DOES LYRICAL MEANING EVEN MATTER?
“So, what’s the song about?”
People often ask this question, as if the answer is so crucial that you won’t know if the song’s any good without it. My Dad’s great at asking it about my songs. Sometimes there’s a simple explanation: “It’s about this king who gets bored, learns guitar, starts a band, and forces his kingdom to be his fans”. Or, more often, I’ll say “It’s hard to explain, hence why it’s a song and not a pamphlet”.
But why does it matter? To me lyrics have always been a small part of a song; a verbal meaning fused to a vocal melody simply because there’s space for it and we may as well stick something there. Bad lyrics can kill the song, for sure, but honestly just-okay lyrics are never a deal breaker for me. Rather than excelling myself, I’ve spent my life as a lyricist simply avoiding writing any lyrics I hate and seeing where I end up rather than pursuing any real excellence. The result, predictably, is being a competent if not brilliant lyricist.
What are good lyrics? It’s hard to say. I know what I like, that’s for sure. Leonard Cohen always knocks it out of the park. Morrissey swings but rarely hits. Neil Young always somehow misses but knocks it out of the park anyway, such is his magical ability to fit the universe to his own rules. And with Neil, he can recite the contents of his fridge or take you on a bizarre tangent in which literal meaning seems to come and go at will - it doesn’t seem to harm the song either way: as long as he believes in what he’s doing, so do we. (He sometimes wrote lyrics over the top of a newspaper, to catch any potential word-spiration in his pen's net as it went by. While smoking weed.)
About five years ago, attempting to make money out of making music, I (briefly) wrote (dozens of) jingles for (not very much) money (at all), one of which was the theme for a show on Channel 31 (R.I.P.) called Yappy Hour TV. I sang as clearly as ever, but the producer told me to re-record the vocals so that the lyrics were easier to understand. The song’s purpose was to forewarn the viewer that they are about to see a show about dogs. So, in this case, the lyrics had a lot of heavy lifting to do. But it’s not usually like that.
Here's me singing a TV theme I wrote for $50 with awkwardly clear diction. By the way, this is pretty much the only thing my parents show to their friends that I've done. Mortifying.
There was another time in high school when I wrote a song for my metal band that cut the usual cryptic, mythological, pseudo-mystical "GRRR!" bullshit and referenced our real lives: school, homework, taking the bus, sucking at sports. I was instantly vetoed; my bandmates panicked that it would make us “seem like kids”. I was pissed off, but I relented - not that our usual material could have fooled anyone into thinking that we weren't kids.
For a while I submitted my songs to an independent American A&R service called Taxi. They’d mark your work on a pass/fail basis. It was an expensive exercise that didn’t result in a single paid gig, despite a lot of ‘passes’, so I don’t recommend it. Each submission got you a report card by some ‘expert’ listener. The ‘fails’ almost always cited lyric problems, but after comparing the inconsistent report cards of passes and fails of the very same song, I pieced together that it probably wasn’t the lyrics’ fault. The ‘expert’ just didn’t like the song (which is fine), and so they attacked the lyrics, because unlike music, lyrics are made out of words and can thus be picked apart in a rational manner. The rhyme wasn’t 'original' enough, the line didn’t make 'sense', etc. And they might have been right… but when you like a song, do you actually care about any of those ‘problems’? Of course you don’t.
People say it matters what a song’s about, but when actually LISTENING to it, they don’t care. See the thousands singing their hearts out at Oasis concerts: transfixed, as if these fairly bad lyrics* are these transcendental affirmations of the magnificent glory of the universe.
“Take me away, just for today
Cause I’m sat here on my own
I’d like to be under the sea
But I probably need a phone”
- Noel Gallagher, "Take Me Away"
Yes, he seriously wrote, “I’d like to be under the sea” there. That was of course one of 1,000 Beatles lyrics Oasis referenced. They would cover “I Am The Walrus”, in which psycho-babbling John Lennon indulged in the self-mythologising craziness that late Beatles songs are so good at, inventing the Eggman, the Eggmen, and the Walrus. "I Am The Walrus" is considered cool precisely because it 'rebels' against meaning (see also Hey Bulldog, Happiness Is A Warm Gun - he was on a roll with those crazy lyrics for a while before he got onto his ‘message’ streak with Imagine, God etc). And it IS cool. Sometimes he kept the TV on while writing, to pinch stray words that floated by his ears.
(Just to be clear and non-negative, I think Oasis were a great band with great songs. The crappy lyrics mostly don't annoy me.)
No rant about lyrics would be complete without mentioning Bob Dylan, who is often held up as THE paragon of lyrical depth. But here’s an interesting verse from “Ballad of a Thin Man”, which seems to take a swipe at those who read too much depth into his lyrics:
“Now, you see this one-eyed midget shouting the word “now”
And you say “For what reason” and he says “how”
And you say “What does this mean” and he screams back “you’re a cow”
Give me some milk or else go home”
The early seventies’ glam/glitter rock craze celebrated ‘anti-depth’, best characterised by the handiwork of songwriters Chapman/Chinn (The Sweet, Suzi Quattro). A Sweet greatest hits compilation will contain such titles as “The Ballroom Blitz”, “Teenage Rampage”, “Co-Co”, “Blockbuster”, “Hell Raiser”, “Alexander Graham Bell”, “Little Willy”, “Wig Wam Bam”, “Funny Funny”, “Papa Joe”, all of which seem built around a title that is fun to say, and for no deeper reason than this, hence why every line just sounds like it’s trying to grab onto the nearest rhyme before it drowns in its own silliness. But for all the silliness, I get what they, and so many other lyricists, are trying to do: they’re trying to find a way clear of being analysed as a rational message - to give us a song, not a pamphlet, as it were. It's a lot of fun not to be bogged down by a serious lyrical interpretation.
My friend Billi Lime paints abstract art while listening to music, but she avoids music with lyrics because they insist on a meaning. The great Polish artist Zdzlaw Beksinski listened to classical while painting (which may have contained lyrics, but probably not in his language, so he could have tuned them out pretty easily). And I get it: lyrics can kill a piece of music if they attach to it a message you don’t want to hear. For me, Elton John's songs are derailed by the lyrics (even though everyone loves them). My dad thinks the same of McArthur Park's abstract cake-baking scenario - but he's wrong, obviously.
There have been times in my life when I have tried to exclude meaning altogether - or least, prevent it from taking over. Inspired by Radiohead, Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘gonzo’ journalism, psychedelic music, stoner music, crazy British comedy and so on, I would try to keep meaning as non-committal as possible. In this song I wrote when I was 19 I just wrote down what I remembered dreaming about the night before. It would have been different if I’d written it any other day. I like it for this reason, even though it’s hardly great poetry. When people asked “What’s it about”, I was at least able to say “It’s just a dream I had”, which is a great answer because you don’t have to disclose a meaning, and there are no follow up questions: you can’t argue with my subconscious!
The universally adored “Bohemian Rhapsody” is famous for its supposed meaninglessness. Freddie Mercury stuck to his story that he didn’t know what it was about. But it’s almost certain that it’s about coming to terms with his sexuality, and it’s actually profoundly personal when interpreted this way. The more personal the words, the more I suspect the writer will pretend it’s about nothing. But its constant references to nihilism, listlessness, fatalism, “nothing really mattering” mean it is at least interpretable as being ABOUT meaninglessness - which is a meaning. He never confirmed a meaning, though, so he took it to the grave, while we’ll forever have to take the song with a pinch of salt.
Smells Like Teen Spirit was about teenage social life. The mumbly, impressionistic imagery makes this clear, but just because the dots haven’t been joined for the listener doesn’t mean they can’t be. Even more direct was the perpetually misunderstood stalker song (and wedding favourite), “Every Breath You Take”. Open your damn ears, people!
Above: a lovely time at a wedding, where lyrical analysis is not high on the agenda.
So yeah, why the hell does anyone claim to care what a song is “about”? They don’t. Should they? I don’t know. Is an instrumental piece “about” something? What about abstract art? What about the idioglossia of Sigur Ros and Dead Can Dance? What about the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie”, initially censored for profanity, only for the decision to be reversed when the censors admitted they couldn’t actually hear a single intelligible word in it? If meaning mattered, then surely the Backstreet Boys' nonsensical "I Want It That Way" would have performed better, not worse when it was rerecorded with lyrics that actually made sense!
There is a canon of untouchable paragons of lyrical genius worshiped by the “How To Write Lyrics” authors: Warren Zevon, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Sting, Randy Newman. They CAN be great, but also bad, and when they are bad, it’s because the song had nothing going for it BESIDES great lyrics - great writing, but poor SONG-writing, if you get me. Even Paul Simon acknowledged that there are only about 2-3 lines per song that stand out enough for anyone to notice their meaning, and admitted that these are the only lines he puts much work into.
Not that you can’t go lyrics-first and still get a great song: Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard is not only lyrics-first, but title-first, and often album-cover first. Talking of writing a 2013 album he said “I religiously kept a notebook of ideas, phrases, bits of imagery, over the course of three months, and had 120 pages of titles and lines. From that, I wrote maybe 40 or 50 lyrics by stringing lines from the notebook together, adding extra lines here and there. Then I took my favourite lyrics and sang them a cappella, line by line, or stanza by stanza. It created multiple hooks within each song.” 'Meaning', or the appearance of it, seems to be the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place for Bob. Very often he gets his lyric ideas using his partial deafness as a filter: in the doctor’s waiting room, mishearing ‘The Days Of Our Lives’ on the TV gave him the title “The Best of Jill Hives”. Isn’t that so much better than pursuing a rational meaning?
Like sands through the hourglass, this is the best of Jill Hives
Often songwriters openly admit that meaning’s not always a priority. When Earth, Wind & Fire were jamming the idea for “September”, cowriter Allie Willis asked Maurice White to change his line “Bahdeeya, dancing in September”, but he declined to. She would later say that this was a lesson to her: “Never let the lyric get in the way of the groove”.
One of my non-meaning heroes is Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, who is dismissive of his lyrics’ meaning. Re: "Silence Kid", he said, “Lyrically, it’s some kind of subconscious thing. Somebody in the city talking to a friend — definitely not me. At the end, the guy is on drugs, and maybe he’s gonna masturbate. I just made some provocative lyrics and tried to sneak them by, like “What the fuck?”. Re: "Half A Canyon": “The lyrics are meaningless. They’re just there for decoration.” That might be true of his songs, but when he sings “Painted portraits of minions and slaves, crotch mavens and one night plays…” I don’t 'know' what he’s talking about, but it moves me.
Paul McCartney understands the power of non-meaning. The world’s most successful pop songwriter (pop being a genre unusually strict about having ‘a meaning’), he has an often-overlooked knack for the avant-garde and the absurd. On his song “From A Lover to a Friend”, he said: “I had some words that didn’t make any sense. So, I suddenly decided that they DID and just stuck to them. I began to realise, this is actually a cool idea. Who says words have to make sense? “Despite too easy ride to see” is my favourite line. When you write a song, [from nonsense syllables] you start to hear meaningful words. I didn’t think too hard what it meant. But the interesting thing is that it always DOES mean something."
Neutral Milk Hotel’s singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum reportedly never wrote his words - he would just sing the part until words formed, much like what Paul describes. This method yielded not just ear-pleasing word/melody combinations of obscure meaning; they actually yielded one of the most beautifully bizarre and dream-like albums ever, In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, which tells a story that incorporates the reincarnation of Anne frank and a boy with two heads who lives in a jar in a laboratory in the dark. Absurd, disturbing, funny, gut-wrenching - a place you can never reach if you insist on driving the shitty little fart-fueled car of “meaning”. Had Jeff Mangum sat down with a quill and a parchment and said “Hmm, what should I write ABOUT today?”, he never would have written any of that album. The song "Oh Comely" is a one-take, 8-minute journey through the furthest realms of his crazy world.
Going beyond music and into literature, dispensing with meaning is not new or even radical. Lewis Carroll contributed a lot to the English language by getting off his fucking nut on whatever drugs he was on. Anthony Burgess invented an entire slang language in A Clockwork Orange, complete with a glossary. From the Bible to the law, everything we have written down in words is open to countless interpretations.
William Burrough’s Naked Lunch probably has the most influence on music re: non-meaning. He cut up the pages and randomly reassembled them. The more you read, the more your brain feels like it’s melting, flattening like microwaved gelatine; ‘meaning’ seems to be right in front of you, but it’s slightly beyond your reach. Makes me wonder if that’s what dementia is like. Naked Lunch influenced the cutup sampling style of industrial music - Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV’s Genesis Breyer P-Orridge said of meeting Burroughs in 1971, “He took the remote and started to flip through the channels, cutting up programmed TV. I realised he was teaching me.” Throbbing Gristle’s “Still Walking” used cut-up lyrics: “This end, or all of us, he said, all of us do it, each time asleep, each time he said, especially again, especially item”.
David Bowie was one of many artists who copied Burroughs' cutup technique for lyrics.
I doubt Radiohead listen to much industrial stuff, but Thom Yorke’s lyrics are always a collage of seemingly disconnected ideas, where he’ll croon a collage of history, religion, politics, bureaucracy, successfully conveying the idea that we’re all living in some Kafkaesque nightmare society, a surveillance state with superficial civility, masking the primal chaos underneath. The front cover of Hail To The Thief literally paints a picture of Thom’s style - a map filled with related-but-unrelated words. People sometimes dismiss this style as pure eccentricity, but I think he’s trying to put his finger on a paranoia where you’re not quite sure what’s going on behind the scenes, but something is.
David Lee Roth wrote in his memoir “Crazy With The Heat” the following, and it's so good I’m just gonna retype a couple of paragraphs in full AND put them in bold:
“In a number of Van Halen tunes there’s places where the lyrics don’t make exact sense or you can’t quite decipher what’s being said. And that comes from trying to imitate old blues records where you couldn’t get anything but the end of the sentence, that’s how you speak blues, you go “Bopedy bop blah, baby, all night long”. You couldn’t quite make it out. And also if you forget the words, you don’t stop singing, you just kind of approximate syllables or a syllable that you can remember, or a consonant. So even though you may have well memorized the lyrics, when you go in to sing, when you get to a certain part of a phrase, you might forget something, so you just kind of of mush-mouth it, and press on. Nowadays you would go back and fix that. Everybody would go back and fix that. That was not to be fixed. So, you hear a lyric like, "Yuh-duh lodda people that are looking for a moon-beam,” I’m not even sure what the original lyric was. It makes perfect sense to ME. Something about people and a moonbeam. Depending on what you had for breakfast, you’re going to come up with a different interpretation of it. Some of this is meant to be rhythmic, sometimes it was attitude, which revved up so hard that it just defies lyrics, no certain string of words can approximate those single syllables. There are certain things that shouldn’t have too much meaning, like Saturday night. Don’t overload it, you know. If your message is that important, use Western Union. God forbid you’re singing to somebody who doesn’t speak your English, the King’s English.”
More recently I’ve taken a U-turn from those overly impressionistic, trippy lyrics, finding them to be needlessly abstract, and become more direct. This coincided with me learning ye olde classic pop songcraft - deconstructing Beatles, Motown, Bacharach - which led me to the bands Ohms, Gnohms, and finally Farewell Horizontal, where the songs usually have a clear meaning (to me, anyway). The title more or less tells you what it’s about, and the lyrics point to that title, and tell a particular story or make a particular point around that title. It’s not some big cryptic metaphor. I'm embracing the comfort of having a meaning I can point to, pamphlet style - although as ever, I am more motivated by avoiding lyrics I hate than writing lyrics I love (although I sometimes do succeed here).
I would like to conclude by saying lyrics matter only as much as you want them to, but I can't. it's up to the audience: see misheard lyrics, such as when angry Christians decided that Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ said “I tell you to end your life, I wish I could, but it’s too late”, which is insanely nonsensical (he said “enjoy”, not “end your”). Jimi Hendrix “kissed this guy”; Bryan Adams got his “first real sex dream”, according to some. People choose how much meaning their ears deign to allow inside their brain. It's very likely not to be the interpretation the writer had in mind. In other words, there's nothing you can do, so you may as well just do whatever you want.
Do lyrics matter? Do songs? Does life? Maybe Bohemian Rhapsody’s wacky existential crisis was more meta than we realised. I think the best opinion I can find about lyrics is actually that of Van Dyke Parks, who said “I don’t have any opinion about lyrics. Because, to me, lyrics are no-man’s land. Lyrics, to me, are sacrosanct. I have no complaints with anyone’s lyrics”. When I first read that quote I thought it was a diplomatic cop-out, but now that I have reached the end of this epic mindwank, I can't help but feel as if he's right - art, as always, defies analysis, and all we're left with is half-baked theories without basis. TLDR, don't worry about it, it doesn't matter. People should really write TLDR at the beginning.