Lately I have been thinking about lyrics and music. I posted the two as alternative choice on Facebook, and was surprised to find that the vast majority of commenters believed that music reigned supreme. (My brother, for example, commented “Music. Duh”). I remained unconvinced.
It’s best when they work together, of course, when they dovetail so seamlessly that the words could not have been set to any other music and the music cannot be imagined with any other words. The Magnetic Field’s “Busby Berkley Dreams” with its dreamy, tongue-in-cheek retro lyrics and the purposely untuned and ancient piano. R.E.M’s “Nightswimming” with music that warms and encourages the wistfulness of the lyrics to make an atmosphere all hot, “quiet night,” with the photograph stuck to the dashboard of the car moving through the dark, moist heat.
If you had to choose, though, sifting through the universe of songs that compose the musical warp and woof of your spirit, would you choose the songs that made you move unconsciously to the beat or the ones that spoke to your soul with words that you could have written, if only you could write like that?
Although I am annoyed by a stupid lyric, there is an ease, a primal sort of connection to certain kinds of beats; we all feel the pull of “Money, Money,” “Twist and Shout,” and “Tutti Frutti.” Consider, if you will, the lure of the late, great “Mmmm Bop” or the “Do Ron Ron,“ or that Swedish song called “Cobrastyle” that had lyrics to the effect of “gdang gdang diggy diggy.“ We feel our hips loosen and sway, find ourselves snapping, tapping, humming and bobbing our heads. It isn’t about lyrics; the lyrics are utterly ridiculous. It’s about music as a drug, the kind that catches you the first time even if you are only half paying attention, and makes you want it again.
There are Ramones songs that are lyrically uninteresting but I will listen to them back to back because of the way they make me feel tough and fast and alive. There is a song called “Beat The Devil’s Tattoo” by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club that had me at “hello,” although I can make neither heads nor tails of the lyrics. It’s slow, deliberate, but persuasive in a way that won’t let me go until it’s finished. It’s kind of a dirge, but a very naughty, sexy dirge that makes me think I could really just put on my studded boots and try a little heroin if I didn’t have to drive the kid to school. You would not quote these songs, or write the words out and tape them to your notebook, but they get to you.
Then there are those other songs, those that are poetry set to music. The ones that give you mantras and take-away stories to hold close during storms. Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman, The Beatles, Ani Di Franco, and The Smiths have all given me words, literally, to live by. Joni Mitchell gave me this:
You’ve had lots of lovely women
Now you turn your gaze to me
Weighing the beauty and the imperfection
To see if I’m worthy
Like the church
Like a cop
Like a mother
You want me to be truthful
Sometimes you turn it on me like a weapon though
And I need your approval
I feel the pain in Cohen’s “love is not a victory march/it‘s a cold and it‘s a broken hallelujah,” the matter-of-fact resiliency of Di Franco’s “what doesn’t bend, breaks,” and The Smith’s “for once in my life let me, let me, let me get what I want this time.” The words “Let It Be” are my most basic directive in life. They are mantras, those words, they are worthy of attention, and thought, repetition and analysis.
But every one of those songs with the lyrics that I hold close, read like poetry and secretly believe to be written just for me, have beautiful music. They all have music that fits them, not perhaps the brazen, addictive riffs of “Mmmm Bop,” but a quieter charm that seems at first like a supporting player but becomes as essential as the words to a patient listener. You may start out listening to Tom Waits’ “Martha” and becoming entranced in the story of old lovers reconnecting, but soon you will find that the music itself, simple, acoustic and repetitive, spinning out into a chorus warmed by strings, is perfect. Perfect and necessary.
As it turns out, I can get what I think is a syllogism out of this: all great songs have great music, and some great songs have great lyrics, but not all great songs have great lyrics. That means, I think that a) I should not give up my day job and become a scientist, and b) music is more important than lyrics. They were right. Even my brother.
There is, in the final analysis, no need to choose. I will turn up “Superfreak” and bang the steering wheel, or I will get lost in Roberta Flack and (if no one’s looking) I’ll get all misty eyed. I will love songs that perfectly marry music and lyrics, a category which includes most of The Pretenders, Tom Petty, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, The Magnetic Fields, Talking Heads, and hundreds more that I’m forgetting. I will love songs that have ridiculous lyrics but make me want to move, like those of The Bee Gees, Herman’s Hermits, and Abba. I will unconditionally love Van Morrison, whose lyrics are sometimes incomprehensible but which make me believe that I am in receipt of a communication from a soul that is yearning to connect with my own.
I’m not done with this, quite yet. I don’t know where to put logocentric genres like rap and hip hop, or dance and club music that seems to be all about the beat, but what about “I Will Survive” which has some of the best getting-through-a-breakup lyrics ever written? What about country songs and folk ballads that are really all about the story, the John Deere green, the lost maiden with the raven locks? This analysis may be the work of a lifetime. Next year at this time I will write off all of my iTunes purchases as “work-related expenses.” After my death, a massive tome will be published outlining my theory on thousands of tissue-thin pages with multiple glossaries and indexes.
A girl can dream.