Do lyrics matter?
I suppose it depends on what kind of music you’re listening to. For example, the kid beside you on the bus bobbing his head to whatever the latest and greatest dance music is probably doesn’t care what the words are. Maybe he does. Maybe I am really just turning into an honest to god “kids these days” old man. But I think we can all agree that certain kinds of music rely heavier than others on the importance of the lyric. Hip hop, for example, has has a great track record with good lyrics and so does country music, and folk, as well as many other genres and sub-genres.
Pop music seems to have some sort of sneering contempt for the lyric and seems content to boil every word down to its most palatable, consumable form. I love The Beatles, but we can really blame them for a lot of that catchy-at-any-cost philosophy. Repeat yourself, look sexy, sell records. This pop ethic has been going on for so long now, and so successfully, that it has begun to bleed into all the other genres, even the ones who have built their entire foundation on good lyrics. (See rap and country) Now it’s commonplace to love a song in any genre and not give much thought at all to the actual words. I hear it all the time: “I love that song, but I have no idea what he’s saying.”
So I ask again, is this important? Do lyrics matter?
I’m no music snob. I’ve always just liked what I liked when it came to music and that philosophy has led me down a strange path from Amy Grant and Veggie Tales’ through to Mars Volta and The Notorious B.I.G. That usually meant good lyrics. I’m not saying that every song I’ve ever liked had good lyrics, no no no… none of us can claim that I’m sure, but my real favorites always have.
What kind of music do you listen to? Do you care about lyrics? If so, what are your favorites? Let me know in the comments.
In the mean time, here are five of my favorite lyrics (and the songs they come from).
The Beatles – Don’t Let Me Down
I was a little hard on The Beatles up there – and even though they are the fathers of modern pop music and responsible for almost all the watered down, dollar sign, candy coated radio music we endure today they also wrote some of the best songs that have ever been written and they were true masters of the lyric. Always clever and strange, bending and breaking the rules of rhyme, cadence and word-choice, many of The Beatles lyrics have been cemented forever into our pop-culture. John Lennon, in particular, has authored some of my favorite lyrics ever, and in this song, like “I want to hold your hand” a few years before it, managed to say something so profound and so true and so relatable as “Don’t let me down”. Put it on and just see how people can’t resist singing along.
FAVORITE LYRIC: “Don’t let me down”
Death Cab For Cutie – Styrofoam Plates
I’ve always liked Ben Gibbard’s lyrics. There’s criticism that he’s a little too earnest, or a little too on-the-nose, but I’m the same way – I enjoy sentimentality, I’m a sucker for a tear-jerker. In “Styrofoam Plates” in particular, Ben is on full-lyrics mode. The song is dark, and sad and angry, but it also has some razor sharp word play, and the kind of Death Cab lyric that makes Gibbard the Aaron Sorkin of songwriters. Gibbard says he wrote the song on the way home from a funeral for a friends dad. The man was obviously not such a great guy, and a terrible dad, but no one wanted to say anything bad about him at the funeral – in his frustration Gibbard vented his feelings into lyrics on the drive home.
FAVORITE LYRIC: “You’re a disgrace to the concept of family / If the priest won’t divulge that fact in his homily then I’ll stand up and scream if the mourning remain quiet / You can deck out a lie in a suit but I won’t buy it”
Propagandhi – Without Love
Punk music is usually a pretty promising source for good lyrics. The cliche happens when punks get a little lazy with their outrage and all their lyrics start to sound the same. Yeah, yeah, everything sucks and nobody cares and blah blah blah. But Propagandhi is not like that. They are intelligent, articulate lyricists and I’m always surprised by what they decide to write their songs about. “Without Love” not like any punk song I’ve ever heard. It’s about death. It’s about loss and how time means that we will probably lose the ones we love, or they will lose us. Sounds more like something Ben Gibbard would write about. But Propagandhi are able to bring a sense of urgency to the musicality of the song that reinforces the power of the lyric. Heart breaking and honest, Propagandhi give us just a little bit of hope in all their rage.
FAVORITE LYRIC: “I did everything I could / I bargained with the universe / To take my life instead of hers.”
Simon and Garfunkel – Wednesday Morning 3am
Don’t you just love listening to music with headphones on? Everything becomes clear. Each instrument is identifiable and it almost feels like you’re hearing things for the first time. We’ve all been there, all the distractions have faded away and we actually really HEAR the song. This happened to me with S&G’s “Wednesday Morning 3am”, suddenly it was all so clear – every word. And I realized that it was telling a story. Simple lyrics that stretch their way through four verses without a chorus – a good love song is a sad song. This is a great love song.
FAVORITE LYRIC: “For I know with the first light of dawn I’ll be leaving and tonight will be all I have left to recall.”
Black Star – Thieves In The Night
Hands down, my favorite hip hop song. I was tempted to go with Biggie’s “Suicidal Thoughts” but Ali said it was too “controversial” and I agree that I probably would have had to explain things a bit more. But this is just a great song and one of the best lyrical examinations of success, fame and the pros and cons of all that that implies. Add to that the complexities of religion, mortality and being black in America and you have an epic and important song. I also love the piano based beat and the laid back feeling of the whole arrangement. PS: this is a great road trip song.
FAVORITE LYRIC: “Caught up, in conversations of our personal worth / Brought up, through endangered species status on the planet Earth / Survival tactics means, bustin gats to prove you hard / Your firearms are too short to box with God”