The Loaded Question
Do Words Matter in Music?
by Jeff Johnson
illustration by Zack Soto
*[E]very single element* of a song is form, and the content is my pleasure.
melody 3. a poem suitable for singing.
—Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary
I’ve had this discussion many times. The matter has come up in a hundred ways, at least. I have friendships that started with this conversation. Recently, I tried to break it down to a simple question: Do words matter in music? I asked around, and, as Morrissey once sang, “I started something/and now I’m not too sure.” Poet and songwriter Chris Stroffolino, of the Bay Area’s Continuous Peasant, pointed out, “this question is so loaded I don’t think I can do it justice in a pithy sound-bite.” For me, this question is loaded with other questions.
Do words matter in music? It depends what sort of music you’re talking about. “Your question is really culturally problematic,” said Joshua Clover. “Ask it to a hundred hip-hop fans and see who doesn’t look at you funny.” (And what sort of faces would folk fans make?) Surely words matter in hip hop. In a sense, hip hop, and certainly rap, are made of words, or at least words plus beats. Or vice versa: Which came first, the beats or the words? And, of course, this leads back to the hydra hiding behind the issue. Whenever I ask the question, do words matter in music, two more appear: Do the words have to be good for the song to be good? What’s good?
Lou Reed—who’s written more than his share of great, execrable and good/bad/good/etc. lyrics—once sang that last question. The publication of his “collected” lyrics, Pass Through Fire, suggests that his words matter even when the music isn’t present. However, the typography, which ranges from typical stanzaic poem form to swirls, scribbles, floating text and blurred or blacked-out lines, suggests the way voice and delivery contributes to and sometimes stands in for substance and meaning in a song. As with hip hop, what you say is how you say it. Furthermore, the book has no alphabetical index of titles; songs are listed by album in the table of contents. Songs provide context for lyrics, albums provide context for songs.
Singing about something else, Lou said, “It’s either the best or it’s the worst/And since I don’t have to choose, I guess I won’t,” and I guess that’s as much of an alibi as he needs.
Oh balls, the whole analysis of music bit is sort of use a pack of words to tack onto a pack of sounds juxtaposed with a pack of words. Every creep who ever bothered with that sort of crap didn’t really groove on how silly, in the good sense, the whole operation has to be.
—Richard Meltzer, “R. Meltzer Interviewed by Warhol”1
Perhaps this line of discussion is hopelessly removed from music itself. Perhaps it’s—egad!—mere criticism. There was a time, however, that rock and rock writing (for example) weren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, claims Richard Meltzer (who also claims to have invented rock writing), “once upon a time, rock writers were rock-rollers; there was no distinction” (“Rock Crit Blood ‘n’ Guts (Part 1)”2). He’s talking about the late ’60s, and possibly the early ’70s, though for Meltzer, rock’s twilight was ’68. Thing is, by ’72, when Meltzer’s “post rock” book, Gulcher, was published, his writing was finally as dumb/brilliant/dumb as the most mindblowing/numbing rock lyrics (e.g., Joey Ramone singing “I don’t wanna be a pinhead no more!”). Perhaps this partially explains why, by that time, Melzter was starting to feel like he didn’t need to write about music anymore. Had his writing, for him anyway, taken its place?
And in discussing lyrics, do we obscure the thing we’re talking about? And what was that again?
Fast and Bulbous, Got Me?
Words are the only thing that matters in music, pretty much. Except for maybe the saxophones, those kinda matter a lot too.
—John Darnielle, the Mountain Goats
Each question is loaded with two questions. Am I beating rou-ow-ound Captain Beefheart’s bush? I consider Beefheart (aka Don Van Vliet) to be a fine lyricist who often sets his poems to songs. (Incidentally, my original question was, “Does poetry matter in music?”—alas, this seemed too, er, loaded.) He also has a tendency to work on the connotative layer(s), action painting words and vocal squawks onto fragments of canvas, which he then stitches together with a saxophone or whatever he finds wriggling around him.
In a lot of music I like, words are slurred or muttered beyond comprehension, but in those cases they still seem to serve as percussive or textural devices… Like vocables (meaningless, fixed syllabic fragments, such as “la-la-la”), used in European folk music and Native American songs as well as pop and rock and blues, all that. They’re chosen for a reason, even if they haven’t any denotative meaning (though sometimes they connote certain things—there’s a difference in mood, after all, between a howl and a shhhh and whistle), and they serve the songs in their own specific way.
Still, some of us look to songs for meaning, or at least, we look for meaning in songs.
To Read, or Not to Read, the Lyric Sheet?
Maybe the question I’m after is, “Do lyrics have to work on the page to be good?” OK, no. But if they do transcribe well, is the song especially good? Also, no, or not necessarily. And etc. (e.g., Do my favorite songs…, or Do the best songs…).
Once you love a line that comes to you as a vocal, you cannot be entirely trusted if you say it works on the page. Joni Mitchell sings, in “California,” “Oh will you take me as I am/Strung out on another man,” which recently made me cry as I drove past the Bay Bridge toll booth. It’s a good lyric, and the delivery sounds like the feeling the line describes, but if I first encountered it on the page, I may not have been so moved. Was I responding to inherent qualities of the lines, or did I bring my own longings and failures to the song?
We have trouble separating the experience of listening to music from the music itself. Therefore, the most obvious question—Is it good?—is not just misguided or impossible to answer definitively: It is irrelevant.
It can also be the case that lyrics are irrelevant to a song, regardless of the singer’s intent. However, a good clue to how to take lyrics comes in the way they’re delivered. It’s tempting, when you like a song but can’t make out the words, to check for a lyric sheet. If you find one, treat it like a word collage, or better, put it away and never look at it again.3 How many songs have you ruined for yourself by reading the lyrics? This goes even for songs where you can make out the lyrics if you try hard enough. In many cases, there’s enough enunciatory ambiguity to keep things interesting. Songs can be magical, and lyric sheets are the TV show that reveals the trick and prevents you from ever falling for it again.
Sing Your Life
The rhythm of speech is a ghost which haunts the phrasing of sung lyrics all the time; it is always almost-heard, and we are always hearing the gap between the sung and spoken in language.
Perhaps we seek to fill the gap between speaking and singing with our own voices. Music amplifies our thoughts and feelings. Just as we look for songs that speak to or for us, we wish to speak to and through those songs (by talking about them, or by singing along). Add to that the tendency for lyrics to be, in and of themselves, ineloquent. Most need music to make their point, if they have one. We’d like to think they need us, too.
When Neil Young’s biographer, Jimmy McDonough, asked him, “Do all the songs you write make sense to you?” Young responded, “It doesn’t have to make sense, just to give you a feeling.”4 The feeling we get draws some of us out, makes us want to talk about it. That doesn’t necessarily get us anywhere, but it has the potential to get us talking to each other.
- Meltzer, Richard. A Whore Just Like the Rest. Da Capo Press, 2000. p. 36.
- ibid. p. 7
- If you don’t find a lyric sheet, and you decide to look around online, you ‘re really in for it. How hard must a musician try to keep you from reading his lyrics? The only thing to gain from such Internet sleuthery is a few chuckles at the feeble interpretations of earnest, headphoned superfans. In a similar way, one of the lessons of reading a lyric sheet is that lyric sheets are not definitive, no matter who provides them (and no matter if variation is “artful” or sloppy).
- McDonough, Jimmy. Shakey. Anchor Books. 2002. p. 127
Jeff Johnson once attacked a pile of sand, and broke his elbows. He is Kitchen Sink’s senior editor, and editor of Louder Than Words.