I am a very lyrics-oriented critic. Most people take this to mean that my opinions on music come from the words, but what it really means is that songwriting, for me, is about the interplay between the narrative of the words and the narrative of the music. And I’ve been saying this for years. I think I finally found words for it when I was studying music in college, and we’d do all those counterpoint exercises, analyze all of the structure and postulate why the composer made it that way. Searching for stories within the music itself was actually one thing that turned me on the most about those years.
Anyways, having paid some, but not enough, attention to this already, I definitely began to be much more attentive to these kinds of details. Over the years they have ceased to be details and actually become just a part of my working way of making stuff. That’s very articulate, I know.
I bring it up today because in the last week I have come across two different experiences that use lyrics as a genre-defining element of song.
First, in the latest issue of American Songwriter (a new read for me, feels sort of like a “welcome to the family” but also wayyyy too obssessed with Nashville and glorification of the Tin Pan Alley process), country music is said to be all about the story. The words tell a story that people can relate to. The Dixie Chicks tell stories that may apply to you or me, as opposed to, say, Nelly Furtado, who these days is not painting a picture in quite the same way.
Second, yesterday my boss, a venerable hip hop expert and fan, said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I’m really all about the lyrics. Good hip hop has lyrics that mean something, and sound cool, but they have to mean something important.” Her hip hop DJ/star producer boyfriend would most likely agree.
Lyrics are part of most all American pop music. The rare instrumental band never does make it so far. Implicit in a person’s lyrical focus is a distaste for long solos, jazzy interludes, jam bands, or unintelligible lyrics. And that’s just not true. People shouldn’t have to defend their preferences from imaginary assumptions about what they don’t like. And yet, in both of these instances, people are defining actual genres based on the lyrical importance of the songs. Isn’t it weird?
I have a very strong belief that a good song cannot have either great lyrics or great instrumental tracks, or a great groove. It’s only a great song when all these things combine. People naturally separate the words from the other instruments because we separate the disciplines, and envision a wall between musical instruments that we carry in cases and play on a stage, and a poem that we write, sitting at a desk, on a piece of paper. But your voice is a musical instrument. And just like a piano or a flute or anything else, judgement of the performance of the instrument is based on not only the tone but the order and the style with which the notes come out. With singing it is just the same.
Production-wise, I believe vocals should be at the top. When they are not, I get frustrated and I complain that I can’t hear them. I also am fairly confident that producers are trying to hide the imperfections of the voice in that way, rather than make it obvious to the world that this person may not have the chops.
It could be jazz, or it could be bluegrass, or it could be grunge, or it could be rock, or it could be metal. Lyrics are important for all of these genres. There is not one or another that valudes lyrics more or less. What is interesting is the way that people spin it in order to communicate a certain point. Shared assumptions, you see, have a lot of power, despite reality.
This was all spurred, I should add, by a revelation I had in the shower this morning. I was singing the Nields’ “The Sweetness”, and when I got to my favorite line, I realized in a flash of shampoo that I’d been singing the wrong lyrics for years:
“The trees are golden thirsty and they need a little rain/ Nothing would ever happen if we always stayed the same.”
is not right. Common sense has always gone against that particular phrase, but that’s why I love it. It all of a sudden occured to me though that it’s really that “the trees are cold and thirsty…”