too much typing—since 2003


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One part of music that I often obsess over is the role of lyrics - both for me, and for people generally. I'm pretty sure that lyrics work differently for me than they do for most listeners, although exactly how those approaches differ is unclear to me - necessarily, since I'm not "most listeners."

Generally, I pay far less attention to lyrical content in reacting to a song, or even in evaluating it, than I suspect most people do. This might be surprising - given that I teach writing and have an MA (not quite a Ph.D.) in English - but my immersion in music supersedes my interest in writing both in duration and in intensity. This doesn't mean I ignore lyrics entirely - any number of these blogulent entries focus on song lyrics - and it certainly doesn't mean I downplay the role of voice in music - but the singing voice is more like another instrument to me, just one that, sometimes, is articulated in a way that bears more specific meaning than strictly musical instruments can manage.

I think the primacy of sound in my response to music can be traced to the fact that I am a musician - or more accurately, that I think and hear like a musician. Yes, I can play a couple different instruments with some discernible degree of competence - but I'm more a musician in my head than I am on the keyboard or fretboard. I hear analytically, harmonically, and to a lesser degree structurally. I think what this means, where lyrics are concerned, is that I have less analytical/logical brain functioning available to parse lyrics, since more than a non-musician listener, I'm processing sound with those parts of my brain. In a way, I hear lyrics emotively, associatively, impressionistically; it's the music that I respond to in terms of logic, narrative, and other aspects characteristic of the verbal, narrative part of the brain. I suspect this because, in fact, it's extraordinarily hard for me to focus on lyrics (without a lyric sheet): it's nearly impossible for me not to get distracted by some musical phenomenon. It's like trying to add a column of figures while someone's chanting out loud a string of random digits: too much interference.

Another example illustrating the way I approach music: I tend to abstract what a song is, what a melody line is, into chord shapes or the gist of a tune, rather than knowing exactly how a chord is voiced or what the melody is (at least initially). I was struck by this years ago, back in high school when I accompanied a girl I knew who was auditioning for a choir. We worked up a version of Kate Bush's "The Man with the Child in His Eyes," and I was struck that Vicki sang the melody exactly as Kate Bush did: every little grace note, every little melismatic wiggle. To me, the melody line was some abstraction of what Bush actually sang (the point of melody lines is for a singer to elaborate on them); to Vicki (who wasn't a trained musician), the melody was what Kate Bush sang. There could be no question of abstracting it: the notes are what what the notes were.

This predilection of mine has some effects on what I value in lyrics. I'm generally bored by lyrics that are too direct, too literal, too narrative: the music is already telling me a story; if the lyrics are just reduplicating it, what's the point? I'd rather have them exist in a tension with the music, to a degree of counterpoint with whatever emotional tale the sounds are telling - or at least not insist on pummeling me about the head with their bulging freight of meaning. Good lyrics to me don't necessarily make literal sense, but they should be suggestive, associative, in a semi-coherent (i.e., semi- open-ended) fashion that allows the music to continue in its primary role, or that complements the emotional, associative narrative of the music.

I should probably qualify or define that word "emotional," since its typical usage is so debased and stereotypical. I don't mean the sort of easy one-to-one correspondences - epitomized by the stereotypical use of a theme from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet suite to establish romance, for instance - that typify bad movie music and American Idol audition pieces. I simply mean that music has developed a culturally specific, highly resonant, yet non-deterministic sonic language - one whose field of play is, broadly speaking, the emotions. Because it lacks anything even approaching a standard, "literal" meaning, and because it is highly context dependent (an E-flat on its own has even less "literal" meaning than, say, the word "note"), it's not very good at engaging logic or rationality (despite the best efforts of certain musicologists to dress it in the rationality of mathematical relationships) but very effective at engaging a broad range of emotions - broader, in fact, than language as such can access. (Language, I'd argue, does a poor job of organizing emotion.)

So I tend to respond to bits and pieces of lyrics: resonant phrases, phrases whose sound complements the music or rhythm they accompany, or phrases that evoke ideas or feelings that work with the sonic palette surrounding them. What's curious is that songwriters, I think, often approach lyrics in a similar way - and the evidence for that is that the better ones can pull up or deemphasize lyrics, whatever best serves the song. Obviously, a song with a minimal or repetitive musical backing, whose lyrics are not minimal or repetitive, will foreground the lyrics. Obviously, a repeated phrase will foreground itself. And obviously, if a singer wants people to hear the words, placing the vocal prominently in the mix will go a long way toward achieving that goal. But I think there are subtler means songwriters avail themselves of: they might, for example, foreground some lyrics by allowing the vocal to be the only sound in its frequency range (dropping out everything but the bass, say). Conversely, if the idea is for the vocals to be more sound than sense, they might be mixed lower and blended with a raft of guitars (My Bloody Valentine is a fine example: usually, the singing is just another instrument). I find that if a songwriter is a good lyricist, that quality comes in two flavors: either the songwriter knows it and wants to emphasize it - and therefore I'm likelier to hear, notice, and actually pay attention to the lyrics - or they prefer to surprise, even to the extent of de-emphasizing the lyrics. For me, though, in the second approach, if the lyrics avoid cliche and (once I finally get around to knowing what they are) work well with the musical mood, I find them even more fulfilling than in the standard approach of putting the singing front and center (see, for instance, most folk music). Brian Eno, for example, is a better lyricist in my book than most folk singers - even though he's said time and again that his lyrics are there primarily to give him something to sing (when he feels like singing). But the lyrics he arrives at almost invariably serve the sonic mood of the song - and are often quite evocative and rigorously avoid cliche - and for me, succeed admirably, even when I do only read them on the page. (That's probably a minority opinion.)

So how do most people treat lyrics? As I said, I can't really know - but it seems to me they view the lyrics as the song, and the music as the lyrics' accompaniment. Certainly this is true for most journalists - who are, of course, generally trained as writers, not musicians - and even when they are musicians, their medium as journalists is words, and so is much better equipped to address lyrics than sound. (Recall the Elvis Costello quotation that serves as the source for my glob's name.) The result is, to me, a weird distortion in the critical lens, seen at its most extreme in the high-classical Rolling Stone reviews of the seventies, wherein a reader just landed from Mars might be forgiven for thinking that Rolling Stone was actually in the business of reviewing short stories or novels that just happened to have some noise going on in the background.

But who buys music solely, or even primarily, for the lyrics? (I suppose some folk-singer types might - and possibly some rap fans, but the emphasis placed on rappers' flow and skills ought to suggest that it's not only the words, but their delivery - and hence musicality, if only in the realm of rhythm - that matter to rap connoisseurs.) I mean if Paul Simon (here used as synecdoche for "songwriter who emphasizes his lyrics") put out a new record backed by the Boredoms, I don't think many of his fans would go for it - even if his singing (and hence the lyrics) were mixed well to the fore, and even if his lyrics were up to his fans' standards.

However, going back to what I said earlier about music as emotive language: what does matter to fans of Very Popular Music is probably the degree to which that sonic backdrop accords with their highly structured notions of what kind of sounds are supposed to go with particular types of lyrical content. (I know that it's - to quote another website, sorry can't recall where - "so February" to cite mash-ups, but part of the joy of mash-ups is the way their Frankensteined musical context can deliciously subvert what we assumed the lyrics were about in their original sonic contours.) So in fact, it's hard to judge: maybe it's less that Paul Simon fans hate the music of the Boredoms as that those sounds don't fit the sort of sonic reportoire those fans expect. Because in fact, Paul Simon has changed musical backdrops quite a bit during his career - more than, probably, most fans or even critics give him credit for, even back in the Simon & Garfunkel days. It's just that he drew from sonic wells that weren't terribly alien to his short-story writer's sensibility. (The Boredoms might be some short-story writer's sensibility...but not Paul Simon's.)

So I think one reason I think about these issues is that I'm continually discovering that I don't know more than a line or two of songs I've known for twenty years, songs whose sonic contours I otherwise know by heart. A few key phrases pop through, and the sound of the line is usually pretty clear - but the actual words often surprise me. It's as if all singers were Michael Stipe on the first couple of R.E.M. albums!

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