Re: Question For Everyone RE: Lyrics

Author:Matt Johnsen
Date:2020-01-15 21:07:52
In Reply To:Question For Everyone RE: Lyrics by Nosferatwo
So I'll pose the question to everyone: How/Why are lyrics meaningless to you?
It's not that lyrics are meaningless to me, it's just that I don't weight them as highly as I do the music. The primary reason for this is necessity: most musicians are not good lyricists. And honestly, it's unreasonable to expect them to be! It's hard enough to learn an instrument or to control your voice, to write musical bits and string them together into songs. To add on top of that the need to 1) have something interesting to say and 2) know how to express that something, is really going too far. Why not also require bands to craft their cover artwork as well? And besides, even if a musician IS handy with words, that doesn't mean that the CONTENT of those words will resonate with me. I can pretty much guarantee that most of the lyrics you like, I wouldn't. Must I then throw out the baby with the bathwater? It's great when the lyrics are as good as the music! But unless they're unavoidably shitty, I'm sufficiently able to compartmentalize that I can get past it. I would argue that the greater part of the mainstream musical press has gone way, way too far in the other direction, valorizing lyricists whose musical accompaniment is bad or at least banal. This is likely because most music critics are not musicians, but ARE writers, and so are best able to identify with the words over the music.
A couple times over the years, people here have criticized me for not focusing on drumming. A drum track can often (usually) be replaced with something else, and the song itself doesn't change. Replacing the lyrics to a song turns it into something completely different by changing the very meaning of it. So how is drumming more important than the lyrics?
Thought experiment: take the song you love most, lyrically, and imagine those lyrics were written in a language you don't understand, but with an equivalent measure of poetry (as it is generally understood to speakers of that language.) Has the music lost all value?
Is a good song a good song regardless of the message?
Are the NS bands writing great songs if they are advocating the dehumanization of people based on their skin color or religion? If they scream enough you can't understand the words without reading the booklet, does that make their depravity acceptable?
A lot of times, sure. I don't care for Burzum, but a lot of people I respect do. He's such a noxious dude that even if I DID like his music, I would probably not buy it anyway. But I love Deathspell Omega, and the singer in that band is pretty nearly as toxic as Varg. His lyrics are... kind of interesting, in the most pretentious way imaginable, but as it happens, I'd have to put in a lot of effort to understand what he's saying, so the quality of his lyrics are only salient when I'm reading the booklet, which is not very often. I also like a lot of Christian metal, and I think a great deal of what Christians believe is idiotic at best and offensively evil at worst. And what if the lyrics themselves are unobjectionable, or even finely crafted and meaningful, but the person who wrote them or sang them didn't believe in those lyrics at all? I'll illustrate with this song, worth quoting in full:

"I Wanna Grow Old With You"

I wanna wake up with you every day of my life
I'm oh so glad that you're my loving wife
I don't know what I'd do if you ever left me
I'd be worse than a ship lost at sea

Oh baby, you
I wanna grow old with you
My love for you, baby
Will always be true

When you're sick I'll be by your side with some tender loving care
Through all the good times, and when the cupboard is bare
When the baby is crying, I'll let you stay in bed
I'll honor every promise that I ever said

Oh baby, you
I wanna grow old with you
My love for you, baby
Will always be true

And on that sad day when one of us will depart
I'll be full of despair, it'll break my heart
But when I look back to our hopes, our dreams, and our love
I'll be glad to be reunited in the heavens above

Oh baby, you
I wanna grow old with you
My love for you, baby
Will always be true
Now, those aren't the best lyrics, but they're certainly no worse than a lot of truly great soul tunes. They just happen to have been written by Seth Putnam and performed by Anal Cunt. I'll leave it as an extracurricular exercise for you to investigate the larger part of Putnam's oevre.
I don't think so. Lyrics are an integral part of a song, and it frustrates me when bands treat them as an afterthought.
Everything's an integral part, though, by definition! And there are a ton of great bands who could have used a better drummer, or a better singer, or whatever, and yet there's enough good in what remains that those deficiencies can be overlooked. Sometimes, those very deficiencies are part of the appeal! Take Riot Grrrl punk. It's hard to argue the musical merit of most of that stuff, but like most punk, that's not exactly the point. The point is that these people have something they want to say, and they choose to express that something in the form of music, and they refuse to be denied the opportunity on the basis of anyone else's concept of what counts as valid. I never cared for the stuff, but my sister was a teenager when those bands broke, and I think they made a huge, lasting, and positive impact on her. On the flipside, Obituary's second album, Cause of Death, was hugely important to me, largely on account of James Murphy's lead guitar work. Though I have many, many favorite guitar players, there are very, very few whom I've ever tried to emulate in my own playing, and Murphy is one. And though I had heard him before in Death, it was the Obituary album where I fell in love with his phrasing and tone. And in those days, John Tardy (if not the absolute best death metal vocalist of all time, at least in the top 2) famously claimed that the 4 minute rock song couldn't possibly afford enough space for anyone to really say anything meaningful, lyrically, so the "lyrics" on that album are just cobbled together phrases that sounded cool when he growled them. When he started writing more coherent lyrics only one album later, his earlier remarks were mostly vindicated, at least as concern his own lyrics.
Every part of a song should matter, and when one part is performed in a way that can't be heard, they are telling us they don't care about it.
Every part including the drums?
If they don't care about the words, and they don't matter, why are they writing them? Why not use their voice as 'an instrument' and save themselves the trouble?
Firstly, they MIGHT care, and they MIGHT think their lyrics are great! Even if no one else, including you, agrees. And there are a lot of reasons not to simply fall back on the voice as an instrument. Commercially, that's not a very viable path. We don't, in this culture, have a great tradition of the instrumental voice in popular music. That is going to impact how singers and songwriters learn their craft, and what kinds of music they enjoy. If every one of a musician's favorite bands features a singer who sings words, should that musician eschew the practice just because they're not especially good at writing lyrics?

And then, there are bands like Magma, or Paul Chain, who sing in invented languages. There are translations available for a lot of Magma's "Kobaian" lyrics, and those translations are sometimes pretty great! But surely when Christian Vander was compositing those "lyrics," he was mainly concerned with the sounds being made by his singers, and not the meaning behind those sounds.
It shouldn't matter. At least that's what I keep hearing.
What does it even mean for art to "matter"? All art is really just a form of communication, which is to say, it can only matter in the context of two or more people. In isolation, how you, personally, react to art is as meaningful as how you react to fruit or a sunburn. It's only when the experience of the art affects your interaction with another mind that any meaning could possibly be assigned. It could be that the (or at least, a) meaning of bad lyrics is that they led you, Nosferatwo, to try to understand the thinking of people who are unbothered by them and to reach out here to engage us all for answers.

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