I know a lot of you out there are fans, what with Rolling Stone naming it one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and with apologies to Bill Withers who wrote the song, but here is why I can’t stand it.
Its universality, combined with its simple lyrics, means that everyone knows the song and that it applies to nearly every situation. For example, each year the high school students at the church I attend produce a Sunday service for the congregation. The theme each year is tied to a few of the Unitarian Universalist principles. I was an advisor for the youth group for seven years and I can tell you that when brainstorming music for the service, no matter what the principle, someone always suggested “Lean on Me,” usually to excited approval. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning? (Principle 3) “Lean on Me!” Justice, equity and compassion in human relations? (Principle 2) “Lean on Me!” The right of consciousness and the use of the democratic process within our congregation and society at large? (Principle five) “Lean on Me!” I no longer am a youth advisor, but in youth service last week, there was my old friend, “Lean on Me” to accompany the first and seventh principles (If you are wondering, they are: the inherent worth and dignity of every person; and, respect for the interdependent web of all existence for which we are a part.) It got so that I wondered if a song that can fit so many different ideas is really saying much at all.
Secondly, the lyrics are pretty sub-par. Withers starts out okay, with the reminder that we all have pain and sorrow. But then, if we are wise, we supposedly know that there’s always tomorrow? What does that mean? Tomorrow with more pain and sorrow? Or just that, there is a tomorrow, that should be good enough news for us all? No matter, because he quickly leads in to his most excellent chorus, which is probably the main reason Rolling Stone and everyone else likes the song. It is a very good chorus. But then the second verse is quite awful, the worst one: It begins with the okay message that one should swallow one’s pride if there are things that one needs to borrow, but then a very bad rhyme scheme of “for, no one can fill/those of your needs/that you don’t let show.” Withers wisely quickly returns to the chorus. I do have to give it props for the next verse. It always conjures up a wheelbarrow in my mind. It is rare that yard tools make an appearance in the music I listen to.
Like many songs with few lyrics, it spends a lot of time repeating them over and over. Not only is this an example of lazy songwriting, it also drives up the “ear worm” factor. Ear worms, as anyone who has been through the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland knows, are bits of songs that play repeatedly in your head. And the ear worm factor for “Lean on Me” is very high. In fact, I’m taking a chance writing this essay, that it won’t lodge itself in there for the next week or so. There comes a point when the catchiness of the song becomes a problem, not a good thing and this song crossed that point some time ago for me.
So continue to enjoy “Lean on Me” if you must, but please keep it far, far away from me.