Why the Lyrics Don’t Matter

I have this conversation, regarding song lyrics, with my roommate Ellie pretty often.  She is just as passionate, or more, about her music — mostly country and alt-country — as I am about . . . whatever the hell I listen to. We talk a lot about why we listen, and why we love what we love. After several months’ discussions, I’ve come to the (overly simplistic) understanding that Ellie likes things that are traditional, community-based, full of history and cultural context (classic rock, country, and blues), while I often like things because I can identify with their outsider status (from the mainstream, at least), or because they initially feel unfamiliar.  She likes music that reflects an artist’s world; I like artists who create worlds.

Of course, that assumes that indie rock and pop exist in some sort of cultural vacuum without context — which simply isn’t true: the music is generally the work of white, somewhat affluent, and well-educated young people — but we can all admit that’s not a very interesting narrative.  As someone who relates to that demographic, I’m not exactly part of a marginalized group, you know?  But the music does speak to a particular sort of person who grew up feeling isolated, strange in their skin, with something to say but no one to tell without being called a weirdo.

So Ellie and I obviously have very different tastes and we justify those tastes using different arguments.  But we also disagree when it comes to the role of lyrics in songwriting.  She will fall in love with a song she considers musically sub-par because the writing is good, which is something that I don’t get.  She cares about lyrics because she’s interested in how the songs (and their singers) have their personal narratives woven into a larger cultural context.  By contrast, I don’t care about lyrics; I rarely take note of them at all.  Many of the bands and singers I listen to write terrible, or lazy, or frustratingly cryptic song lyrics, sometimes on purpose.  And I don’t care, because for me it’s more about the medium than the message.  I mean, music is supposed to be music, not poetry.

I realize that, coming from me, that is hypocritical on two distinct levels.  On the one hand, I am a writer and, obviously, the use of language is an important part of my life and my identity.  I’ve spent countless hours analyzing individual words in a poem, explaining the denotation, connotation, emotional resonance and ambiguity inherent in a poet’s choice of diction.  But if it’s words you crave, read a book.  Music is an art form separate from the art of writing, and thus, can express complex ideas and emotions that simple language can’t — just as words express something not found in notes and rhythm.  Music transcends language, goes beyond, and it’s exactly that “beyond” part that I am most interested in.

Certain songs have these sublime moments when a note, or a melodic phrase, or a particular intertwining of instruments strikes a primal nerve within you, and you feel moved by it. Again, this relates back to my desire to find music that creates its own world. My emotional attachment to certain artists, bands, or records depends largely on how compelling that world is, how tightly-constructed, and how much time I want to waste there.  World-creation speaks to my larger aesthetic ideal; it’s the same reason I read books, and the reason I write, too.  I prefer works of imagination over autobiography or fiction that tries to imitate life (even if it’s a creatively skewed perception of the word we live in).  Music, for me, is yet another way to arrive on new ground, so I don’t necessarily want it to take the same path as poetry in order to get there.

“But Candice,” you say.  “Why not just listen to instrumental bands and classical music, if you’re so uninterested in words?  Why listen to singer-songwriters and bands with vocalists? Singers tend to sing words, you know.” That’s the other side of hypocrisy, and I can’t really account for it.  I do prefer songs — and tightly structured pop songs, no less, with verses, choruses, bridges, etc — to wordless music.  Maybe I just like the human voice as another instrument in the mix, the interplay between words and melody that only songwriting can offer, or maybe I’m drawn in because the presence of a singer invites participation in the experience, to sing along.  In examining that last point, I realize that I pay more attention to lyrics sung by women.  I don’t think it’s any inherent sexism on my part, but simply because I can sing along with a female vocalist more easily than with a man.

Of course, I can sit here and spin my apathy any way I want, offering rationales and justifications.  But maybe I don’t care about lyrics because I just don’t.  Storytelling in song has been around as long as people have had language, so I can’t explain my personal disconnect.  And that’s okay. I am a weirdo, after all.

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About Candice

I like horror movies, poetry, and weird things. ATX

2 responses to “Why the Lyrics Don’t Matter”

  1. J & H says :

    Maybe music isn’t poetry. But it’s a harder argument to say that songwriting isn’t. Maybe it’s impossible to create a world that doesn’t (read, can’t) overlap with other worlds. Genre is funny that way.

    Take, for instance, your recent post on the evolutionary rock opera. Tomorrow, in a year is supposed to be a musical equivalent of a biological theory. Can you shake off the genre of natural history or biology when you put it to music? Do you want it to be wholly separate?

    Or maybe take the most recent Mountain Goats album. The scriptural context lives with the same breath as Darnielle’s lyrics.

    I’m not disagreeing with you about lyrics – they’re third or fourth on the list of what I look for in tunes. But, I disagree with the principle, I think. Or maybe I’m just poking holes where there should be holes and saying that it’s too untenable as a rule, but totally ok as an observation.

    • zombette says :

      You’re totally right, and I want people to poke holes in my argument. This isn’t really meant to be taken as an absolute — obviously the music and their lyrics work together to create something that wouldn’t exist if the two things were separate, and I am the first to champion innovative genre-mixing! This comes more from my frustration in trying to understand people for whom the lyrics hold supremacy. I think I probably didn’t make this distinction well enough in my post.

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