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A discussion with William Zhu, defending and disputing the following statement:
The lyrics of rock/pop music are essential to most great songs.
Lyrics: The words, as words, in a song that communicate emotionally, beyond voice as instrument.
Voice is an essential component of rock/pop music. The days of the instrumental were never heady, but after “Telstar” the instrumental has been treated as filler for “albums,” which don’t really exist anymore. Other forms of music, such as jazz and classical have an occasional vocal component, but those genres comprise various pieces without voice. Even opera, which is primarily voice, has important non-vocal components of overture, interlude, and dance. To support the statement above, one has to demonstrate that the meaning of the words, the poetry, is essential to the experience of most songs in the subcategory of “great.”
Rock/pop: The statement avoids implying that lyrics are of equal importance in all music. For instance, lyrics in opera (libretto) are sung in languages unknown to many listeners. Even opera in English can be hard to understand, as in this genre the voice is an instrument. One could argue (I wouldn’t) that the soprano could be singing about how she needs more time to do the laundry instead of desperately pleading for the lives of her children, but the song/aria is in a context that is unmistakable.
In some forms of music, the lyric is essential in ways so obvious as to be undisputed and irrelevant to the argument. The lyrics to musicals move the story forward. The music of Harry Chapin, archduke of the story song, “Cat’s in the Cradle” and “Taxi,” would have no core without the lyric. Humor songs, such as “Rocky Raccoon” by the Beatles and “Lil’ Red Ridding Hood” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs would not be humorous without the words. These examples are apart from the primary point of the argument. Fantine’s song “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Miserables would hardly be moving if she were singing “I baked a cake that wouldn’t rise, and then my guests were at the doorstep.” We shall see if this applies to rock.
Essential: One could have said “significant,” but this word means something different in imprecise daily parlance from the mathematical terminology of statisticians. “Essential” cannot mean that the song could not be improved with another lyric (that’s proving a negative), but that if the lyric were changed from brilliant to mundane, the enjoyment of the listener would be much diminished. Conversely, tunes that might have been exceptional are often hobbled by clumsy or sappy expressions.
Great Songs: Here is a point of weakness, increasing the likelihood of reaching the conclusion that we will agree to disagree. What common agreement defines a great song—its popularity? its durability? awards and accolades? I trust that we will avoid dismissing examples solely to win an point. Instead, we might discover that we hear music differently.
Is this a fair statement of our dispute?
It is essential to have lyrics. Other than certain niche genres like EDM or classical (one of the many ways the two are similar), lyrics are present in any mainstream pop song. However, crafting great lyrics is less about finding the perfect words to communicate an idea and more about getting an idea across while fitting the rhyme scheme, cadence, and time. After hearing our favorite songs for so long we think we can’t imagine the song being written any differently, but in an alternate universe if a few lyrics were changed the song would still be virtually identical.
The melody, the chord structure, the riffs, the instrumentation, the tempo, the timbre and quality of the singer’s voice, etc. The song’s identity is much more strongly tied to the music than the lyrics. We find ourselves humming a memorable tune when we like a song, and often don’t really learn or pay attention to the lyrics closely until later. Indeed, if a song’s lyrics changed we could still perceive it to be essentially the same song, but not if the melody or chord structure changed.
Fortunately, the music world has provided some evidence that the things you are calling more important than the lyrics, chord structure, riffs, and other stuff I also know nothing about, have sometimes been altered while the lyrics are unchanged. I offer exhibit A, a song by The Beatles, “Mr. Postman,” that was remade by the Carpenters (included here) and the The Marvelettes, (not included).
In the second song, the tempo is sped up and the singer’s voices are quite different. There is a saxophone riff in the Carpenter’s version entirely absent from The Beatles’. I would not claim that the melody is changed, but we can find other examples.
The Mamas and Papas’s version has a much slower tempo and seems to belong to a whole different genre. The commonality is more than lyrics, but the commonality would be harder to spot without them.
The weakest of the three, I am pleased to pronounce, is the Presley. His phrasing is occasionally awkward and he has an unshakeable male arrogance that fights the song’s confessional sentiment. (The only way that “you were always on my mind,” could be sung authentically by Elvis is if he was singing about himself.) Willie has definitely borrowed the melody, but the instrumentation, chord structure and timbre are a gratifying different, making the lyric ever stronger. The Pet Shop Boys’ rendition is a Ferrari in Amish country compared with Nelson’s plaintive ballad. They also changed the chord structure from the other two. (This song was remade by others, like Brenda Lee, but let’s not go too far afield.)
Maybe it is not the lyric that has brought so many to these songs, but the lyric in these examples is the most stable element borrowed from the original.
The dispute as to whether this was a valid copyright infringement may go on forever, but it suggests that the melody, instrumentation, chord structure, etc., are less noticeable to the pop music enthusiast than the lyrics. That is probably not surprising—if I steal your lyrics and sing them to a new melody, who could miss it? [A mono-linguistic Frenchman, perhaps.]
I like both of these songs, having been a Tom Petty fan from early on, but I did not notice an similarities when I added Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” to my gym playlist. Is this an example that supports your claim, or does the jump in popularity between Petty’s (12 on Billboard) and Smith’s (2) point out better instrumentation or lyrics? I am inclined to think the latter, but proof is elusive.
The battle between Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” was interesting, but it might be irrelevant; however, I cannot avoid editorializing. There was a jury award of $7.4 million to the heirs. (Ironically, Gaye was murdered by a member of his family—his dad.) It’s hard not to choke on this—the news reported, “As the verdict was being read, Marvin Gaye’s daughter, Nona Gaye, wept, and her attorney, Richard Busch, hugged her.” Poor, poor child. What is this award for? Is it punitive? If so, should not the money go to the US Treasury? Is it compensatory? How on earth did Nona Gaye suffer financial damage? Did sales of Marvin’s song suddenly fall off the Billboard charts after 25 years? Since the public enjoyed both, why are we discouraging the creation of both? (The same is true of George Harrison’s theft with “My Sweet Lord,” but who gives a shit about his religious crap?)
I eagerly await your indignation. 😝
I begin to suspect that our differing views might not only stem from our personal tastes, but from our respective generations. A lot of alternative music today acknowledge influences from the grunge and post-grunge era. Nirvana, popularized a new sound of soft followed by loud dynamics that revolutionized music in the 90s. Kurt Cobain was also known for his mumbling vocal delivery, but their new music wasn’t predicated on their esoteric or unintelligible lyrics, but on the rawness of the sound and feeling. The lyrics in Nirvana’s magnus opus, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, are at best a string of abstract metaphors and more likely a string of random words that sounded pretty cool behind distorted guitars and wailing vocals.
Chords are important for the identity of a song, but you correctly point out that common chord structures are found in multiple songs all the time. There are only 12 different notes in Western music, 7 in a standard major or minor scale, and only so many combinations that don’t result in a cacophonous mess. Consciously, subconsciously, or not of any consciousness at all, musicians make music that sound like other music all the time. If the only way to write new music was to create new chord progressions, music would have been completely explored decades ago. Luckily musicians have other means of putting their own personal, creative stamp on their music, not just in the lyrics, but through the instrumentation, tempo, etc.
We often like cover versions of our favorite songs because, well, they’re our favorites. But we don’t like every cover we hear. Sometimes the song is just too different, even though a lot of the original song is still there.
The Postal Service – Such Great Heights
Iron and Wine – Such Great Heights
The original song by The Postal Service was a minor hit and spawned dozens of covers, including one by folksy singer-songwriter Iron and Wine. The former is a fast paced, upbeat, electronic love song. The latter is the same song with the same lyrics, but a slow, melancholy cover with only fingerpicked guitar and the singer micrometers away from the microphone. The songs appeal to very different audiences and one could say they are virtually different songs. I would posit the lyrics are not nearly as important as the intent the musicians behind the song tried to convey, evident in the manner in which they produced their respective songs.
Father John Misty – Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)
The lyrics in this song are quite imaginative, and one could argue a key factor in the song’s excellence and success. This song is evokes a feeling of hopefulness and optimism that is reflected in the romantic (really!) lyrics as well as the instrumentation. But I can’t help but feel the instrumentation and the singer’s bright voice convey that feeling strongly without needing to “hear” the lyrics. If the evocative lyrics were replaced by alternatively evocative, or even simpler wordsmithing, the song would still have something special to it. But maybe that is up to the reader to decide.
One for the road.
LCD Soundsystem – Dance Yrself Clean
Walking up to me expecting
Walking up to me expecting words…it happens all the time.
Ok, that last example was on the verge of cheating, but…well, it happens all the time. It just shows that access to the internet trumps a lifetime of wasted experience. (I mean, of course, experience gained while “wasted.” That’s what music is all about.)
Nothing could support your claim of generational differences better than Nirvana. While I recognize the hit from the tune, I have never warmed to it. It had not occurred to me before, but my indifference to this song is probably due to the fact that I have never been certain of a single English word being screamed into Cobain’s mic. A man of significant wit, it tests the limits of irony that he should have been so rigidly inarticulate behind a guitar. (What a dodge, huh?)
The Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) voice on Postal Service was certainly familiar. I find that the song is in my iTunes library and on my gym playlist. Your point appears strong, that one can take good lyrics, change the music, and produce a totally different, even intolerable (as in the example), new song. The lyrics, as you imply, do not stand on their own. It is the combination of both verse and tune, when matched, that create a great song.
Music history supports your
accusation observation that I am old and you are young. Among the great song writers of the 20th century, many of the best were teams: Gilbert and Sullivan, Rogers and Hart, Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, George and Ira Gershwin, Arlen and Harburg, and others. The most famous solo songwriters of the last century are known enthusiastically as lyricists, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Stephen Sondheim. The distinction between music and lyrics in collaboration softened in rock and roll, though Elton John and Bernie Taupin were strictly separate in their rolls and Jagger was primarily the lyricist to Richards’ music in the early years. The roles were unknown on songs accredited to Lennon/McCartney, though many of their songs (as well as songs by Jagger/Richards) were actually written by only one of the pair. Lyrics have served an important tradition outside of rock and roll.
After starting this debate, a remarkable segment appeared on PBS that supports my position better than my sad rhetoric could do.
Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.
While this is demonstrates the importance of lyrics in general songwriting, it does not prove the case for rock and roll, but it strengthens the challenge. I intend to rely on this theme and apply it to rock.