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September 6, 2006 10:55 AM   Subscribe

No language, just sound: How writer Ned Raggett came to ignore the lyrics.
posted by klangklangston (79 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
This man is not a good writer, but he is absolutely right. Lyrics are just another instrument. I don't read the English supertitles when I go to the opera. I mean, who cares? I've listened to some of my favorite songs a thousand times before I ever noticed that they were actually ABOUT something, and when I realized what they were about, I was usually disappointed (I know, this is just the kind of first-person, anecdotal approach that makes Ragget's essay almost unreadable).

It annoys the hell out of me that people consider the lyrics to, oh, say, "Working Class Hero" more profound than the lyrics to "She Loves You," or that it is the lyric that makes Neil Sedaka's "Calendar Girl" somehow inferior to "Billie Jean" (Sedaka's is the better song on both counts). All lyrics suck -- except, of course, "Subterranean Homesick Blues."
posted by Faze at 11:08 AM on September 6, 2006


Meh.

Sometimes lyrics matter, sometimes they don't.

Depends on the artist/band.

I listen to different artists/bands for different reasons. Sometimes it's for the lyrics, sometimes it isn't.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 11:17 AM on September 6, 2006


This is a stupid argument. Ever listen to the Decemberists? The Magnetic Fields?

Lyrics can matter. Lyrics can be well written and engaging. Just because many times they are not does not mean you should adapt some policy of simply treating them as meaningless sound.

Faze, I suggest you listen to better music.
posted by xmutex at 11:20 AM on September 6, 2006


I'm the same way.

There's an episode of "News Radio" where Phil Hartman's character discovers that he enjoys hip-hop only to be horrified later in the episode when he actually hears the lyrics. This is actually how I started listening to hip-hop too.

To me the best lyrics let the singer use his/her voice as instrument. Some of my favorite pieces are in languages I can't understand, but I love singing along because the inflections and mouth-sounds are fantastic in combination with the melody.
posted by lekvar at 11:23 AM on September 6, 2006


Representational art may be either symbolic (literature) or iconic (painting). The content of a symbolic representation is a proposition about the object to which it refers. The content of an iconic representation is a resemblance to an object. The relation of the form of a symbolic representation to its content depends on arbitrary convention; that of an iconic representation is based on physical similarity. Nonrepresentational art (music, abstract painting) has a perceptible physical form, but no content. What makes representational or nonrepresentational productions art is their affective value. Only iconic form elicits affect. Nonrepresentational art does so directly; representational art does so in virtue of metaphoric juxtapositions of content on content, form on form, or form on content, each of which reveals a further form that has aesthetic (affective) value. It follows from this theory that cognitive (content) factors are secondary or incidental in aesthetic experience and that all works of art are "intentionally underdetermined."

Affect and Cognition in Art: Form versus Content
posted by xod at 11:23 AM on September 6, 2006 [1 favorite]


i listen to a lot of foreign music, ethnic and what not that isn't in a language i recognize. sometimes i imagine what they are singing. in the few cases where i have had things translated, i find out that i wasn't off the mark by much.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 11:24 AM on September 6, 2006


I have a real difficult time discerning lyrics, and for some of my favourite songs it took me years to finally understand what the singer was saying. This is the reason why I can't go and see a musical, the lyrics and the music all jumble together in my head and I can't make out anything and I don't get any of the jokes, or the story in a lot of cases.

Despite this I still think that lyrics are important, especially for songs like "Imagine" (cliché, I know). Choosing to ignore lyrics as a blanket philosophical approach to music is idiotic, better to judge each song on its own. I wouldn't listen to Johnny Cash if it wasn't for the awesome lyrics, but I listen to Metallica for the sounds not the words.
posted by Vindaloo at 11:25 AM on September 6, 2006


For me, when lyrics suck, they suck hard, and they trash otherwise wonderful music.

Most of the time I'd like to hear the lead singer shut up.

I'd much rather hear instrumentals. I'm extremely glad that hip-hop so frequently gives me this option. I wish more indie groups would.
posted by fake at 11:28 AM on September 6, 2006


Faze, I suggest you listen to better music.

What?! And surrender his cute little contrarian schtick?
Then again, maybe he's just parroting someone else's take again.
posted by joe lisboa at 11:34 AM on September 6, 2006


I never listen to lyrics. If I want to find out what someone thinks, I'll read a book.
posted by dydecker at 11:35 AM on September 6, 2006


"Ever listen to the Decemberists? The Magnetic Fields? Lyrics can matter. Lyrics can be well written and engaging. "

Ugh, god no. Your favorite bands write like crap. And they suck, too.

:)
posted by muddgirl at 11:37 AM on September 6, 2006


Vindaloo: "I have a real difficult time discerning lyrics, and for some of my favourite songs it took me years to finally understand what the singer was saying."

This is where this guy seems completely off the mark to me: I find that experience to be one of the best things about music. I like listening to a song carefully until it begins to make sense. Music is art, and art is about the joy of discovering someone else's world. I can still point out the exact spot in Santa Fe I was driving by when I figured out that the third song on Pavement's Watery, Domestic (Site-Specific) is about rival football teams. Good lyrics offer those moments of discovery; bad ones make music much less dimensional than it might be if it were purely instrumental. Lyric sheets are bad not because they indicate that the lyrics are too important -- Bernard Sumner has it dead wrong on this point -- but because they indicate that the context of the music isn't.

Without lyric sheets, we're all scrambling to figure out what the guy said. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't. That's part of human experience, and we've been struggling to figure out what words the singer said for thousands of years. That struggle, between singer and audience, is pretty damned interesting.

My favorite lyric sheet is the one for Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted. (Pavement again, I know; but they're a good example of a lyrically interesting band.) That's because it's dead wrong on more than one point, and song titles are screwed up. It's more interesting that way; a song called "Loretta's Scars" turns out to actually have a chorus of "your little scars." It forces you to keep paying attention.

The second most important mistake that Raggett makes (the first is believing that quality in music is purely subjective) is to forget: poetry is an aural form, not a graphic form. When words are combined with music, those words are sounds, not printed letters. Those sounds have significance, and it can't be thrown away.

from link: "One might and can wish that certain lyrics on a favorite song or album be changed, but does that, can it, change the direct kick of the music? Strictly from my point of view, at least -- though it seems I'm not alone -- the answer is no, or at least, not automatically."

Yes, it does change the direct kick of the music. (And that's the truth. It doesn't matter if I'm alone. Or if it's automatic. Don't be a pussy.) To pick the best example I can think of right now: Neil Young's song "Southern Man" is an ugly song. It has an offensively racist chorus. It sounded really cool when I was a child, when I could block out whole chunks of a song just to indulge myself. Now, however, I'm listening too closely not to feel disgusted. And when music sounds bad on closer listening, it's not the fault of the listener.
posted by koeselitz at 11:55 AM on September 6, 2006


...at the same time that "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is one great lyric in rock, the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" is just as great, and just as expressive of America in all its mindless might, terror and aggression.

For the most part, a "bad" lyric is just as good, if not better than a "good" lyric.
posted by Faze at 12:03 PM on September 6, 2006


Simon Frith wrote elegantly on this theme some 15 years or so back in his essay "Why Do Songs Have Words?" It's reprinted in Music for Pleasure.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:04 PM on September 6, 2006


I have always listened to music this way i.e. treating the vocals as another instrument, and preferred it.

koeselitz: the first is believing that quality in music is purely subjective

Why is that a mistake?
posted by Gyan at 12:09 PM on September 6, 2006


Seriously, Noel Coward and Cole Porter need to shuck the fuck up. It's just music, yo!
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:17 PM on September 6, 2006


My favorite band has been Cocteau Twins for a very long time. A big part of the reason why is that Liz almost always sings pure non-words, just beautiful vocals without linguistic meaning. It makes the beauty of her voice stand out more, and makes it much more about a general feeling than about another attempt to rhyme "you" and "true".
posted by jiawen at 12:18 PM on September 6, 2006


Faze: "For the most part, a 'bad' lyric is just as good, if not better than a 'good' lyric."

Then why are they called 'bad' or 'good?'

Gyan: It's a mistake to believe that quality in music is purely subjective because that turns your beliefs into non-beliefs. It might even be true that what I think is 'good' is really just neutral, but if I really believed that, then I wouldn't think anything was good, and I wouldn't really be able to enjoy music.

To put it another way: music is a political, social, and communal thing. To say that it's "purely subjective" saves us from all kinds of scary arguments (because we're both free to believe whatever we want) but it cuts us off from one another (because we have no common experience to talk about if it's all subjective). Though it takes the guts to face difficult conflicts, believing that there is truly a 'good' or 'bad' music is what makes it possible for us to talk with each other about it at all.

If it really was purely subjective, this Ned Raggett essay, for example, would be bullshit. I can listen to the lyrics if I want; it's my experience, not his. Or rather, he can have whatever opinion he wants, just as long as he doesn't share it with me. End of discussion.
posted by koeselitz at 12:21 PM on September 6, 2006


What a poorly-written essay. I stopped midway through and just admired the font he used instead.

While vocal delivery is determined to a degree by the words being sung, to disregard lyrics and what they mean is to close off or ignore another dimension to the music.

Take The Mountain Goats' The Sunset Tree, for example. There's some super lovely, happy sounding pop music in there, and the lyrics are all about an abusive step-father. That contrast makes the music that much more powerful, elevating it from a solid pop record to an emotionally intense experience, which would be lost on an audience who focused only on the sounds of the words instead of their meaning.

Great lyrics can redeem a sonically crap song, and bad lyrics can sink the most beautiful noise you've ever heard.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 12:22 PM on September 6, 2006


First off, I tend to think of Mr. Raggett as a pretty decent critic. I like his AMG stuff especially.

Second off, this resonated with me because, for a variety of reasons, I've largely stopped listening to lyrics.
The first reason is that I've drastically upped my consumption of foreign music. I know that tracks are love songs or rockers or whatever, but it doesn't really matter to me what exactly they're saying. And I've felt similarly about a lot of American musicc, particularly the Motown girl stuff that I've grown to love. While I can make out the lyrics entirely, it's really not so much what they're saying (boyfriend's back/daddy please/love's gone bad) especially during the verses (a killer chorus still does have to hold my interest, and often that means a clever phrase). More often than not, it's still the woo woo woo that grabs me.
The second reason is that while there are some songs that I find a reward in parsing, the crypto-allusionary Beatles-esque bullshit has permeated many songs that I otherwise enjoy, and a combination of bad confessional poetry, dada gibberish, and out-and-out dumb lyrics makes up a sizable majority of contemporary music.
Even when I do find an occassional lyric, like a stray Ted Leo riff on Lawrence and Beau Gest, that really does provide something interesting to think about, the sheer proliferation of music has made me lazy in dealing with searches for meaning. I glean what I glean, but rarely am I interested in attempting to research a bat-chain puller to find out if that's a reference I should get.
Which is compounded by the tendency of the literary creep in indie music, where cleverness and complexity are confused with value. The Decemberists bore me cold because I don't feel like they have the songs to justify their pontifications, and discussions of them leave me feeling like I'm the only one who doesn't lke the Emperor's outfit. And while Merritt occassionaly does have merit, he's far to hit and miss to (in my mind) ever be cited as someone consistently worth listening to for great lyrics. While I can enjoy the deft touch of Papa Was a Rodeo, Reno Dakota is embarrassingly bad.
Finally, I'd wager that part of it is that I've been going to live shows for about ten years now, and for the last five or six years about two or three shows a week. My ears just don't pick up the ennunciation like htey used to. Besides, I grew up listening to death metal, which has lyrics but they're totally superfluous, and to songs with lyrics like "In the AM and the PM, there is the TM," which sound gorgeous in the song but are utterly retarded.
Which, I guess, is the final count— if I cared about having erudition in lyrics, instead of having a compelling sound, I'd have passed over The Ramones for Elvis Costello years ago (which isn't to say that Elvis doesn't have his moments).
posted by klangklangston at 12:23 PM on September 6, 2006


Nobody cares what you aren't listening to.
posted by prostyle at 12:24 PM on September 6, 2006


"The second most important mistake that Raggett makes (the first is believing that quality in music is purely subjective)"

It's important to remember that better music weighs more.
posted by klangklangston at 12:26 PM on September 6, 2006


Koeslitz— I think in this instance, "subjective" is opposed to "empirical" rather than strictly "objective."
posted by klangklangston at 12:29 PM on September 6, 2006


Lyrics in pop songs are like the swimming part of a triathlon. Your lyrics won't "win" for you, but they sure as hell can lose it for you.

Take this gem from the the first Sammy Hagar/Van Halen album:

"Only time will tell if we stand the test of time"

Van Halen was my favorite band at the time, and I had a bad feeling about replacing David Lee Roth with Sammy Hagar. But I was really trying to like the album, trying to give it a try, until I heard that turd. That's when I said, "I f*cking hate Van Halen!" Fortunately something else was released right around that time...
posted by Mister_A at 12:30 PM on September 6, 2006


I've long enjoyed the Tragically Hip in, as the author says, shards. Pulling little phrases out of their songs as wonderfully crafted little nuggets (YMMV) that evoke something as powerful emotionally as a neat lick or a well-timed fill or a funny noise on the keyboards or whatever. Sometimes after years some of those shards connect up to a part of the whole lyric.

I feel I'm alone amongst other Hip fans that are pretty rabid about knowing every word and also the history behind the song. I like that stuff when I come across it, but my tendency is, as others have said in this thread, to treat is like another instrument.

I'm happy to see this discussion!
posted by stevil at 12:30 PM on September 6, 2006


Stupid lyrics are what ultimately put me off Guided by Voices some time ago. (It didn't help that Bob Pollard's increasingly drunken, loutish onstage antics and off-key wailings ruined many an otherwise decent show.)
posted by gigawhat? at 12:37 PM on September 6, 2006


koeselitz wrote "It might even be true that what I think is 'good' is really just neutral"

If taste is subjective, then it's not "really" anything. You just enjoy what you do enjoy, and don't what you don't.

To say that it's "purely subjective" saves us from all kinds of scary arguments (because we're both free to believe whatever we want) but it cuts us off from one another (because we have no common experience to talk about if it's all subjective).

That's a tangential reason and doesn't affect whether taste is subjective. Also, you can share your opinions and see if they match. Discourse is not impossible.

I can listen to the lyrics if I want; it's my experience, not his.

That's how it should be.

Or rather, he can have whatever opinion he wants, just as long as he doesn't share it with me.

He can share it with you, but you're not bound to it.
posted by Gyan at 12:40 PM on September 6, 2006


Well, this is all very interesting. Hullo all. I seriously didn't realize this piece -- which is almost five years old now! -- was on here today until a fellow writer pointed it out to me. Kinda flattering, I admit. ;-)

Just to address a couple of points -- there's a lot of good talk here and it doesn't need me chiming in on all of it or even most of it:

I can listen to the lyrics if I want; it's my experience, not his.

Well, yeah. The essay, ultimately, is descriptive, not proscriptive. My biases are utterly, totally my own, and I don't mistake them for anyone else's, or for universal truths. I may write *about* them as universal truths, I admit, partially due to my grotesquely rampaging egomania, a vicious thing which should be shot and killed. But anyway.

What a poorly-written essay. I stopped midway through and just admired the font he used instead.

I can't even take credit for that, but Tom Ewing, editor of Freaky Trigger, will be pleased.

It's funny you should mention The Sunset Tree, actually -- John D. and I have been correspondents online for some years, and he's a very good soul through and through. He and I know each other's views on the subject of lyrics very well, and no doubt he regards me quizzically, at the least. But The Sunset Tree is a very fine album -- one of many excellent ones he's done -- and he is one of those people whose words 'get through' my barrier, as it were. And I don't see it as contradictory to my general take to say that.

It's important to remember that better music weighs more.

True, but sometimes the scales are fixed.

Anyway, thanks to Klang for the link and mention. An older thread over the ILM forum which appeared when the piece was first published is here, if anyone is interested. Hope everyone's day goes well!
posted by Ned Raggett at 12:51 PM on September 6, 2006


Stupid lyrics are what ultimately put me off Guided by Voices some time ago.

It's interesting you mention GBV, since they were the group that immediately came to mind while reading Ned's piece. I'm typically a big "lyric guy" but I also really admire Pollard, so evidently I am large, I contain multitudes or am merely inconsistent.

And welcome, Ned! Always nice to hear from the author of a text. Context, all of that.
posted by joe lisboa at 1:24 PM on September 6, 2006


Yer welcome. I admit to be being a busy bee on various other sites and efforts and things, but since I'm here now, well, I'll try and poke around a bit more! So I'll take up the inconsistency slack if you prefer...
posted by Ned Raggett at 1:26 PM on September 6, 2006


And lo, he appears!! Hi Ned!

Little known fact about Ned Raggett: He doesn't actually live in a house or apartment, he lives in an impenetrable fortress built from hundreds of thousands of polycarbonate jewel cases.

He is also one of the few people I've ever met who writes more and more superflously than I do.
posted by loquacious at 1:30 PM on September 6, 2006


I don't read the English supertitles when I go to the opera.

Same here. While I prefer subtitles to dubbing in foreign-language films, because I can actually hear the actor's natural voices, I hate opera supertitles because the libretto is generally vastly inferior to the music. Give me a summary of the plot and I'm good for the whole gestalt of the artistic experience.

In popular music, sometimes lyrics are wonderful and involving, and sometimes they just get in the way. If I love a band or a singer, but hate the lyrics, I resort to what I call The Opera Defense: I pretend the lyrics are in a foreign language and I can't understand a word. But just as I can switch my attention back and forth between a foreign film and its added subtitles, I can attend to or ignore lyrics. It doesn't have to be one or the other.
posted by maudlin at 1:32 PM on September 6, 2006


Ned OTM
posted by bonaldi at 1:36 PM on September 6, 2006


Without lyric sheets, we're all scrambling to figure out what the guy said.

Not to derail (really!), but I think it's more often than not a sign of poor production. It's not easy to make vocals stand out in a mix, and I think a lot of engineers and producers take the vocals for granted. Maybe they're at a disadvantage because they already know the words, so they seem more intelligible than they really are.

Also, the chrous to "Southern Man" is racist? I always took that song as a total slam AGAINST southern racism.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:39 PM on September 6, 2006


Heh. Yeah, Ned, I got this from ILX, specifically the Tool thread. I'm js over there. You've mailed me music, for which I am grateful, but when I tried to return the favor you pretty much had everything that I was going to send already...
posted by klangklangston at 1:49 PM on September 6, 2006


Two bits to add about lyrics being either ignored or misheard/misprinted:

Ignored: How can someone - or, since he's here in-thread, how can you - write a multi-thousand word essay on this topic citing a dozen or more bands who brought about this line of thinking, and not quote or mention Eno, who was onto this whole phenomenon ten years before you purchased Sgt. Pepper?
All the clouds turn to words
All the words float in sequence
No one knows what they mean
Everyone just ignores them


Misheard/Misprinted: I'm pretty sure there was another early XTC example, but I can't think of it right now. The one I can think of is the chorus "Like a New Town Animal in a Furnished Cage," in which it quickly becomes clear that "New Town" doesn't make any sense, and the obvious word (oh-so risque to those 1970s BBC standards) is still there in the song, just not in the printed lyric (or title).
posted by soyjoy at 1:49 PM on September 6, 2006


Obvoius to YOU perhaps *scratching head*...
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:54 PM on September 6, 2006


Which is funny, because the vocal mixing of Tool was one of the first times where I thought "Wow, they really utilized that mans voice as an instrument", as well as one of the first times I found anything interesting to pay attention to in the lyrics.

Would Dark Side Of The Moon have stayed on the charts for hundreds of weeks if Rogers lyrics were replaced with Lipan chanting?

Would you, Ned Ragget, be personally satisfied with an album featuring nothing but Woo-ooh's and Doo-aahs? Why would that be more acceptable compared to a lower rung on the evolutionary chain of communication we've been building for thousands of years? I'd imagine you'd be elitist to look down your nose at an album full of grunts and moans interspersed with recordings of bone fragments being wailed against cavernous interiors after writing a piece like this.
posted by prostyle at 2:03 PM on September 6, 2006


I'd imagine you'd be elitist to look down your nose at an album full of grunts and moans interspersed with recordings of bone fragments being wailed against cavernous interiors after writing a piece like this.

what *does* Ned Raggett think of Thom Yorke's latest solo effort?
posted by dydecker at 2:10 PM on September 6, 2006


Ned Ragget, be personally satisfied with an album featuring nothing but Woo-ooh's and Doo-aahs?

Motown? No? Ok, more seriously: Diamanda Galás? Dead Can Dance? Atom Heart? Other?


I'd imagine you'd be elitist to look down your nose at an album full of grunts and moans interspersed with recordings of bone fragments being wailed against cavernous interiors after writing a piece like this.


Throbbing Gristle? Neu!? Can? Halfer Trio? Nurse With Wound?

I could be quite satisfied, for sure, and I usually am. I prefer music to words in my music. Music in itself is a language and system of communication - at once primitive, primeval and archaic as well as cutting edge, experimental and searching.
posted by loquacious at 2:16 PM on September 6, 2006 [1 favorite]


"Would you, Ned Ragget, be personally satisfied with an album featuring nothing but Woo-ooh's and Doo-aahs?"

I'm not him, but I'll take a shot— I like plenty of Cocteau Twins albums. And I love plenty of foreign language albums that might as well be all oozin' ahs.

And while I like Tool, I think I stopped regarding their lyrics as anywhere near profound somewhere around 11th grade.

"Would Dark Side Of The Moon have stayed on the charts for hundreds of weeks if Rogers lyrics were replaced with Lipan chanting?"

Because popular albums are inherently better. Or weigh more, at least.

"Why would that be more acceptable compared to a lower rung on the evolutionary chain of communication we've been building for thousands of years? I'd imagine you'd be elitist to look down your nose at an album full of grunts and moans interspersed with recordings of bone fragments being wailed against cavernous interiors after writing a piece like this."

The first mark of a strong argument is, of course, to eliminate the middle ground. As you noticed many times in the essay, Ned says that he hates all lyrics and never listens to any of them ever, even burning his groin with cigarettes so that snippets don't get stuck in his head. So you've limned his hypocricy quite astutely.
For me, willing to take a more reasonable stance than the outright anti-verbal fascism you've so rightly dowsed from Raggett, I tend to hear bits and pieces of lyrics and they contribute to how I percieve the whole of the piece, but rarely do they form any real lasting impression. Once upon a time, I knew all the lyrics to my favorite songs, now I'd muddle through the middle if not for the bouncing ball of kareoke screens. Lyrics, for me, have as much internal meaning as a power chord or melody, and I tend to think of them most as abstractions rather than representations. When Marlon Magas screams "Open up the crab," I might guess that it's some sort of sexual reference tied up in the allusions to dance calling, but really it just sounds good to say. And that's good enough for me.
posted by klangklangston at 2:17 PM on September 6, 2006


If I bothered to think about the words "Once or maybe twice a day/ dirty lovin' baby, that's OK/ I like it straight around the bend/ enough for me and both of my friends" I might hate the song Dirty Lovin' by Map of Africa. As I haven't, I don't, and I'm happier for it.
posted by klangklangston at 2:20 PM on September 6, 2006


Of course, as those with a subscription to my Last.fm RSS could tell you (and can Itell you how creepy that is, to have people email you about stuff you listened to, all pissed off?), I'm listening to Maroon 5 right now and enjoying it. Do I know any words aside from the chorus? Nope. Do I care? Nope. Catchy as hell.
posted by klangklangston at 2:24 PM on September 6, 2006


A song is the marriage of music and words. It's not just a poem, and it's not just a musical composition. To limit your attention to one aspect of it seems strange to me. Songwriters who don't care about lyrics shouldn't write songs, I think. And there are plenty of great contemporary lyricists, the aforementioned John Darnielle and Colin Meloy among them.

And Ned still never friended me on myspace :(
posted by ludwig_van at 2:29 PM on September 6, 2006


Nice weird rant Prostyle!

Leave Ned alone, he appreciates music the way he appreciates music. I think even you can appreciate that.

Didn't you get the bit where Ned says he's down with treating the voice as an instrument?
posted by Mister_A at 2:31 PM on September 6, 2006


Also, of course lyrics play different roles in different musics. I think it'd be silly to listen to The Mountain Goats the same way one listens to Sigur Ros.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:34 PM on September 6, 2006


Most of most lyrics do not matter. Good lyrics play human emotions -- they use just a few words to strike a chord (as the apt cliche goes) with the listener, and they can still be great when they are 90 percent filler.

When Aretha declares
All I'm asking is for a little respect
and then spells the word out for him (and us) just in case he's too stupid to figure it out, that's all that matters. The rest is something for her to sing in between.

When you hear
How does it feel?
How does it feel?
To be without a home?
Like a complete unknown?
Like a rolling stone?
you feel something, and all the rest of the gibberish about Napoleon in rags and a princess on the steeple and diplomat who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat don't much matter. What matters is when he keeps coming back to ask you, "How does it feel?" The words "feel" and "home" are emotional fireworks, and he's asking you, damn it, so listen.

In "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the important words are
Here we are now, entertain us.
and though there are other great lines in the song ("A mulatto / An albino / A mosquito / My libido"), the attitude is created by that one line. The logical meaning or meanings, whatever it or they might be, don't matter -- it's all emotion. For me, it feels like, I don't know, the boredom of being. Ennui. Fuckitness. It's an emotion, not a logical conclusion.

The right words -- and really it just takes a few words, not even a complete sentence -- play most people like carefully plucked (or strummed or banged) strings. They're important, but not as reasoned explanations, not as logical constructions. Good lyrics act sublogically, one word at a time.
posted by pracowity at 2:35 PM on September 6, 2006


When Aretha declares

All I'm asking is for a little respect

and then spells the word out for him (and us) just in case he's too stupid to figure it out, that's all that matters. The rest is something for her to sing in between.


This is what I'm talking about. Naming data points where the lyrics may be filler or unimportant doesn't prove some larger point about pop lyrics being superfluous. There are many artists whose lyrics are not very profound or interesting, and are mostly just sound that the singer makes. There are other artists whose lyrics are wonderfully creative, clever, and rewarding to study.

Also, I look at it this way: western pop music has quite a limited palette, relatively. There are 12 semitones in an octave, yadda yadda yadda. But when you combine that system with a language like English, the expressive possibilities are exponentially multiplied. This is why I really have a hard time understanding people who listen to pop music but don't care at all about lyrics; you're just hearing the same damn chord progressions over and over again. It's a wonder to me that you're interested at all. That's an overstatement, sure, but I do believe in the basic sentiment.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:40 PM on September 6, 2006


koesiltz-

But *all* art is subjective. The experience any one of us has in reading a book, looking at a painting, watching a film is internal and distinct to the individual. There are certainly *better* and *worse* works of art for any particular individual, but to try to argue that there is some kind of Platonic ideal of good and bad in any medium of art is kind of narcissistic.

Good and bad according to whom?

As for me, I rarely can understand what people are singing about in songs and that's fine with me. I prefer the human voice when used as a musical instrument.

And I often find lyrics insipid and stupid, so it's probably better that way.
posted by MythMaker at 2:44 PM on September 6, 2006 [1 favorite]


Blah, please don't start an objective vs. subjective argument.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:49 PM on September 6, 2006


Blah, please don't start an objective vs. subjective argument.

But I thrive on those.
posted by Ned Raggett at 3:00 PM on September 6, 2006


But I thrive on those.

I thought it was the blood of children?
posted by ludwig_van at 3:05 PM on September 6, 2006


"Songwriters who don't care about lyrics shouldn't write songs, I think."

Right. Like Chuck Berry, who's said that he never gave much thought to the lyrics. He shouldn't have written songs.

Songwriters who don't care about lyrics shouldn't write songs in which the primary attraction is the lyrics.

"But when you combine that system with a language like English, the expressive possibilities are exponentially multiplied. This is why I really have a hard time understanding people who listen to pop music but don't care at all about lyrics; you're just hearing the same damn chord progressions over and over again. It's a wonder to me that you're interested at all. That's an overstatement, sure, but I do believe in the basic sentiment."

Frankly, it doesn't sound like you should be writing pop music, if it's just the same damn chord progressions over and over again. Parsing the oblique bullshit of "Come Together" is not what makes it a great song.
Of course, very few people don't care at all about the lyrics, so I suppose I could ignore your tirade against such a minority. But in general, are the verses of Ciara or Beyonce or Pink going to be a revelation? No. And I'd argue that there are far, far, far more great songs with stupid lyrics than there are great songs with great lyrics (and that great songs with stupid lyrics are infinitely more listenable than shitty [or even mediocre] songs with profound lyrics, but that's why my Silver Jews collecction is limited).
posted by klangklangston at 3:09 PM on September 6, 2006


Right. Like Chuck Berry, who's said that he never gave much thought to the lyrics. He shouldn't have written songs.

Don't give me that. Chuck Berry was writing songs in a different era with different standards of acceptable expression. My statement is one about pop music in 2006. But yes, I think that generally people who write music with words should put effort and attention into their words, or they shouldn't write words.

Frankly, it doesn't sound like you should be writing pop music, if it's just the same damn chord progressions over and over again.

Give me a break. Did you not understand the point or are you just trying to be an ass? Compared to other musics, pop music, even at its more adventurous, tends to be very musically restricted.

Parsing the oblique bullshit of "Come Together" is not what makes it a great song.

You seem to have pretty specific and weird grievances with song lyrics. When did I or anyone else hold up Come Together's lyrics as great?

But in general, are the verses of Ciara or Beyonce or Pink going to be a revelation? No.

I don't see how this proves anything.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:20 PM on September 6, 2006


I thought it was the blood of children?

I aim higher than THAT. Namely, the viscera of RATM fans.
posted by Ned Raggett at 3:20 PM on September 6, 2006


Also, this:

great songs with stupid lyrics are infinitely more listenable than shitty [or even mediocre] songs with profound lyrics

Is stupid and question-begging. Obviously great songs are better than shitty songs. But a song is words + music. Songs can be great without the words being the most striking aspect, and the opposite can also be true. I think the question of which is the case more often is unanswerable and meaningless.
posted by ludwig_van at 3:26 PM on September 6, 2006


Sometimes bad lyrics will just kill a band for me-- given my musical taste I should be a big Descendents fan, but their songs are so inane I just can't listen to them.

But put on a T Rex album and I'm in heaven, and those are some of the stupidest words ever attached to a melody.
posted by InfidelZombie at 3:55 PM on September 6, 2006


Hopelandic
posted by jimmythefish at 3:58 PM on September 6, 2006


"I think the question of which is the case more often is unanswerable and meaningless."

Of course you do, living in the rarified world of indie pop. The point in mentioning Beyonce et al. is that they routinely put out great songs with stupid lyrics, and that's really the dominant form of mainstream pop from, well, pretty much the late '50s through now.
A big part of it is that, if I may assume based on previous interactions with you, you're priviledging individual experience with albums over the larger experience of dance music (where the very quiddity of, say, techno or disco is great songs with stupid lyrics).
And perhaps I am tossing out examples that haven't been cited, but that's only because you're not putting out anything to bolster your case aside from more imperious grousing about who should and should not be writing songs. One that is frequently cited as great is "Blackbird," a sodden lump of cliched tripe, though the lack of citation regarding the lyrics of "Come Together" isn't a blow against my position that great songs can have totally retarded and meaningless lyrics (and that it's often a total waste of time to engage the writer on any level expecting revelation).

"Give me a break. Did you not understand the point or are you just trying to be an ass? Compared to other musics, pop music, even at its more adventurous, tends to be very musically restricted."

Compared to free verse, the haiku is very restricted. But if it's just the ol' 5-7-5 to you, you shouldn't be writing them. (I understand how say, compared to modal jazz, there are less combinations available, but that's got nothing to do with requiring "good" lyrics).

"Don't give me that. Chuck Berry was writing songs in a different era with different standards of acceptable expression. My statement is one about pop music in 2006. But yes, I think that generally people who write music with words should put effort and attention into their words, or they shouldn't write words."

Now it's me who's gonna eliminate the middle ground, equivicator. Everyone who writes lyrics puts effort and attention into writing words, unless they're scatted in a inattentive state (and even that's debatable). Saying that they should is like saying that everyone who eats should put effort and attention into eating: utterly empty and tautological.
What I'm saying, for contrast, is that they shouldn't put as much effort into the lyrics as they should the recording or the songwriting, because 90% of people who can write a catchy tune can't write good lyrics, and even when they can, chances are that's not where my primary attention as a listener is going anyway.
posted by klangklangston at 4:04 PM on September 6, 2006


"Sometimes bad lyrics will just kill a band for me-- given my musical taste I should be a big Descendents fan, but their songs are so inane I just can't listen to them.

But put on a T Rex album and I'm in heaven, and those are some of the stupidest words ever attached to a melody."

I think this is all pretty much dead on.
posted by klangklangston at 4:10 PM on September 6, 2006


klang, any time I discuss music with you I come away with nothing but the wish that I had never wasted my time to begin with.

the lack of citation regarding the lyrics of "Come Together" isn't a blow against my position that great songs can have totally retarded and meaningless lyrics

I already said that a good song doesn't require good lyrics.

Compared to free verse, the haiku is very restricted. But if it's just the ol' 5-7-5 to you, you shouldn't be writing them.

Great analogy! You totally invalidated my point! You clearly have a deep understanding of tonal harmony!

Everyone who writes lyrics puts effort and attention into writing words

Everyone except for Chuck Berry, who's said that he never gave much thought to the lyrics?

Saying that they should is like saying that everyone who eats should put effort and attention into eating: utterly empty and tautological.

No, it's nothing like that. Eating is not the same as making art. I'm talking about what I expect from good artists working in the form of song, and what I expect is evidence of craft in words and music (not to mention performance and production).

What I'm saying, for contrast, is that they shouldn't put as much effort into the lyrics as they should the recording or the songwriting, because 90% of people who can write a catchy tune can't write good lyrics, and even when they can, chances are that's not where my primary attention as a listener is going anyway.

Well, you've got your philosophy and I've got mine. Let me know when I can hear your songs.
posted by ludwig_van at 4:17 PM on September 6, 2006


I've gone more and more in Ned's direction in the last decade or so. A crystallizing moment was seeing the lyrics to some Royal Trux songs, listening to the songs while reading the lyrics, and realizing that I still could not understand a word Jennifer Herrima was singing ("how did she just fit 20 syllables into four and a half grunts?"), but that it didn't matter.

I also live in mortal fear of finding English translations of Shiina Ringo's songs, as the few things she's done in English are rather banal.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 4:38 PM on September 6, 2006


"Great analogy! You totally invalidated my point! You clearly have a deep understanding of tonal harmony!"

With a wit as sharp as yours, even rapiers are dull in comparison. Boldly, you have shown that every I-IV-V song would be exactly the same if not for the lyrics! Your understanding must also be deep.

"Everyone except for Chuck Berry, who's said that he never gave much thought to the lyrics?"

You know, you might start to lose your reputation for being a reader if you keep on like this. Yes, even Chuck Berry puts some effort and attention into his lyrics. Did you notice how "never gave much" doesn't conflict with the idea that if he is to have lyrics at all, he must clearly have expended some effort to pen them? Of course you did. It was just more of your rakish sarcasm, pretending to be obtuse.

"No, it's nothing like that. Eating is not the same as making art. I'm talking about what I expect from good artists working in the form of song, and what I expect is evidence of craft in words and music (not to mention performance and production)."

As opposed to those legions of songwriters whose words magically appear into the recordings without any intending at all? There are words, thus words are evidence of the craft of writing. Again, it's tautological. Without writing, no words. (And while we cannot be sure that a song presented without lyrics had no lyrics written, that's neither here nor there).
Oh, but you meant to use "craft" as a value judgment, the way some divide art and not-art! And again, I'd disagree. Evidence of craft is the hallmark of ego, not art. Words that work perfectly in the overall piece can be so unobtrusive that they aren't noticable as a distinct segment, or can be subsumed so that their presence is secondary to the song in total. Why, that would be my point reiterated for you yet again, with a subjective note that this tends to be the way that I enjoy music.

"Well, you've got your philosophy and I've got mine. Let me know when I can hear your songs."

Because to listen and form aesthetic opinions, one must employ the craft they critcize. Let's just leave it by saying that I don't make songs, and the songs that I've heard from you suck. Perhaps you win by trying. Perhaps I win by not sucking.
posted by klangklangston at 4:49 PM on September 6, 2006


klang, I think you're you're a total douchebag whose arrogance vastly outstrips his insight, and I promise I won't reply to you again.
posted by ludwig_van at 4:52 PM on September 6, 2006


But I will clarify that in your assholery, you misread my last line; I wasn't saying that one must write songs in order to have a valid opinion about them, I was saying "You've got your style and I've got mine, and I hope that works out for you."
posted by ludwig_van at 4:58 PM on September 6, 2006


It seems to me to be all a matter of taste. For some people, lyrics are central and important, for others, not so much.

But it's like that in all media. Some people like abstract expressionism, some people want their paintings to be a picture *of something*.

Form or content.

There's room for people to like both.

And I don't think we all need to get quite so vitriolic that some people like different things than ourselves.

Can't we all just get along?
posted by MythMaker at 6:32 PM on September 6, 2006


I liked the earlier question about whether Dark Side would have as much impact without the lyrics. For two reasons, I don't think it would, and my favorite song on that album is The Great Gig in the Sky.

For me there are very lyric-focused artists like Dylan, Dan Bern, They Might Be Giants, Tom Waits. And there are artists whose lyrics don't matter so much, per se, but they managed to use certain words and phrases to great effect, as pracowity pointed out earlier, like Ween, System of a Down, Neko Case, Firehose, Jane's Addiction. And then there are artists who I don't care so much about the lyrics but I can still appreciate the vocals like Zappa, The Mars Volta, Radiohead, Slayer, Thievery Corporation, and all the foreign language stuff I've got.
posted by effwerd at 7:20 PM on September 6, 2006


Well, apparently I'm the big exception here, as I usually disregard lyrics, but for a totally different reason than anyone else here, it seems: when I listen to lyrics, my mind for some reason turns off the music. I can hear the music, of course, but it becomes totally peripheral, and ceases to cause any emotional reaction. And, vice versa, if I listen to the music, my mind automatically filters out the lyrics, turning them into abstract sounds.

So, in a perfect world, I'd listen to the music AND the lyrics, but because my stupid brain apparently won't allow me to do that, instead I have to choose to listen to lyrics or to music, and I choose to listen to the music and perhaps, at a different time, read the lyrics.
posted by Bugbread at 8:27 PM on September 6, 2006


Singing is a trick to get people to listen to music for longer than they would ordinarily.

- David Byrne
posted by intermod at 8:52 PM on September 6, 2006


For once I like David Byrne.
posted by Ned Raggett at 10:44 PM on September 6, 2006


The VERY SECOND that I read that Neg Raggett likes David Byrne for once, a Talking Heads song came on the "radio".

Adding to the serendipity, the last post at the discussion page for the song at the station included the lyrics. They aren't posted all that often.
posted by flaterik at 12:40 AM on September 7, 2006


Is this what music criticisism is? Seems amazingly lame.

As ever.
posted by Wolof at 5:28 AM on September 7, 2006


ludwig_van writes: When did I or anyone else hold up Come Together's lyrics as great?

Those lyrics mesh so perfectly with the feel and character of the track: "...juju eyeball...monkey finger..." The sound and rhythm of the words carry the song just as surely as the bass line does, or the drum track. The lyrics may not be your idea of high literature, or great poetry, but that's not what they're aiming for anyway. They're lyrics. If lyrics are words written to enhance and merge with the sound of musical instruments playing together to form a whole musical expression, then I'd say that Come Together's lyrics are very successful indeed. That is to say, great. As lyrics.

ludwig_van writes again: the lack of citation regarding the lyrics of "Come Together" isn't a blow against my position that great songs can have totally retarded and meaningless lyrics.

Literal "meaning", when applied to poetry and lyrics, is a very questionable yardstick for determining success or artistic worth, IMHO. But aside from that, I'm a little puzzled that you can define Come Together as "great" without acknowledging that the "retarded" lyrics must have at least something to do with its greatness.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:45 AM on September 7, 2006


Time for your little sleepie, Wankwankstain.
posted by Wolof at 5:55 AM on September 7, 2006


The first mark of a strong argument is, of course, to eliminate the middle ground.

Well, I wasn't trying to start an argument, it was an honest question. Thanks for your answer.
posted by prostyle at 6:01 AM on September 7, 2006


ludwig_van writes again: the lack of citation regarding the lyrics of "Come Together" isn't a blow against my position that great songs can have totally retarded and meaningless lyrics.

I did not write that, klangklangston did.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:47 AM on September 7, 2006


A book is a story for the mind. A song is a story for the soul. - Eric Pio (Poet)

I have to concentrate really hard to understand lyrics most of the time. It's gotten better with time, but I still look around with wonder when I'm at a show and people can sing all the words. It might be because English is my second language, but also it's because to me a song is a whole, and the vocals are an instrument. Albeit a beautiful and crucial one. I've fallen in love with a song simply from the emotion, phrasing or approach the vocalist is setting up in juxtapoistion to the music, but the exact words aren't so necessary.

As a kid in grade school, music appreciation class was always an interesting and painful experience, because not only was english my second language, but I was badly near-sighted, yet refused to wear my glasses most of the time. Lyrics would be projected above the piano with an overhead projector and squint as mightily as I could, I wouldn't usually see much. So I would end up having to make up the words or risk getting yelled at. We'd stuff like the Sound of Music soundtrack (I still like those songs), The Carpenters (not bad if perhaps sappy), John Denver (Leaving on a Jetplane), Barry Manilow (I write the songs, Copacabana and Mandy....yes terrible terrible, except "Copa" moved pretty nice sometimes), I would sing him words and try and fit the melody. It might be why some of my favorite bands have been of the glossolia ambient type like Cocteau Twins, Sigur Ros and early REM, (when no one could makeout what the hell Michael Stipe was saying) or the abstract or expressionistic bands Ned mentioned (JD, NO, Chameleons). When I finally did begin to pay attention to lyric sheets it was still difficult to make cohesive sense and I was amazed to realize most songs, do in fact, have a narrative. But I find the best lyrics not only express an idea, but tend to unfold over time as you collect life experiences and then you (metaphorically) slap your head and say "That's what that song meant!!" Or you shake your head at how amazing the song form can be.

Anyhow, the funny part is that I ended up being a singer/writer in a band.
posted by Skygazer at 2:22 PM on September 7, 2006



I meant to type: I would sing the words and try and fit the melody.


posted by Skygazer at 2:25 PM on September 7, 2006


I did not write that, klangklangston did.

ludwig_van, please accept my apologies for the mistake. And here's hoping you and klang can kiss and make up.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:44 PM on September 7, 2006


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