Metaphors are figurative language which seek to describe something by the attributes of something else. Metaphors comprise two parts, the tenor and the vehicle. The tenor refers to the literal thing that is being described. The vehicle refers to the figurative thing whose properties are being used to describe the literal thing.
A simile is a type of metaphor that makes it clear, with the use of the word “like” or “as,” that the thing being described and the thing being used to describe it, are entirely different things.
Straight metaphor: The stars are fish in the sky.
Simile: The stars are like fish in the sky.
I like to think of the straight metaphor as a heavy hitter and the simile as something with a lighter touch. That’s not to say that the simile is not as good a tool as a straight metaphor, to me, they just each provide a different effect. Both are a great word tools that can be used to project images right into the minds of readers or listeners. These images can be fun, to help ease the path of a darker topic into public spaces, or they can be powerful, to help add weight to words. You can see then, why metaphors and similes belong in song lyrics, why marrying them to music produces such a profound effect on listeners.
Here, we talk about 5 90s alternative and grunge songs that use similes.
“Even flow, thoughts arrive like butterflies Oh, he don't know, so he chases them away Oh, someday yet, he'll begin his life again Life again, life again”
We begin by shedding some light on mental health. The simile in this song is one with a particularly light touch, as butterflies are known to have. “Even Flow” is one of the singles released from Pearl Jam’s hit first album, Ten, released in 1991. At a show the band played in their hometown of Seattle, Washington on August 8, 2018, Eddie Vedder explained that the song is about a homeless veteran he had met outside of a warehouse where the band would rehearse in their early days, whose name was also Eddie.
The imagery this chorus conjures was made complete as Vedder explained that this man continuously refused to get or take help, leading to the understanding that Eddie, the homeless veteran, likely had mental illness. The tenor of this simile, are the even flow thoughts of the veteran homeless man, the vehicle is the skittish nature of butterflies. The beautiful but skittish nature of butterflies provides an aesthetic way of describing Vedder’s perception of the veteran homeless man’s thought process. It must have also helped the public more easily consume such a difficult topic, as the album hit #2 on the charts in 1992.
“Sheets of empty canvas, untouched sheets of clay Were laid spread out before me as her body once did All five horizons revolved around her soul as the earth to the sun Now the air I tasted and breathed has taken a turn Mm, and all I taught her was everything Mm, I know she gave me all that she wore”
With this next song, we hit a vein of complicated love. Also a song from the band’s first album, Ten, “Black” opens with two similes that paint a picture of an artist finding it difficult to work without being reminded of the love he lost by the beauty he sees in the tools of his art. It is initially a bit more difficult to assign tenor and vehicle to the subjects of these similes.
In the first, it seems that the literal thing are the sheets of clay providing an empty canvas. However, the beauty perceived in the empty canvas of the sheets of clay spread out before the artist is the figurative vehicle providing the properties being used to describe his lost love’s body, which is the tenor, as she lay before him in the intimate moments they spent together.
In the second simile, the tenor and vehicle are in typical order, the tenor being the relationship of the five horizons to her soul and the vehicle providing the figurative properties being the relationship of the earth to the sun. This second simile is poetic language and you’ll likely never hear Vedder expound upon a translated literal meaning, as explained long ago in an 1802 publication by the poetic authoritarian himself, Wordsworth. The friend I’ve made of this bit of poetry though, is about how the five senses of the individual relate to the five soil horizons of the earth. Thus, the individual and their five senses revolve around experience her soul as the earth and its soil horizons do the sun.
“Torn like an old dollar bill Girl let them say what they will That no one should hurt you And that's all I seem to do That no one should desert you And that's all I seem to do”
In this vein of complicated love, we come to “Dollar Bill,” by Screaming Trees. “Dollar Bill” was released as a single from Screaming Trees’ 6th album, Sweet Oblivion, in 1992. As it begins, this song sounds more like folk music than grunge but as it plays on, the veil is lifted in the second verse as Mark Lanegan opens the full-scope of gravelly depth in his voice and the electric distortion that kicks in half way through leaves no doubt.
The song opens and closes with same and only simile throughout its entirety. This simile seems pretty clear on the surface; something torn is the tenor and the properties of an old dollar bill is the vehicle. The detail that isn’t clear though, is what exactly is torn. Is it the girl being addressed? Is it their relationship? Is it a phrase people say about, or his opinion of, her or their relationship? Either way, this is a complicated love that was taken for granted, as many old dollar bills are.
“Heard it from another room Eyes were waking up just to fall asleep Love's like suicide Dazed out in a garden bed With a broken neck lays my broken gift Just like suicide And my last ditch Was my last brick Lent to finish her Finish her She lived like a murder How she'd fly so sweetly She lived like a murder But she died just like suicide Bit down on the bullet now I had a taste so sour I had to think of something sweet Love's like suicide Safe outside my gilded cage With an ounce of pain I wield a ton of rage Just like suicide With eyes of blood And bitter blue How I feel for you I feel for you
"She lived like a murder How she'd fly so sweetly She lived like a murder But she died Just like suicide And my last ditch Was my last brick Lent to finish her Finish her Finish her With eyes of blood And bitter blue How I feel for you I feel for you I feel for you I feel for you I feel for you I feel for you She lived like a murder How she'd fly so sweetly She lived like a murder But she died Just like suicide”
The last song in this vein of complicated love takes it into the realm of unhealthy love. “Like Suicide” is the final track from Soundgarden’s fourth album, Superunknown, which peaked at number 1 in March of 1994. The song’s title, being a simile itself, reigns over the whole song and may actually be defined as an extended metaphor as well as a simile, because the metaphor of death is built upon through the entire song. The first simile in the lyrical body of the song is “Love’s like suicide,” followed by many lyrics in reference to a death that was not explicitly suicide but rather “like suicide.”
Rolling Stone magazine republished in 2017 a 2014 interview with Chris Cornell which had been in honor of the 20th anniversary of this album. In the interview, Cornell expounded on the meaning of the song “Like Suicide” and the event that inspired it. He explained that as he was writing the musical aspect of the song in the basement of his home, he heard the thud of what he discovered to be a female robin that had flown into an upstairs window, breaking its neck. After ending the bird’s suffering with the use of a brick, Cornell went back into the basement and somberly wrote the lyrics of “Like Suicide” about the incident. He said that “the narrative is not a metaphor,” and once you know the story, you see that that’s true but that doesn’t change the fact that many lyrics throughout the song are. “Like Suicide” is a great example of how the use of similes in music lyrics can provide powerful imagery to the poetic point that the song becomes something different and personal to each listener.
Let’s unpack the tenors and vehicles here in these many similes. The list of tenors is long and includes love, his broken gift with its broken neck, the way that gift lived, and the rage he wields. All of these things, with the exception of the way she lived, are described by the vehicle of suicide. Love is likened to suicide, perhaps because of the agency of involvement even with the knowledge that it could end in heartache. The likening of the way she died and the nature of the broken gift to suicide track. However, the rage he wields being likened to suicide is more complex. Perhaps I’m reading too deeply but it seems that she is safer outside of the gilded cage of his love because of the rage he wields, evident in the brick he wielded to end her suffering. In the lyric “She lived like a murder,” the tenor of the way she lived and the vehicle of “murder” may just be the use of aviary language to refer to the concept that she lived in the wild in community with other robins as a crow does in a murder of other crows.
“I have looked all over the place But you have got my favorite face Your eyelashes sparkle like gilded grass And your lips are sweet and slippery Like a cherub's bare wet ass... 'Cause you're a human supernova A solar superman You're an angel with wings of fire A flying, giant friction blast You walk in clouds of glitter And the sun reflects your eyes And every time the wind blows I can smell you in the sky Your kisses are as wicked as an M-16 And you fuck like a volcano And you're everything to me...”
Our last song rounds this list off on a high note and is about straight-up sexual attraction, nothing complicated about it. “Supernova” was the biggest single released from Liz Phair’s second album, Whip-Smart, charting at number 6 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart and number 78 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1994 and even earned Phair a grammy nomination in 1995 in the Best Female Rock Vocal Performance category.
Let’s get into these tenors and vehicles for some fun! The tenor in the first simile would be her lover’s sweet and slippery lips, whereas the vehicle providing the descriptive properties of those lips, is the bare wet backside of a cherub. How she knows the taste of a cherub’s posterior cheeks to be sweet is beyond me. Does it taste that way all the time or only when it’s wetted down?
The tenor of the next simile are the wicked kisses he doles out with those sweet and slippery lips and the vehicle, which describes those kisses, is an F-16 fighter jet. This is coupled directly with the third and final simile, the tenor of which is… his… uh… private performance… and the vehicle describing that stellar performance is a volcano. These last two similes, which are paired together in the same sentences, make it sound like this “solar superman” can certainly do some damage. All in good fun though.
Thanks for reading!
Remember to always make a conscientious effort.