too much typing—since 2003


more on lyrics

Seems I've picked a timely topic: here's Greil Marcus (who loves words so much he sometimes gets himself utterly tangled in them) on why the lyrics to Roxy Music's "More Than This," ultimately, don't matter. And the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly (with - inevitably - American Idol idiots on the cover) features a rather uninspired "debate" on whether lyrics matter (thanks to Rog for pointing out that article). I forget the two writers' names, but I'll refer to them as Anti-Lyrics Guy and Pro-Lyrics Guy, respectively. Pro-Lyrics Guy generally scores more points here, mostly because Anti-Lyrics Guy seems, well, not very bright: if he can't tell what a lyric's about instantly, he dismisses it as meaningless nonsense, and he can't seem to conceive that a song might evoke and engage more than a single mood simultaneously. (His grappling with Dylan's "Idiot Wind" is just plain embarrassing.) ALG also falls into the time-honored trap of imagining that if lyrics matter, they should work on the printed page, like poetry - which is kind of like saying that if you like oil and vinegar dressing with your salad, surely you'll enjoy downing a bottle of the same. "Lyrics" means "words meant to be sung"; and we can talk about the lyric origins of poetry all we want, but much of the poetic canon was never meant to be sung, and plenty of it (despite its attention to sound) probably prefers to be read rather than heard. What looks stupid on the page, and what sounds inane when read aloud, can become transcendent in a musical context. For instance: on the page, a line like "Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean" seems pointless, slack, a sign of poor editing. But sung (in Elton John and Bernie Taupin's "Your Song," as it happens), it becomes expressive of the proverbial tongue-tiedness that afflicts lovers attempting to translate their trembling into the rather too rigid fit of language.

The EW article also implies an all-or-nothing approach (as if titled "Lyrics: Do We Need Them At All?") - which is just stupid. Of course lyrics matter; I just argue that they're less important than many journalists seem to think, and that I, personally, pay them less attention than many people do. Generally, I'm more capable of ignoring dumb lyrics with shit-hot music than the reverse - not that awful lyrics don't get in the way of my enjoyment, only that I can ignore them, willfully. If the music does nothing for me, fine, give me the lyric sheet.

No comments: