Monday, December 01, 2008

Words Or Music?

I’m not sure where this post has come from but whilst pottering around the house over the weekend I had a sudden flashback to a Manic Street Preachers' gig I attended about a decade ago. Back when I was cool ‘n’ hip ‘n’ energized enough to actually go out in the evening and pay to watch live music being performed.

I was at the bar soaking up the pre-gig atmosphere, feeling a bit like I was too old (already) to be patronizing this kind of gig-going malarkey when my annoyance with my fellow gig-goers reached an all time high.

Now, you don’t need to know much about the Manic Street Preachers – just that that one of their songs (Design For Life) featured the refrain “We don’t talk about love / We only want to get drunk”.

It’s a painful, sorrowful protestation of working class chauvinism – an expression of the tragedy of men whose emotions have been stunted by class ethics and their upbringing. It’s a truly sad song.

And this synopsis is pretty evident from the lyrics, I think.

And yet.

And yet there were a little gang of meatheads at the bar – tanked up on cheap cider served in plastic tumblers – who were swaying arm-in-arm football terrace style singing the above lyrics like it was a glorious celebration.

“We don’t talk about love / We only want to get drunk!”

The sneer on my face held back an avalanche of bile. I didn’t order a drink. I turned around and left them to it. It spoiled the night for me. And the song. I can’t listen to it now without being reminded of the utter stupidity of those buffoons at the bar. So stupid that they couldn’t even see that they were the ones the tragedy of the song was addressing.

But maybe my problem is one of snobbery? I love words – poetry, lyrics, prose. I’m happy to analyse and mull it all over; make connections, be inspired. For me the words are easily as important – if not more important sometimes – than the music. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good tune, a beautiful melody. But I like it to mean something. I like the lyrics to speak to me, to connect with me.

Not everybody is like that. For some people the lyrics to a song are just a handy way to commit the tune to memory; a way to get a handle on the song’s internal timing so that it can be sung along to. A bit of nut and boltery. A few la-la-la’s strung together to augment the chord changes of the guitars or the synths. The last thing they want to do is to have to think about the issues the song might be exploring. To feel challenged and have their consciences prodded.

I guess everybody is different and I need to accept that. I need to stifle the grimaces when some idiot misinterprets, or worse, dismisses the lyrics of songs that I love. As long as my life is enriched why should I care about theirs? It’s not my responsibility.

But what about you? Do you like the lyrics to be pregnant with meaning or are you happy just be-bopping yourself into oblivion on the disco floor?

Confess. I promise not to judge.

21 comments:

Reluctant Blogger said...

A bit of both I suppose. I do just like music for dancing, running, driving, just as background - and when I listen to it for that the lyrics don't matter a great deal.

But I do listen to music for the words as well. In fact, I find it really difficult these days to write a blogpost unless I have some music to go with it. Not that I expect anyone else to listen to it but it helps me to write somehow - unlocks stuff in my head or just gives me flow.

But I do think that different lyrics can mean different things to different people or even to yourself at different times (oops got a bit over-differented there, didn't I?). We have to take what we want from them and let others do the same.

Shame they spoilt the track for you though. My sons do that all the time, taking the mick out of songs that I like and changing the words to make them seem silly! And they're not even drunk.

Steve said...

Hi RB, yeah kids to have a habit of making up silly rhymes... and not just kids: I've been guilty of it a few times myself. I guess you're right music / lyrics means different things to different people and the conflict arises when you try and force your viewpoint onto someone else. I do often wonder what happened to those meatheads... maybe they're stuck in dead end jobs with a mortgage and child care repayments bowing them down. Maybe they sing those lyrics now with more of a sense of their true meaning?

Daisy said...

steve...i have done both...but tend to agree with you, the more that time goes by...seems when i look at my ipod it is filled with more meaningful songs...however there is the occassional "i can't drive 55" and such...i do abhor music that specifically puts down a particular race or gender and therefore don't have any ho bashing music...

Steve said...

You may have a point there, Daisy: maybe our requirements change as we get older. I'm sure I liked more of the meaningless poppy drivel as a kid and then got "heavier" as I got older (certainly when I hit my teens).

Tristan said...

For me, it depends on the context. If I want to dance, I'm not going to listen to Leonard Cohen. But if I'm feeling reflective, nothing beats Laughin' Len's dense metaphorical, dark, lyrics...

Brother Tobias said...

It's an interesting point. Loving words like you, my gut instinct was to say, 'you can take the music from the words and still be left with something meaningful, but...' Then I realised there's some and some. There are songs with lyrics so banal or spare they shouldn't work, but the song still gives you that shiver. And there are some for which the lyrics are all. There are songs which have been revitalised by lyrics, or better lyrics, and hymns which stir with one tune but not another. I suppose poetry and song are different species, but related?

EmmaK said...

I thought it was just a question of age. When you are young you spend weeks mulling over the meaning of song lyrics...I used to do it a lot, looking for the meaning of love and the universe in a leonard cohen song. When we get older I think we realize that life isn't going to be as fanciful or dramatic as we once thought, and also that Bob Dylan etc don't know any more than the rest of us about the so called meaning of life

Steve said...

Oh I don't know Tris, every time I hear "Halleluja" advertizing the latest BBC drama it makes me want to jig about Michael Flatley style...

Steve said...

Brother T: I think you're right and the matter can't be simplified down into a clean dichotomy. I'm sure if I go through my record collection I'll find plenty of songs that I love whose lyrics are just sheer nonsense. Different species but related, indeed.

Emma, I'm now in my late 30's (40 next year) and still pore over the meaning of lyrics and words. I guess I'm just immature at heart (and loving it). And I'm certainly glad that my life isn't a Cohen song!

Brother Tobias said...

Ah, but Cohen is a poet, isn't he. May I slip a link in, for anyone who doubts it?
http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=wYJf4J7VBaY

kate5kiwis said...

you know that scene in Jerry Maguire where he is flicking radio stations and finally comes across "FREEEEEE FALLLLIN'"?
that. is. me.
every moment has the right mood music.

and i can not stand that ridiculous techno-junk-remix of Billy Jean that they insist on playing ad nauseam at the gym.
go the iPod. yeah.

haven't really answered your question - i tend to be careful with dodgy/icky lyrics - cos i think that it gets into ya. and then the kids sing it and it sounds - really icky.

having said that, perhaps most of it goes over their heads? X

Pearl said...

Me, I'm a lover of words.
I take issue with the songs that are used in commercials. "Lust for Life", for example, for the cruise line. Am I alone in thinking that Iggy Pop is not a great voice for family-friendly vacations?
Pearl

Steve said...

Brother T - the link is much apprecciated.

Kate - dodgy lyrics get into everyboy and have to be avoided at all costs.

Pearl - Iggy Pop and families definitely do not mix. Sometimes neither do families and holidays.

meva said...

I'll just bang my head against the disco floor until it bleeds (the head not the floor). Words are for the middle class.

Not really! Some songs are for fun, some are for crying and some are for thinking and nodding ones head.

I adore Leonard Cohen, I adore ELO, I adore Neil Young, I adore Britney, I adore Nirvana, I adore Chris Isaak.

-eve- said...

Lyrics get me more than songs. it's nice if both are good though, like with the classics. some of my favourites are 'runaway train' (i forget by who - but i always listen to that when feeling aimless/down), 'sometimes when we touch' (a very romantic song, i find), 'sometimes love just ain't enough' (melody simple but ok, lyrics very meaningful to me). On the other hand, Harry Chapin has lyrics but not the music, and although i still burn out his songs, i find i can't listen to them that many times. so music is necessary - after all, it's a song, not a speech ;-)

Steve said...

"music is necessary - after all, it's a song, not a speech" - Eve, that sums it up rather nicely! Glad to see you are still around - thanks for dropping by! Hope all is going well for you. :-)

justme said...

I love lyrics.....always have. And I don't mind if they are meaningful, or playful, but I like a bit of irony, depth, meaning. At the moment I listen to a lot of Rap music....not the crap gangsta stuff, the better bits and I am finding some of it very thoughtfull and also illuminating. Poetry set to music and very under rated.
But sometimes I just like cheesy dance music too! Nice post. It made me think.

Steve said...

Hi Justme: sadly I haven't heard much poetry set to music but must admit that when I have I've either been extrememly impressed or totally appalled. When it's good it's very very good but when it's bad it's horrid!

Lucy Fishwife said...

Both! Definitely! Sometimes all you want is a great big bass-heavy disco stomper which blames it on the boogie, like THAT's in any way deep, and sometimes (esp when returning home late and pissed) you want to bung on "Elegance" by Prefab Sprout or "Going Back" by Dusty and sob to your bored partner "That..that's me, that is.." in a way that makes you feel faintly embarrassed and squirmy the following day. I know what you mean about "A Design For Life" though, i have also heard it totally misunderstood by big-necked knobheads in pubs, much as "Born In The USA" was misunderstood, in the, er, USA.

Rol said...

As a self-confessed lyrics connoisseur, I'm with you all the way. Can't help but wondering if the Manics knew exactly what they were doing when they penned that particular line though.

Steve said...

Lucy, a bit of Dusty is always ok by me (class) and I've even been known to blame it on the boogie once or twice...

Rol, glad to have you with me. I guess my problem is really a matter of expecting other people to be as intelligent as you or I (and everybody else who's commented here of course).