crude lyrics

Many of the earliest couple generations of rockers – and their disciples – were weaned on the American and English folk revival scenes, whether or not they heard “Wildwood Flower,” many of them intuitively grasped that meaning was only about half of what made a lyric good, that, paradoxically, some of the best lyrics have an awkward inarticulate clunk to them.
– “Francoise Hardy & When Lyrics Don’t Matter,” Will Sheff

Sheff wrote that in response to two versions of a song, English and French, as an attempt to explain why he preferred the French version he couldn’t understand to the English that he could. Caroling comes with the holidays, and a friend asked me which songs were my favorites; I got a round of scrunched noses when I listed McCartney’s ‘Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time‘ alongside ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,’ and my defense of that choice was that I carried the lyrics of Christmas pop songs around with me in a way I had never done with an ‘Ave Maria.’ That’s a power that lyrics have, to go with you where you go. Usually, that’s what I count as lyrical success.

Crude lines strike me more as I get older. Sheff’s original article noted how certain lines come off clunky when merely spoken, yet are perfect when mated with the right melody, and certainly there’s some degree where the spoken simplicity of a line takes on great meaning with the right musical accompaniment.1 But I think the simplicity I’ve come to prefer is not even something crude, in the sense of inelegant syntax, but rather so baldly stated as to be stupid, obvious, naïve, cliché, flat-footed, crude as in not complex, crude as in somebody-must-have-thought-of-this.

I want to talk about two times when crude lyrics gave me a voice for a feeling I hadn’t yet termed.

Before I was fat drunk and mean
Everything still lied ahead

I was lonely, I was having fun
I was lonely, but I was having fun

I don’t want to start over again
I don’t want to start over again

– “Goshen ’97,” Strand of Oaks

In the middle of a summer where I had failed to produce the paper I would use as my writing sample, where I would read Quine and Carnap and other serifed names in the philosophy of science repeatedly and rush from the gasp of library air-conditioning to espresso to soft-serve to bad books before bed — in the middle of a summer with marked-up PDF margins and marked failure, in came that pound of guitar. There’s few words to the song (the above represents about half), and the rest is a sprawl of victorious guitar which, when paired with insistently percussion, comes off like an anthem. One way or another, my life was going to change radically — again, the way it seems to change radically every fourth year or so, middleschool, highschool, undergraduate, graduate, new friends, new city, and with these the sense that I could be new, too, redeemed through organization and unwavering kindness and gym membership. I hadn’t really figured this out as a special feeling, over and above fretting about individual friends and career prospects, until I heard the song. But I was pleased about my problems, too, and I would think “I was lonely I was having fun” to myself, fucking around until five AM, pleased about that fucking-around, and pleased about reading the hand-me-down PDF’s, glad to be reading the masters, and thinking how much I had liked being the girl I turned out to be, often alone between drinking too much at parties, reading steampunk romance novels and listening to Bowie’s Low while leveling up on WOW, and not minding it as much as might be expected.

It’s odd to combine surging music with reflective, partially apprehensive lyrics. What works about it is that either the surge is that sense of forward motion which “I don’t want to start over again” is railing against, or it’s the motivation to make it work this time, paired the recognition of all of those lonely moments either during or between start-overs, of how good they were, that you will be fine because you make it so or because it’s simply so.

I don’t want to wait anymore I’m tired of looking for answers
Take me some place where there’s music and there’s laughter
I don’t know if I’m scared of dying
But I’m scared of living too fast, too slow
Regret, remorse, hold on, oh no I’ve got to go

Be it for reason, be it for love
I won’t take the easy road

– “My Silver Lining,” First Aid Kit

Given the previous dash of autobiography, I’m sure this selection seems obvious. I found it while peeking at someone else’s Spotify choices, not anticipating actually listening. It’s a funny vow, “I won’t take the easy road,” especially after a request to go where “there’s music and there’s laughter.” I love that lyric, and, looking at a stack of applications for various sorts of office work after deciding not to go forward with philosophy, it’s something I want to promise myself, too.

So in what ways are these both crude?

“I won’t take the easy road” is almost embarrassing to say out loud, possibly because the vow to endure difficulty, to seek out difficulty, isn’t reflected at all in language of the vow itself. Only someone in saddle-shoes would say it earnestly. “I don’t want to start over again” comes across petulant, fearful in a way that adults ought not be, fearful of something inevitable, fearful of something stupid to fear. “I was lonely, I was having fun,” while possible to admit, seems to have no social cash-value. And yet, while I cannot think of when I would say the words, it’s these words that I find myself endorsing. They make repeated appearances in inner monologue. Not quite mantras, because though they nicely particular feelings, I think a mantra2 is supposed to be something that assists in the maintenance or acquisition of a desired mental state, zen-like calm, happiness at an ex-girlfriend’s success, and some of these are particular feelings I’d like to lose.

So I suppose what I take a good lyric to do is strike me, and what strikes me is language that matches my own inner life, and yet language I have no way to use.

God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of “parties” with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter – they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship – but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, Sylvia Plath

Plath is right. The moment I have an audience to say what has preoccupied me in loneliness, what I say seems to fall flat. How stupid. How small-minded.

A good lyric gives me my flat words back in a way I can palate.

Amazingly, I have been talking about the above robot for the better part of a year, but only in comparison to another piece of graffiti, a yellow stenciled “you are beautiful” in the middle of a sidewalk. A friend, Cotton,3 thought that this robot graffiti beats you are beautiful hands-down, because seeing a shitty stencil of you are beautiful makes nobody smile, and so it doesn’t really accomplish what it sets out to do, which is make someone feel good by validating a part of them. But a little robot — Cotton argues — next to a statement of roughly the same sentiment throws the whole thing off. The absurdity of the robot’s presence comments on the failure of this sort of graffiti, and that absurdity makes someone smile, and that makes it succeed, strangely. We had a similar argument about the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones. Cotton likes a kind of art which successfully points out a failure.

“I don’t want to start all over again” and “I won’t take the easy road” are like you are beautiful. They lack the absurdity of a little robot. For the most part, I think of little-robot art as less successful, less captivating, then the baldness of you are beautiful, the crudity of “can’t get no satisfaction“. The more radical art is the one that actually tries to communicate something, and a radical thing to communicate is the ugly things inside of us that can’t seem to find valid voice.

I don’t need to find things absurd. I need to find things worthy.

Donovan is the real originator of disagreements about lyrics in my life. There’s that very sixties vacuous profundity in some of his work. There are other bands — the Pixies below — which also couple a phrase, “There goes my gun!”, without any context, emotional or otherwise, beyond the music. However, in the Pixies case, it works, the whole song sounds savage and desperate, like there’s a real question about whether it’s your firearm or your damn arm that’s out of control. “You’ve got to pick up every stich” doesn’t fit to a relief in the music, it doesn’t undermine it or match it, it’s simply sung over it. That’s bad lyrics.

Then, far away from a song consisting in “there goes my gun” over and over, are the Shins, and lyrics like: “But you’ve got too much to wear on your sleeves / It has too much to do with me / And secretly I want to bury in the yard / The grey remains of a friendship scarred.” Probably constructions like these were Sheff’s intended reference as ‘an awkward inarticulate clunk’, not because it isn’t a beautiful line, but because that sort of syntax is rarely spoken. If I was going to complain about the Shins and lyrics like these, I would complain that songs suffer when the words of songs are written for the love of the words over anything else. Now it’s not quite over-anything-else, because the lines work well with the remainder of the music, and you get a sense, a feeling you’ve had: a friendship became something more, which ended, and the former friend is now being open about that bad ending. That’s a feeling, but it’s something I find ready voice for; the Shins either describe something easily identifiable in abstruse terms, or describe something I cannot identify in abstruse terms. (Not always, but often.)

Fujiya & Miyagi go for lyrical pointilism. They string together loosely syntactical ideas along interesting rhythms, where the words, and their unfamiliarity as a conjunction of terms, is supposed to create a conceptual ‘pop.’ It’s charming, in a way I didn’t find Donovan to be. I suppose in Donovan’s case he was either winking or utterly serious, and in either case I found it dissapointing, whereas I think the fun of ‘I saw the ghost of Linda Zavaroni’ is the pleasure in simply saying it, no winks, no mysticism.

None of these songs have been rap songs. That’s notable. Most of what I’ve said has had to do with what the lyrics of songs tell me about me, in a way I could use, and could not find other context for; and if rap music is dominated by a particular narrative about the struggle for legitimacy and the eventual Versace victory, it’s not one that I can carry with me in the way I can carry crude guitars.

I talked to another friend about something similar, though in that context, we were talking about games. I’m as narcissistic about games as I am about lyrics. “Give me something to live on” is the rough feeling for both media. When I play Petula4 Shepherd in Mass Effect, I play myself; I lamented to my friend that though Tom Bissel and others think that games are about creating great experiences, rather than telling great stories, I seemed to have had few great experiences. And my friend rebuked me for this play-myself mentality, saying that games involved a kind of empathy: you play the game as you think that character would, and as the question becomes “What would she do?” instead of “What should I do?”, the loss of oneself while in a context where one makes decisions allows for rare experiences. Reading novels is a little like this. It’s a solo activity, yet it’s an activity of trying to figure out how someone, often several someones, think, feel, what they are motivated by.

This friend noted that listening to music should be something similar. When someone details experiences you can’t have, the puzzle isn’t “what does this have to do with me?” but the rather the literary puzzle of putting together how some other person would think.

I’m lucky to have friends that make me think. I lack a reply. The ready answer is that we may all be right, that different art offers different experiences and art might be good in more than one way, and part of what makes a piece of art good involves troubling ambiguity in its interpretation. Jay-Z advocates for something like this below.

Hip-hop tracks have traditionally been heavy on the beats, light on melody, but some MCs — Bone Thugs ‘N Harmony, for example — find ways to work melodies into the rapping. Other MCs — think about Run from Run-DMC — turn words into percussion: ‘cool chief rocka, I don’t drink vodka, but keep a bag of cheeba inside my locka.’ The words themselves don’t mean much, but he snaps those clipped syllables out like drumbeats, bap bap bapbap. it’s as exciting as watching a middleweight throw a perfect combination. If you listened to that joint and came away thinking it was a simple rhyme about holding weed in a gym locker, you’d be reading it wrong: the point of those bars is to bang out a rhythmic idea, not to impress you with the literal meaning of the words.

But great MCing is not just about filling in the meter of the song with rhythm and melody. The other ways that poets make words work is by giving them layers of meaning, so you can use them to get at complicated truths in a way that straightforward storytelling fails to do. The words you use can be read a dozen different ways: they can be funny and serious. They can be symbolic and literal. They can be nakedly obvious and subliminally effective at the same time. The art of rap is deceptive. It seems so straightforward and personal and real that people read it completely literally, as raw testimony or autobiography. And sometimes the words we use, nigga, bitch, motherfucker, and the violence of the images overwhelms some listeners. It’s all white noise to them till they hear a bitch or a nigga and then they run off yelling ‘See!’ and feel vindicated in their narrow conception of what the music is about. But that would be like listening to Maya Angelou and ignoring everything until you heard her drop a line about drinking or sleeping with someone’s husband and then dismissing her as an alcoholic adulterer.

But I can’t say I’ve ever given much of a fuck about people who hear a curse word and start foaming at the mouth. The Fox News dummies. They wouldn’t know art if it fell on them.
Decoded, Jay-Z

  1. Think of the incredible change in tone from 3oh!3’s original ‘Starstrukk‘ and the Marina & the Diamonds cover. There’s something rough and sorrowed about the latter’s “Nice legs, daisy dukes, makes a man go whoo-whoo, that’s the way they all come through…” I’m sure the great difference a melody can make is news to nobody, but I wanted to cite that case as good evidence in the event of non-believers.
  2. We’ve argued about this enough, and I’ve thought about this argument enough, that any blog with a bit of memoir was going to mention it somewhere, Cotton.
  3. Damn straight.

2 Replies to “crude lyrics”

  1. Well-written and stimulating post! So would you say your idea of the “ideal” set of lyrics would be words that are very simple (or even crude, as you mentioned) set against a backdrop of music that imbues the words with a striking emotional quality it otherwise wouldn’t have? If so, is the simplicity of the words crucial (or is there room for more lyrical complexity)? I ask this with Bob Dylan in mind, who I think is the greatest lyricist of all time. Dylan has a way of writing lyrics that can drive forward via prosody (almost like rap), that fit the often simple but somehow perfect musical backdrops he creates with stunning effect, and to top it all off — you can recite his lyrics sans music and lots of it reads like poetry. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Dylan (who I know you weren’t the biggest fan of for a long time, and still may not be). I’m also curious about your thoughts on the storytelling approach of lyrics. Recently I think I’ve tended to prefer music that’s about concrete things (usually with some sort of narrative behind it) than to music that’s more abstract, symbolist, or crude. Do you find this type of narrative lyricism to be too specific? From your post I would guess you might say there’s something about an ambiguous (and seemingly meaningless) line like “there goes my gun” that allows for the possibility of a listener to make his/her own meaning out of it (which maybe is more limited when something like a narrative is presented). Well anyway, what I really appreciated about your post is that it really got me thinking about how different “lyrics” are to “poetry” — that “lyrics” have the musical component behind it that generates meaning and thus good lyrics need not always be good poetry (and good poetry often doesn’t work set to music). I’d really love to see a “Part II” of this post! Really enjoyed reading this, look forward to reading more!

    1. EDIT: Dang, this is long. Sorry, D.

      There’s a lot of trusted sources who love Dylan, and I hope to one day agree with them. There’s been two weekends I’ve locked myself in with Blood on the Tracks, and though I liked a few of the bloodied tracks, I still generally don’t care for him. That means I get to hairflip at parties when people talk about music, and I love a good scoff, but I would rather be in on the value and hairflip some other sacred thing.

      There’s a philosophical part of me that wants to decline simply saying, “Oh, there are many ways a lyric might be good,” but it’s a powerful explanation. I think you’re right that specificity has the odd quality of making something more relate-able, and if the goodness of crude lyrics is ultimately a kind of relatability, then perhaps they’re two kinds of the same thing. Most of my defense of crudeness was that I thought that there are things that are difficult to put into words in a way that will be meaningful, but when combined with music, you suddenly find validation for the ugly, simple thing you thought. Maybe there’s two directions. A crude lyric takes something you know and brings you to a place you didn’t think you could find on your own; a specific lyric takes you from a place you couldn’t find on your own to something you know. When I was a more avid reader, I loved reading fantasy and science fiction that lacked a certain kind of hand-holding first chapter: you had to dive in, and figure out what they meant by such-and-such. Specific lyrics may do the same thing more gently.

      Walking Far From Home – Iron & Wine

      I was walking far from home
      And I found your face mingled in the crowd
      Saw a boat-full of believers
      Sail off talking too loud, talking too loud

      I heard the song above in the best possible circumstances — driving far from home, heading to Texas to see a friend. I thought in the car ride about this song, and about whether the lyrics were good, and I thought about how even a thorough list of what you saw and felt would sound strange and fail to lead to the right image. Sometimes I find myself looking at things, and wishing I could snapshot the feeling and the sight. “That’s called memory,” I remind myself. Thinking about specific lyrics now, I think about how relatable they are, but how I don’t really know how to tell someone about a specific moment that gives them everything I am faced with and feeling. As a listener, I have great confidence in meaningful specificity. As a writer, I don’t. There’s an easy move in philosophy: “I don’t know what you mean”; “I don’t know what that could mean”; “I don’t have that intuition”; “That’s unclear”; “That’s obscure”. My lack of confidence might come from the popularity of those responses in my most recent environment.

      I think that Iron and Wine song was patterned after this Dylan ditty:

      A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall – Bob Dylan

      “Oh, what did you see, my blue eyed son?
      And what did you see, my darling young one?”

      “I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
      I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
      I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
      I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin'”

      “I saw a white ladder all covered with water
      I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
      I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
      And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
      It’s a hard rain a-gonna fall”

      I wonder if that’s the kind of Dylan work you mean. It’s poetic, and the imagery is unusual, but I wonder if this is what you meant by specificity. I took you to mean something like, “Describing a very particular circumstance,” perhaps something like this poem:

      Having A Coke With You – Frank O’Hara

      is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz,
      or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
      partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier
      St. Sebastian
      partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for
      partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
      partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and
      it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything
      as still
      as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front
      of it
      in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
      between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

      and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
      you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them

      I look
      at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in
      the world
      except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s
      in the Frick
      which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together
      the first time
      and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care
      of Futurism
      just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
      at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that
      used to wow me
      and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
      when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when
      the sun sank
      or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider
      as carefully
      as the horse

      it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
      which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you
      about it

      Or this lyric from my standard response to ‘WELL THEN WHAT MAKES GOOD LYRICS?’:

      Losing My Edge – LCD Soundsystem

      I used to work in the record store.
      I had everything before anyone.
      I was there in the Paradise Garage DJ booth with Larry Levan.
      I was there in Jamaica during the great sound clashes.
      I woke up naked on the beach in Ibiza in 1988.

      But I’m losing my edge to better-looking people with better ideas and more talent.
      And they’re actually really, really nice.

      I’m losing my edge.

      I heard you have a compilation of every good song ever done by anybody.
      Every great song by the Beach Boys. All the underground hits.
      All the Modern Lovers tracks. I heard you have a vinyl of every Niagra record on German import.
      I heard that you have a white label of every seminal Detroit techno hit – 1985, ’86, ’87.
      I heard that you have a CD compilation of every good ’60s cut and another box set from the ’70s.

      I hear you’re buying a synthesizer and an arpeggiator and are throwing your computer out the window because you want to make something real. You want to make a Yaz record.

      I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables.
      I hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought guitars.

      I hear everybody that you know is more relevant than everybody that I know.

      As always, Derick, you’ve given me a lot to think about, and I’m not sure the caliber of response I’ve offered. One of my recent troubles has been with the philosophical complaints I’ve listed, and how often claims like ‘it’s not specific enough’ are not paired with something like an account of what specificity is required, or what clarity would be if it’s unclear. In talking about specificity in lyrical contexts, I think I know what you mean, but funnily, I’m having trouble digging up lyrics that match that kind of specificity, so that I could compare, and say something about them. That’s my partial explanation and apology for not saying something more directly back.

      Regarding ambiguous lines: as we discussed on the phone, I think that so much of it comes down to how the lyrics interplay with the music. I don’t think Donovan works, but I think ‘there goes my gun!’ does, but then I don’t think all that highly of ‘there goes my gun!’ as being a blueprint for the best kinds of lyrics. I just wanted to show how one kind of apparently meaningless line, “you’ve got to pick out every stitch!”, could fall flat, but another kind of apparently meaningless line could work, given the right music. Part of what distinguished the ‘crudeness’ of the lyrics I identified wasn’t ambiguous meanings (“I don’t want to start all over again!”), but that the meaning is terribly obvious.

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