Words don’t fail Patti Smith. That’s why she is still my superstar

A recent study by the online search tool Wordtips assessed the number of unique words used in the lyrics of 100 music “legends” and 100 modern pop stars. (Rappers were excluded as they had their own survey a few years ago and the result showed that they are, to use the scientific term, extremely wordy.)

It found that Patti Smith has the largest vocabulary, clocking up 217 unique words per 1,000, more than her closest rivals in lyrical complexity, Joni Mitchell and Björk. Smith was a writer and a poet before she was a rock star, so it is perhaps unsurprising that she has an interest in the more curious corners of language.

All three women have the kind of lyrics that can make it feel as if the ground is shifting beneath you, finding a slanted way into a universal sentiment. I often think of Björk’s Alarm Call, an ode to pure joy: “I’m no fucking Buddhist, but this is enlightenment”, or Mitchell’s A Case of You, if not the greatest song about love and pain of all time, then certainly the one with the best lyrics. And there is no better opening line than “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”, in which Smith took the bones of a Van Morrison cover and pressed them into music folklore. Complexity is a preference, however. I love Joanna Newsom, for example, and will contentedly listen to a 12-minute song about birds and constellations that manages to squash in the word “Pleiades”, though a quick search of lyrics.com suggests that it is not as rare as you’d think and the Red Hot Chili Peppers also got a Pleiades into Can’t Stop.

At the same time, I know plenty of people of excellent taste who’d still rather plug their ears than sit through one of her albums. Many of the greats hovering around the bottom of the list, who use the fewest unique words, are not exactly short of a classic or 20 or 50: John Lennon, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and even our lord and saviour Dolly Parton tend to stick to more familiar words. I suppose it’s hard to better “I love you”.

They don’t make ’em as verbose as they used to. The current pop star with the biggest vocabulary is Billie Eilish, with 169 unique words per 1,000, even though arguably her best lyric is “duh”. She is closely followed by Harry Styles, Lizzo and Shakira and if they miss an opportunity and choose not to form a wordy supergroup, then I would very much like to see them in a Scrabble league instead.

Once again, Selena Gomez has responded to a television show referring to the kidney transplant she underwent in 2017, in yet another indication that we are living through an unmapped era of late-stage celebrity. “I am not sure how writing jokes about organ transplants for television shows has become a thing but sadly it has apparently,” the singer and actress wrote on Twitter, adding that she hoped such jokes would not make it past the writers’ room next time.

The transplant had previously been referred to on the Saved by the Bell reboot, but in this case Gomez was referring to a scene from the theatrical legal drama The Good Fight, in which a character cited the star’s surgery as something that could not be joked about. The Good Fight is one of the boldest dramas on television, which often pulls ideas for its storylines from current affairs and runs with them; it ended its last season with an episode centred on Jeffrey Epstein and the closing moments were so jaw-droppingly odd that even this Good Fight devotee wondered how it had got away with it.

But the Gomez line was in an episode about cancel culture and was followed by another character wondering if they could get cancelled for even joking about being cancelled. It’s not hard to sympathise with Gomez’s sensitivities, but it’s questionable as to whether the line was even a joke and the ripple of outrage over it feels like an extension of the plot. Perhaps the real cancellation is part of the show? No one said late-stage celebrity was going to be straightforward.

Cormac McCarthy found himself with a coveted blue tick on Twitter last week, meaning that the reclusive 88-year-old author had been verified and was officially who he said he was. Suspicious minds might have noted the spelling of his name as McCrthy; others may have simply decided that it was a nod to turn-of-the-century Primal Scream (sorry, Prml Scrm), a vowel-less statement on an apocalyptic techno-future. After all, he does have form.

Except it wasn’t McCarthy. Incredibly, the account holder who tweeted “There I wrote a Tweet Are you happy now Terry” turned out not to be McCarthy at all. “It’s obviously not him,” said his agent. Twitter quickly acknowledged that it had acted in error. “The account referenced was verified by mistake and that has since been reversed,” it said. This is not the first time a fake McCarthy has duped Twitter into believing it was the real one; in 2013, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey was duped into welcoming him to the fold. It is an amusing diversion, but surely attempting to fool social media into believing you are Cormac McCarthy has to be among the world’s more niche hobbies.

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