The Importance of Song Lyrics
Why Lyrics Matter in Songs
Lyrics are not poetry and lyricists are not poets. I say this not to denigrate lyrics as an art form. Quite the opposite. By insisting that the two are the same thing, we miss the vital point that high quality lyrics are valuable on their own merit. Worse, we give credence to the sub Sixth Form witterings of Jim Morrison, a man who was neither a competent poet nor lyricist.
This confusion has led to the misguided assumption that ambiguity is an achievement in lyrics. This is not the case. If an artist has something of significance to say (and if they don’t, their lyrics are not going to be particularly impressive), why would they not want to get that message out to as many listeners as possible? The esoteric and the abstruse are not the realisation of the lyrical form; they’re the negation of it. This is why Bob Dylan’s famous quote to Phil Ochs that, "You’re not a folk singer. You’re a journalist" actually illustrates why Ochs was always the far superior folk singer of the two.
This isn’t to suggest that intelligence is not vital in the art of the good lyric. Wit and sagacity are needed. Without that, while you might manage to create a good song, lyrics will not be what attract people to it. It is said that an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters with an infinite amount of time will eventually create the full works of Shakespeare. On that basis, it should take them around 20 minutes to knock out the lyrics to "Wonderwall."
At their best, lyrics encapsulate something, an emotion or a moment or a concept. When John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats tells us in "Anti-Music Song:"
"I saw you on tv/ trying to figure out what Brian Jones would be like if he'd have lived 'til today/ I can tell you myself/ He’d be like Brian Wilson"
Not only is he being obviously witty, but his words should stir a twinge of recognition in anyone whose opinions are worth recognising.
It is not necessary for the situation outlined in the lyrics to be experienced in order to understand the general feelings they inspire. If you are not David Gedge, it is at least statistically unlike that you will have heard the exact conversation The Wedding Present described in "Don’t Take Me Home Until I’m Drunk:"
"And then I said “I could fall in love with you”/ But, as I recall, she said: ‘I like you too’"
to comprehend the sentiment of unequal feelings that the song expresses.
Perhaps the masters of the lyrical art form are those old stagers, Half Man Half Biscuit. Whether that is puncturing the pretensions of the modern "indie" band in "Four Skinny Indie Kids:"
"We’re forever slagging off the majors/ Until they dangle us their wages"
or the plaintive plea in "Turned Up Clocked On Laid Off" where Nigel Blackwell complains of:
"People who can’t spell weird right/ Driving round with thousands in the bank"
HMHB are the virtuosos of lyrical creation. Their music is both witty and to the point, containing both dark laughter and cheerful tears.
The only band in living memory to come near to taking the crown off the Biscuit boys is The Indelicates. With influences so diverse as to range from Carter USM to Christopher Hitchens, this is a band that has read books. And it shows (While dumb people sometimes make good songs, dumb people never write good lyrics). They’re pointed and, much like HMHB, manage to combine humour with darkness in a tasty dark funny soup. There has been no better summary of everything that’s wrong with the modern glamourisation of mental illness than "Dovahkiin:"
"You've got boring unlovely depression/ It blunts you and hobbles your will/ It makes you feel sick/ To see these beautiful pricks/ Build careers being beautifully ill."
Most bands don’t manage to write lyrics this insightful in their entire career. The Indelicates do so repeatedly.
Of course, the flipside of not needing to appreciate the lyrics to like a song is that it’s entirely possible to adore lyrics, as a whole or in a short segment, despite not being keen on the song surrounding them. I have to admit that, while Carly Simon’s "You’re So Vain" has never really done it for me:
"You’re so vain/ You probably think this song is about you"
is one of the greatest two line putdowns ever written.
So let us celebrate the lyricist and their art. Let us do so for its own sake, not trying to shoehorn it into some kind of poetry critique. And, most of all, let’s accept once and for all that lyrics matter.