30
Oct 01

NO LANGUAGE, JUST SOUND – Looking Well Beyond the Lyric Sheet

FT3 comments • 7,589 views

I hear the music. Which is patently obvious, I suppose, give what I write about for both pleasure and for pay. Started with my youth, very very young days, Sesame Street, Free To Be, You and Me, that kind of seventies upbringing. And from those albums into AM radio, Madonna, the Cure and Timbaland, straightforward enough.

What I hear is the music — more so than the words. Thus the point here, I don’t hear the words, not consciously, not with focus and obsessive reading. It’s not what I need, it’s not what I want. It’s not what I desire. Thousands upon thousands of singers, lyricists and more have poured their time, thought and energy into catching the spirit of something, perhaps purely functional in their eyes, perhaps a mining of the deepest human revelations of the heart.

And generally speaking, I don’t care.

There was a phase, I realize, where in fact lyrics did mean quite a bit to me. About around 12 years old, I started collecting record for the first time on a regular basis as opposed to randomly asking for things for Christmas and the like. Hurrah for the old RCA Music Service club! Hurrah for the one penny, ten records deal! My god, what a fantasy, come to life! Hell, I could even get most everything in eight-track back then as well (but I didn’t, lacking a player, which was almost certainly a good thing in the long run). I remember of that first one-cent-gets-you-the-world batch that it was Duran Duran’s Rio that had all the lyrics printed out on the actual paper record sleeve itself (might have been others in that batch, but there’s not much thought I spend on Rick Springfield these days). I obsessively read all of them as I first listened. I had heard all of the singles before — it was about a year after the album first came out — but I seemed to finally achieve a sense of meaning. But did I? Don’t think so. I like “Hungry Like the Wolf” for the way it sounded, not for whatever words Simon Le Bon was dreaming up. I think I was as much bemused by bits like “7 UP and Broadway” in “My Own Way,” thinking “why sing about this, what does it mean?” My other fave album was Def Leppard’s Pyromania, which had no lyric sheet in the vinyl version, at least. Hell, I couldn’t figure out what Joe Elliott was singing most of the time, but it didn’t matter because it rocked. Which was the point in the end, after all.

Still, I looked for lyrics in albums, never listened for the first time without reading those lyrics, if available. I got Sgt. Pepper’s in 1986 or so, the album that apparently started this whole thing with printed lyrics included with the record, and read along with them. Yay!

Then in 1988, I picked up an issue of Musician that I still have around for some reason — I think I got it for the Pink Floyd article on the cover. Figures. Anyway, besides that, there was an informative enough article (for young me, at least) about Joy Division and New Order. New Order had released their Substance compilation the previous year, godlike assemblage that it was, and Joy Division’s own Substance collection was about to come out. New Order had on the strength of merely two singles, “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “True Faith,” had become one of my favorite bands, and I had taken the plunge into getting their CDs as quickly as possible in the last months of my high school existence. None of them had lyrics printed in their sleeves, as it happens, and I found out why in the article. Near the end, Bernard Sumner said something that turned out to be rather important:

“If you want to print your lyrics, that must mean you feel you have a message that’s very important….To us, that sets the lyrics apart from the music and makes them more important than they really are. I try to develop an atmosphere with lines that are conducive to the feeling or emotion of the song.”

I think I was initially disappointed in this stance, especially since I really wanted to know more of what was being said in the songs. But it turned out to be the turning point, and while I can’t say when for sure, some little while after I stopped explicitly caring about printed lyrics, reading along with them or any such thing. I returned to square one, in ways. I just listened, and it was not only remarkably freeing, it made sense. One doesn’t have a lyric sheet when suddenly hearing a song for the first time on the radio or on TV or on computer or via a passing car or whatever.

And so I don’t care about lyrics, really. It’s harsh to say it, but it’s harsher to deny it. I have no idea how singular or common this fact might. A month and a half ago, a wide-ranging discussion on the subject came up on a private mailing list. I had given a long-overdue listen to the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, one of the eight million albums that I always need to get around to listening to (currently on my list — the first two Yes albums, the Paradise Garage comps that came out a few years back, most everything by Fushitsusha). It’s a truly wonderful experience, Ready to Die — blunt and crude at points, sure, but never less than compelling, one of the few albums I can truly say is cinematic both in scope and in conscious design, telling a life story from start to end as it does. Among other things it makes clear to me long after the day of its release — it’s what Tricky was in large part trying to do on his early albums, at least (check the harrowing “Suicidal Thoughts” for the truest example of same — the blueprint for Pre-Millennial Tension, right there).

And yet for all that, I wasn’t caring about what was being said, really. A few things were unavoidable, of course — I think it’s important to state right off the bat that I don’t automatically exclude lyrics from processing in my brain entirely. That would take work, to consciously exclude like that, and one shouldn’t work for musical pleasure. But for all that Biggie Smalls himself is clearly a commanding MC — his voice is a pleasure to hear, the setting for his flow equally accomplished and sharp — I wasn’t really noting much beyond that.

Ready to Die was the Macguffin for the extensive debate on the list that followed — if I retold it all, we’d be here for quite a while. To my honest surprise (I actually thought I’d be alone), the list essentially split — it wasn’t a case of two diametrically opposed opinions, but of a variety of shifting positions, where lyrical importance could sometimes change even by genre. But it was an impassioned discussion, and one that, I found out, essentially reconfirmed my own stance, however it was derived.

Because I’m not too sure where it all came from with me. When I was small, I read along with the Free to Be book while the record played (“They’re closing up Girls Town, some say it’s a crime!” — best kind of propaganda I ever went through, hurrah!). But music was and could and can always be part and parcel of a larger experience. It can be heard on its own, it can be heard while having a meal, while writing a letter, while reading a book and more. And often, quite often, this was the case for me over the years and still is now.

I felt and still feel that this did not and does not impair my enjoyment of music. Again, to clarify — I don’t say that music can only be heard in the context of something else. But it can be, and in my years of listening it is common for me. I think I ascribe part of this to my need to try and listen to lots of things, perhaps more things, more songs, more groups, more styles than I can ever comfortably experience in a lifetime, and there’s ultimately only so much time. But I must experience it all, I have to.

And to read a book requires direct attention, I read the words and then I interpret. To watch a movie requires my eyes, my ears and my direct focus. Music, I just need to hear somehow, in some fashion, in some way, there is no particular way to hear it. My ears have to hear, and maybe my body has to feel it, but in this exchange I don’t need lyrics, the clear understanding of the words, to react.

Now this debate might be and probably is as old as the hills — I honestly don’t know, but I can at least guess. I seem to recall discussion in Plato and elsewhere in the realm of Greek philosophy about the place of music and poetry, along with endless talk since then about what constitutes ‘beautiful’ music and ‘ugly’ music and the presumed social and psychological effects of both. But in my mind, late twentieth century product that it is, that particular question is increasingly irrelevant in a world where industrial noises can be musical notes in a sampler and industries themselves can pump in gentle tones to supposedly improve employee efficiency. Ultimately, what I care about is what was recently posited by a certain duo as “Music: Response.” You can complain about the Chemical Brothers as much as you want, but they’re onto something, they’ve found the heart of it. Music creates, dictates, produces the response.

Comments

  1. 1
    Admin on 8 Sep 2006 #

    Hey metafilter-ers, why not comment here :-)

  2. 2
    Andri on 6 Dec 2006 #

    Hey Ned I agree with you on many points. I sometimes too wonder if music and ‘culture’ are two separate things. When listening to a song just by its pure sonic quality, I can appreciate it as it is. Even genre then is irrelevant, because when I think of music as pure sound (and in the context of 2006), genre becomes something that is defined more by my subjectivity rather than how the music actually sounds. Let’s say when you point out in a song, that a guy is playing a repetitive melody line on his guitar, then it’s a fact I won’t argue. But whether it sounds country or rock….quite subjective… especially there’s a lot of evidence of genre hopping and appropriation these days.

    I agree that lyrics are abstracting the actual music. Image of the artists and what society says are also form of abstraction, they are ‘culture’ stopping me from getting to the pure sonic. But I guess that what makes music so meaningful and rich, that it exists as more than just a beautiful (or not) composition of sounds to the ears. With layers of meaning added, I can have a personal relationship with music. It can remind me of happy moments in life or it can make me feel guilty listening to it (eg. because it’s by britney). I keep wondering if music by itsef (i don’t mean instrumental), by how it sounds, can elicit any emotional response. Is it even scientific or is it because we attach our own meaning and cultural value to the music we hear.

  3. 3

    […] who know me well enough will wonder at the fact that I’ve quoted the lyrics in full — an old essay on Freaky Trigger is still my definitive statement on how I feel about lyrics in general.  But I had my various […]

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