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