I had originally wanted to write a post about how lyrics where a mostly unimportant add on to a lot of good music today. Then I found myself writing about how the lyrics are important to my understanding of the music in every post I have written so far. I began wondering if the lyrics are really an important part of the song.
I still think the answer is that lyrics are an important part of some songs but certainly not a necessary component to every song, and even some songs that contain lyrics are not lyric dependant. But I find I am more interested in why lyrics fit in songs; in other words, why does a lyric that works perfectly in the context of a song sound so downright cheesy when it is spoken aloud?
There are some musical artists that have managed to perfect the art of putting poetry to music. Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen and Sam Beam (Iron and Wine) are some artists whose lyrics are almost as effective apart from the accompanying music. The music heightens the emotion, but take it away and you still have some pretty powerful stuff.
On the other hand is the music that employs lyrics that heighten the emotion of the music that the lyrics back up. Radiohead or Neutral Milk Hotel seem to embody this style of lyric writing, with lyrics that would be mostly impossible to decipher without the accompanying music reiterating the emotion. On the extreme end of this spectrum might be bands like My Bloody Valentine or Cocteau Twins who seem to be interested in the lyrics more as a melody line with no concern towards making them decipherable or sensical.
Perhaps the most fascinating study are the compositions where the music says one thing and the lyrics say something else, but it somehow still manages to work together (I’m looking at you Passion Pit). This is the strategy that impresses me the most because I have no idea how it works, I can only tell you it does.
All of these bands employ lyrics in unique ways, but interestingly they all use them so they all must feel that there is something that vocals or lyrics can add to a song. Also, switching around lyrics and music of various artists would make some great music into an unlistenable mess (of course I am reminded of how awesome Jaydiohead’s mixture of Jay Z’s ’99 Problems’ and Radiohead’s ‘National Anthem’ is, but the rest of the Jay Z/Radiohead mix-up mixtape is a mess that’s not worth listening to).
Are lyrics an important part of the song? Well, no and yes, although most pop/rock artists seem to use them as a way to make their music distinguishable or unique. What function do the lyrics serve? Sometimes they serve almost no function at all other than providing melody and sometimes the lyrics are the function of the song. I think the best lyrics make us feel something without us feeling like we are being manipulated into that reaction. I am most appreciative of an artist that can concisely tell me what they think or feel without trying to tell me that I should think or feel the same way. And, please make sure the music and the lyrics are saying the same thing – except when they don’t.