Do lyrics matter?

Well, of COURSE they matter, you say. Come on, MMM, as an admitted music snob grounded in notions of modern (not postmodern) thought, you can’t be going anywhere with this.

Maybe not. But I need to respond somehow to a couple of valid criticisms of music I enjoy. The first is one we’ve discussed before (see “music snob” post linked above) from NYT critic Jon Pareles, who said Coldplay “came up with more of its grand, chiming, would-be anthems, only to ruin them with lyrics unworthy of the music’s splendors.” I enjoyed Michael’s shredding of the Pareles pooh-poohing of the year in music, but that point is hard to dismiss. I’ve gone so far as to think of ways I would rewrite Fix You, but I’ve only managed to replace “I will try to fix you” with “I’ll provide the tissue.”

The other is from Corndog, whose second-by-second undressing of Styx’s Come Sail Away is a great read even if you don’t quite agree with him. You can be a Styx fan and still cringe at the way the ever-pompous Dennis DeYoung intones, “On board I’m the captain, so climb aboard.” (For the record, Corndog, my biggest disagreement with this post is that you’re way too harsh on the late John Panozzo, whose playing was a bit less sloppy than Keith Moon’s. But if you really don’t like his playing, maybe you’d prefer their current drummer, who’s been in the band for several years now. I happen to work with his brother, oddly enough.)

So the question is this: Can you enjoy a song while finding the lyrics flawed or perhaps bewildering?

In the case of Fix You, I’ve already said yes. I certainly enjoy my share of bewildering lyrics as well, as the Throwing Muses and Tori Amos selections in my CD library and iPod will attest.

The beauty of song lyrics, though, is that they’re malleable. The music and the vocal delivery are part of the message. And the listener adds his or her interpretations as well.

Basically, this is why people fill arenas to hear U2 while poets need academic posts to have enough time to draw 30 people to a coffeehouse to hear their latest. (No offense to the one real-life poet I know. How’s grad school?)

It’s also why music can elicit strong reactions even if we have, at best, an indirect reaction to the lyrics.

Rewind to Friday morning, when I was in the gym at work. I’m always a little out of place there, surrounded by guys who work out roughly four times a day and spend their weeks scaling mountains or, for a light workout, biking the length of the W&OD trail at speeds exceeded only by actual members of the Discovery Channel team. They also embrace life and work in ways that I don’t. (“Man, I wish I could get back to Iraq to do some more reporting, but they’ve got me chained to the desk. At least the kids are happy to see me.”)

Me? I’m a flabby guy charting his 19th year of athletic decline since his high school cross-country days. I’m about to spend almost three weeks in Torino doing something I love, but I’m dreading it because I’ll miss the missus and the little guy. And I don’t mind saying I was a little depressed.

I got on the bike and flipped through my iPod choices, finally landing on U2’s Bad (live version, of course). I recall some critical naysaying of U2’s lyrics — why a “silken sky and burning flag”? Supposedly it’s about recovering from addiction, which doesn’t directly apply to me unless there’s such a thing as addiction to journalism.

And yet, it was exactly the song I needed to hear. Not for anything tangible in the lyrics. Just for the overall effect. Somehow, with some simple melodic lines and abstract lyrics, U2 is able to convey a sense of spiritual renewal.

The critics may say the lyrics are too muddled, the bass line is too simple or the guitar too repetitive. In my high school days, I might have agreed. But some musicians are able to do more with less, and that’s frankly a more impressive skill (a rarer skill) than playing a thousand notes a minute. I’m as much of a Geddy Lee fan as any Rush listener, but I’ve grown to respect Adam Clayton’s willingness to play four-note bass lines when it suits the song.

So I closed my eyes, pedaled steadily and listened. Near the end of the song, I opened my eyes and checked my bike telemetry. I was pushing a consistent 95-100 RPM. Ordinarily, that would push my heart rate up to about 140. This time, it was 124. I don’t think that’s coincidence. I felt calmer than I’d felt in a week. This was better than meditation.

Oddly enough, the next song was The Weapon, a relative obscurity from Rush’s back catalog. Their 1982 album Signals was the first after their blockbuster Moving Pictures (you know, Tom Sawyer, YYZ, Limelight – admit it, you know all those songs), and it was the first in a series of synthesizer-heavy releases that sound dated today. The Weapon is one of the better songs, a meditation on the way the powers that be use fear as a way of controlling all of us, and it’s one of the best examples of guitarist Alex Lifeson’s intelligent riffing against the droning synthesizers.

Strange combination of songs, definitely, but it worked. Bad reset my mood. The Weapon helped me process all the things that had disturbed me in the past week — the usual concern that the Middle East and environmental neglect are leading us all to ruin, dread over the long plane flights ahead, the usual major-project catastrophes at work.

As I finished the brief workout, I listened to Dire Straits’ Romeo and Juliet and marveled at the way Mark Knopfler says so much more with his guitar than he does with his voice. (I love the Indigo Girls, but they did a wretched cover of this on the otherwise excellent Rites of Passage, apparently not noticing the importance of Knopfler’s understated delivery.)

I left the gym feeling much better. Granted, I only needed a couple of meetings to get back in the doldrums, but it was reassuring to know these things must pass.

And aside from a couple of tangentially related lines in The Weapon, I can’t point to anything in these lyrics that made me feel better.

Back in my music-major days, I used to tell all my classmates — all more acquainted with Stravinsky and Mahler than with Billy Joel and Husker Du — about an interview I read with Miles Davis in which he said he could cope with personal tragedy by going to the piano and playing a B-flat major seventh. I managed to work that chord into a lot of my theory exercises for my classmates’ amusement. After a while, it loses its impact, but I still love the concept.

One thought on “Do lyrics matter?

  1. Hey. Thanks for the link and the kind words. I admit I was a little harsh on John Panozzo, rest his soul. He clearly did a better job keeping time than Moonie.

    You know, I’ve been thinking about this same topic a lot lately. I care about lyrics quite a bit, but yet there are songs with crappy that I totally give a pass to. Most of Led Zeppelin and Prince for example, and even Stevie Wonder. I guess if thie music is fine enough, almost any words will do. But it also makes me wonder how great that music could be paired with real lyrics. The world may never know.

    Anyway, just so you know, I’ve tagged you for a meme over at my place. Feel free to ignore it if you wish.

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