses a little incorrect English every now and then. I like to think of it as a much-needed dose of reality: we don’t all walk around using perfect grammar in our day-to-day lives, so neither should all of the characters we create. That goes for song lyrics just as much as it does for poetry, screenplays and novels.
We shouldn’t riddle our writing with double negatives and jumbled modifiers, but we also shouldn’t be afraid to use incorrect grammar to illustrate a point. After all, the beauty of language is what it tells us about the person using it. In the case of Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, I like to think of that little “no” as an act of grammatical rebellion, a good use for bad English. When you look at it that way, “(I Can’t Get Any) Satisfaction” isn’t really that satisfying, is it?