- —Mike Tyson
Is this line, from Toto’s monster 1981 hit, Africa, the worst lyric in all of rock ’n’ roll history? Or the best? It has, after all, an Ed Woodesque quality to it: it is so bad it’s good. No mere mortal could massacre the principles of metre, cadence and basic common sense as systematically as this:
Where to start?
For one thing, Kilimanjaro doesn’t rise above the Serengeti. (It rises above the Tsavo National Park. Why, you might wonder, didn’t he put “Tsavo”? It would have scanned better.) You can’t even see it from the Serengeti, unless you get in a hot air balloon and take a telescope: they’re about 250 kilometres from each other. A correspondent writes with photographic evidence, in the panel: you can barely see Kilimanjaro from Mount Meru, 70 km away in the Arusha National Park, let alone from Serengeti, three times further away.
And not just because it is a long way away. It is literally over the horizon. Let’s be fully scientific about this. From the ground, all but the top 900 metres of a 6,000 metre mountain would be over the horizon. 900 metres at 250km would appear about 4mm high, if you could even see it through nearby trees (with or without napping leopresses), haze, atmospheric perspective etc. This is not really rising at all, let alone majestically, like Olympus might (if it weren’t already rising above a national park in Greece, of course).
And Mount Olympus definitely doesn’t rise above the Serengeti. It’s in Greece.
To the extent you could say that something that has just sat there for millions of years does anything as energetic as “rising”, then Kilimanjaro doesn’t rise like Olympus, either. It rises like Kilimanjaro. They don’t look anything like each other. I mean, look.
And we haven’t even got onto the fact that THE LINE DOESN’T SCAN FOR CRYING OUT LOUD.
An unhappy collision of contrary rhythms
So let’s get on to that. Here we cite Adam Bradley’s The Poetry of Pop, a wonderfully patient examination of modern doggerel, to validate our own count: the line scans with an already outrageous fourteen syllables — iambic pentameter it is not — but Paich then jams twenty-one syllables into that space. Bradley drily observes:
“the rhythmic and melodic structure of the line forces the lead singer, Joseph Williams, into circumlocutions of stress that end up mangling the final word of that longest line; instead of “Serengeti”, the rhythm and melody of the song force him to pronounce it as “Serengeti”... I understand this moment now as an unhappy, though fleeting, collision of contrary rhythms. The song still moves me, however, all the more now for this small window into the world of its rhythm.”
Mr. Bradley is clearly a glass-half-full sort of chap.
A correspondent writes:
“Sorry but you ALL HAVE IT WRONG!!! THE LYRIC IS “RISES LIKE A LEOPRESS”... THIS HAS BEEN BUGGING THE F OUT OF ME FOR YEARS. I think Weezer screwed up the whole world in this lyric... read his lips in the video.”
Now while I respect the the vigour with which this argument is put, I cannot agree with it. As for lipreading, no chance: the video cuts away to Steve Lukather who, rather like a tone-deaf footballer singing the national anthem, has forgotten to sing along at the key moment.
And we must allow Mr. Paich some facility with logic and common sense, even if not much. Olympus may not rise above the Serengeti plain but, being a mountain, it does at least rise above things like plains.
Firstly, female leopards, however described, do not really rise above things like plains in the way mountains do. The sorts of things that do rise above plains are, of course, mountains, but also rain clouds (mainly in Spain), spumes of volcanic ash, hot air balloons (as per the above, I am told, it is only from a hot air balloon, that has already risen above the Serengeti, that one can even see Kilimanjaro) and things like that.
Not lady leopards.
Secondly, the “leop’r’ess” contraction strikes us as implausible. Elsewhere Mr. Paich gives the strong impression of not being in the habit of making literary contractions for the sake of space. He has already jammed twenty-one syllables into a line with space for only fourteen, after all.
Thirdly, if you did want to squeeze “word for a big, fast, African cat” into two syllables, instead of butchering “leopardess”, wouldn’t you just use “leopard”? Or lion, or cheetah, for that matter? Are lady leopards more given to “rising” than gentlemen cats? The JC has limited experience of this sort of thing, but we doubt it.
Our correspondent continues undeterred:
“A female leopard is known as a leopress IN Africa, where they live mostly. A leopress would surely, most definitely rise above the serengeti, because they sleep in trees.”
Now this is a nice try, but we think “surely, most definitely” materially over-eggs it. And, while no wizard in African linguistics — but nor is Mr. Paich — the JC can find scant evidence that “leopress” is “a special African term for a female leopard”. It seems fanciful: most people in that part of the world speak Swahili, and in that language leopardess, we gather, is “chui”. In a way it’s a pity Mr Paich didn’t use it: it would scan a lot better. But still, the point remains: a sleepy she-leopard, slinking up a tree for a nap, may be “elevated”, but is this really the sort of magnificent “rise” one might compare with a distant twenty-thousand-foot mountain? We don’t think so.
Ultimately, we cannot do better than the official Toto website, which contains all Toto lyrics, including those of Africa. See for yourself. It is “Olympus”.