An issue that I have long held, especially since I consider myself as a person who – while this might sound pretentious – knows something about good music, is that while I can remember a catalogue of songs and their tunes, lyrics tend to pass me by.
I can imagine that for some music enthusiasts this might be sacrilegious, and I can see why. For a lot of people it’s the lyrics that make a song great, that elevate what they’re listening to. I get that, I can appreciate a good lyric if I hear it; it’s not a case of the song playing and me standing there thinking “this may as well be in Dutch”, not being able to distinguish one word from the other. It’s more a case of that, while I can definitely distinguish a song that contains poor lyrics from one that contains good lyrics, on the whole they’re just not that important to my listening experience.
Call it ignorance or call it being simple. Either way, I can honestly say that most of the songs I enjoy, I won’t be able to recount every syllable and every alliteration. In fact, and I can appreciate how dim this makes me sound, I honestly don’t know what the songs I enjoy the most are about. I question if that’s such a bad thing though?
On one hand, I’m freed from the notion that to be a fan I must be able to almost religiously recite the lyrics of both an artist’s popular and obscure songs. There’s no weighted, subtle association that I have to make with what the singer is singing about, I can just enjoy it for what it is. If it suits you to be able to regurgitate a song in its entirety, then so be it. In fact, I’m mildly impressed, as I always am when one of my school friends inevitably starts rapping various songs in their entirety as though he were the rapper from who the song originated. I, however, will be content enough to just enjoy the quality of the music itself, and I think therein is where I differ from some people with the importance of lyrics.
Despite not being a particularly good one, I am still a guitarist, and I would claim that when you’ve learned to play an instrument you develop an appreciation for the quality of the music that’s played in a song. It’s not an exclusive appreciation, and I know that enough people who don’t or can’t play an instrument share that enthusiasm for skill. As with poetry and linguistic features like onomatopoeia, I find that songs can transcend chords and notes and instead they can become a melded sound, something in its own right.
Where lyrics come into a song for me is that they are simply there because it’s the structure of song-writing. That’s not to say in my ideal world we would all be listening to instrumental bands, not at all. There are quite a few songs where I can recite the lyrics, and there are more songs where the few lines of a broken verse of half-known chorus make the song great in my eyes. It’s just that they’re not all important for my enjoyment of the song.
Casting shite lyrics aside, let’s assume that we’re talking about good music here, good songs that people like. For example, the songs of Simon & Garfunkel. I get what some of their songs are about, but for the most part, while I might be able to sing along to them, I don’t hold any great importance on the meaning of what’s being sung. Again, it could be pure ignorance, in which case I would consider it a luxury of being able to forgo analysing and trying to understand what’s being suggested.
Personally, I think it has a lot to do with the use of music. Artists like Bob Dylan – here comes the sweeping statement – almost relied on lyrics for their songs to be successful, and many of his songs are topical, political and without a doubt they are meaningful. The same can be said of rap music, it’s existence depends on the use of the lyric. Both the commercial rapper and the talented rapper make use of words in a way that I and most people never could. Still, when I listen to those kind of songs, a lot of it just goes over my head; my enjoyment of a song isn’t lessened because I might not understand what the singer’s trying to say, or the connotations of the lyrics. While Bon Iver is one of my favourite artists, few of Justin Vernon’s lyrics make a blind bit of coherent sense to me – and they don’t need to.
There have been plenty of artists and bands who have had success, and they haven’t made use of particularly challenging or heady lyrics. Take the sound of the 60s as a shining example of that; R&B in that period never really made use of lyrics that had you scratching your head or lost in a metaphor, and yet it is a genre of music that was immensely popular during its time and that popularity has spilled through the ages into today. Maybe that’s the secret behind pop music through the ages, it never really gets very complicated.
On the other hand, there are times when I wonder whether I am missing out on a sense of further appreciation for the quality of a song. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been sat in a room of people, listening to a song and everyone else is nodding along citing how good a lyric that was or laughing at something the singer/rapper has said. All the while I would have just been sat there, blissfully unaware of what was going on, lyrically.
It is an undoubtable, unquestionable and unwavering fact that some people adore and love some bands, artists and rappers for the words they use, and I’m not trying to devalue that appreciation. Again, there have been times when I’ve asked myself if I’m missing out because I’m not enjoying that aspect of the song as much as the next person.
Ultimately, I’m sure it’s all dependant on what you, as an individual, enjoy in a song. That which I enjoy is, quite simply, how the song sounds on the whole. If the words go with the tune and it all ties together into something that I can get distracted by for a few minutes, then that’s it.