The next time you’re in your car hurling down the highway, with the windows wide open belting out a song, think about how that song was actually written.
When I interview people, one of my favorite things to learn is how a song is born in their band. Does it happen the same way every time? Does the music evolve first, then lyrics are added later? Are the lyrics written as poetry and later adapted to fit melodies? Does the song tell a story or is it like an abstract painting that conveys emotion through disconnected phrases rich in colour and texture?
As a kid, I remember lying on my stomach on the living room floor. The thick shag rug was comfortable and smelled chemically clean, like Carpet Fresh. I was wearing high-quality, large and very foam-filled Princess-Leia-looking headphones, waiting for the record player to start playing the new vinyl I’d just procured.
As I waited for the sound of needle to drop, I’d pour over the album cover and sleeve learning as much as I could about the audio experience on which I was set to embark. If the lyrics were included on the sleeve, that was a total bonus, for which I was very grateful. Lyrics were always really important to me.
When walkmans hit the market, suddenly I was able to multitask while listening to new music. I’d check out my latest acquisitions while running, commuting to work or doing housework. Long gone were the days of lying around on the living room floor completely devoting all of my attention to In Through the Out Door or Shout at the Devil.
Multi-tasking did have its benefits, although it took me way longer to learn the lyrics to my favorite songs. Even when I thought I knew them, in reality, I had often invented some of my own. I know I’m not alone here. Many a lyric has been butchered by a well-meaning enthusiast.
Jimi Hendrix: Excuse me while I kiss this guy
J. Geils Band: My blood runs cold, my memory has just been sold, my anus is the center hole
The Beatles: The girl with colitis goes by
Macy Gray: I blow bubbles when you are not here
Clash: Lock the cashbox
Elton John: She’s got electric boobs, her ma too; you know I read it in a magazine
ELO: Medieval woman
Sometimes it’s not our faults that we have to improvise with our own words, Sometimes it’s just too difficult to understand what the singer is saying. Perhaps he’s screeching something at frequencies beyond what humans can physically hear. Maybe the singer is sooooooo sinister that he’s screaming like cookie monster or singing so very fast that they lyrics are going by at incomprehensible speeds.
Sometimes, we DO understand the words but simply cannot make sense of them. (Check out an early Filter or Deftones record if you don’t know what I mean.) Love these bands. Not understanding a lot of what they’re saying just adds to the intrigue. For me, the vocals offer such dynamics, such texture, tension and feel that not completely understanding what they’re singing about doesn’t take away from the pleasure of listening. Not at all.
Sometimes, the music itself is so full and complete that lyrics aren’t even necessary to hold the entire masterpiece together. We can sing along using sounds instead of words, while imagining what the artist was thinking about when writing it, or exploring what we envision while listening.
Some artists agonize over every word, every note. Others let things flow. Some songs are born quickly and relatively painlessly while others have long, intense and arduous births. There is no recipe for writing a song that will move people. There is no one formula that will work every time. Neither science nor theology can design a great song.
Songs are as diverse as the people that write them. Every good song has its own biography, tracing its development from the time that it was an idea, a melody, a phrase, a story, or a riff through its evolution until a version of that song becomes recorded.
Songwriting is an art. Sometimes it is a solo effort; sometimes many people contribute to growing the song.
As an art form, at times we will hear a song that neither moves nor resonates with us. That’s OK. Art is subjective, and each work will not be all things to all people.
Because it does not inspire us, does not mean it sucks. Boldly stating that a song bites is like declaring that the colour blue sucks. It doesn’t cast a bad light on the song – it casts a bad light on the dolt making the statement.
What is most important is giving the art and artist the respect they deserve.
Even if it means keeping your trap shut.
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