Last week, I read online an “Open Letter To Songwriters”, imploring them to be more willing to explain their lyrics. It would, the critic argues, make their music “more likeable”. The first time I read the article, even the second time, I warmly cheered this. There is something undeniably un-likeable about the wilful obfuscation and scattergun metaphor-ing of today’s songwriter. We’d all rather they made more sense to us.
As I flicked back to it again and again however, I became increasingly uncomfortable without quite knowing why. Then it dawned on me: I’m a songwriter. This letter is addressed to me. Seeing the situation from this new perspective I realised that while I agreed entirely with the author about the problem, I thought that the call to songwriters to stand up and explain themselves was not going to solve the problem, but take it in a new and crazy direction.
“When I first listen to a song, I don’t hear the lyrics, I hear the music. I hear the sounds, the melodies, the various instruments, the key changes, the harmonies. If the music merits repeated plays, I’ll inevitably start singing along as a matter of subconscious habit…”
The article is admirably frank (given that it is written by a music critic) about the repeated listens needed before it’s author begins to know or even care what the lyrics are. I have only praise for him for acknowledging this. But the fact that so many of us can relate to his attitude (on many occasions, myself included) shows us how devalued the lyrics have become. It is no longer the case that a song must have lyrics because that is the defining backbone of what a song is - it is more just that a song without lyrics would somehow be a little improper, therefore we always make and sure and “put some in”. Let’s say that for many songwriters, music fans, critics etc. a song should have lyrics in it for the same reasons that a trifle should have alcohol in it - to know or care what those lyrics actually are requires special attention of a new order of magnitude. It is a kind of expertise. To go beyond even that, and be willing to judge if they are good lyrics or bad is to dabble with elitism. (And who in their right mind would pour an 1840 Biscuit Dubouche cognac into a trifle anyway? Right?) And yet, although it would take three or four listens for most of us notice if the unclear vocalisations emanating from our laptop speakers were not words at all but a meaningless stream of gibberish, most (though by no means all) songwriters settle for the security of actually bothering to string a sentence together.
Last week, Jarvis Cocker set out promoting the publishing of his lyrics presented almost (though, he was keen to stress, NOT) like poetry by Faber and Faber. Now Jarvis Cocker has written some really awe-inspiring lyrics. I don’t know anyone who doubts that. Yet even he admitted that he only fell into lyric-writing because the band needed songs, and as he was the singer, everybody said it was his job. To return to my rather stale and increasingly spongey metaphor: just as each family-made meal will depend on some otherwise unemployed nephew or aunt to step up to the trifle bowl and become bravely lavish with somebody else’s liquor cabinet, so a band must find itself a volunteer whose spare time outweighs his or her pride to provide the dreaded but necessary lyrics.
This being the case for a lot of bands, it is little wonder that the lyricist, put upon to brick-up the gaps between crashing guitar intro and slightly funky bass and drums play-out, should attempt to make life easier for himself. This he can do by adopting a creative stance which will allow him to work quickly and to sidestep embarrassingly direct criticisms from his band-mates such as “stop wingeing”, or “I didn’t know you had the hots for Katherine!”. So much easier to deal with being told, “I have no idea what you’re on about,” or, “Gross… champagne supernova sounds like a deviant sex game.” So much easier, because there is so much less invested in it.
A related charge we can levy at the singer-songwriter (who only has themselves to blame for getting into this mess) is that their obfuscations are all too often an exercise in self-aggrandisement. Their “difficult” lyrics conspire with their use of the term “singer-songwriter” to place them on a plinth. A plinth built of mystique and obscurity, where only the open-minded and adequately literate may join them.
“It’s a song, not a fucking magic trick”.
It seems only fair that we ought to be able to say to these baffling lyricists - if you are going to write lyrics that require explanation, then it is incumbent upon you to provide one. As the “Open Letter…” points out very nicely, lyricists can be quick to jump to the defence that an explanation will degrade the sense of magic and mystery - it would, as we saw in the previous paragraph, go against the grain of reasoning that led them to be so opaque in the first place.
Dylan and Lennon often take the blame for inspiring this trend, but I think that misconstrues their projects. Projects which were, in the mid to late 60s, knowing experiments in sounding meaningful while deliberately avoiding sense. Projects inspired by beatnik cut and paste techniques in prose and poetry, by the mesmerising, druggy visions of Kubla Khan. At the extreme end of the spectrum, in the case of “Ballad of a Thin Man” we are dealing with a song whose meaningless was, in an ingeniously worked twist, the very point being made.
Likewise, Neil Young is a paradigm of goofy, pot-headed weirdness and deliberately sloppy word-smithing. But not only does he seem acutely aware of this (“I’m singing this borrowed tune / I took from the Rolling Stones / Alone in this empty room / Too wasted to write my own”), but he also has the incredible charm of a man who seems constantly bewildered by his own fame. He is not a songwriter who is trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat.
So who is to blame for the trend of hiding behind opaque lyrics and refusing to come out? Noel Gallagher? Coleridge? Trevor Horn? And how can we persuade these songwriters to chill out and open up? As the “Open Letter…” says, their refusal to do so is, well, “disappointing…” Myself, I blame THE PARENTS. And who are the parents of the songwriter? Are they his or her influences? His or her other interests in literature, film or art? No. These are the teachers and friends of the songwriter. The parent is You, The Listener, for it is You, The Listener that provides the world into which the songwriter is born.
Another quote from the article:
“Knowing what a song is about makes the song better for the listener. Why? Because you get into the singer’s thought processes.”
Really? Getting into the lyricist’s thought process is certainly one way of “knowing what a song is about”. But it is not the only way, and, I would like to argue, it is not actually a very good way. And why not? Primarily because it is a distraction from the song itself. Asking a songwriter to explain his or her thought processes strikes me as akin to asking the waiter over to your table in the middle of a delicious meal and pressing him to explain exactly how your dish was made. Or to use an old scientific adage, it is like asking somebody to explain wave mechanics using particle physics. It’s not wrong, or categorically impossible, it’s just inappropriate. It leap-frogs an important step in understanding.
While it is perfectly true that bad lyricists often misuse this argument as a subterfuge - to conceal their weaknesses - that only invalidates those songwriters. It doesn’t invalidate the argument.
Let’s study as a group all those songs we know that we consider difficult to understand. Down here in the murk, not only do we find empty lyrics that are merely trying their hand at sounding mysteriously intelligent, but also truly great experimental lyrical snippets by Throbbing Gristle and Radiohead, literary allusions by Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave, celebratory pop nonsense by Prefab Sprout and Lady Gaga… Once we have in front of us this mixed pile of difficult-to-understand songs, we can easily start sorting them into those we think are good and those we think are bad (easy, that is, so long as we act alone). But how would you start dividing them into those you think ought to be further explained and those you didn’t? Would you demand of Dylan a blow-by-blow account of every single bizarre metaphor and pseudo-mythical character from “Like A Rolling Stone” or “The Changing of the Guards”? I doubt it, almost as much as I doubt he would oblige. You would, of course, be missing the point. Would you stand there jabbing your finger into Noel’s sternum saying, “Come on then, what the fuck is a Wonderwall?” Possibly… On the other hand, you might, like me, have grown up for years listening to “Wichita Lineman” without having the faintest idea what Wichita or a Lineman was. But that was part of the romance, part of the discovery. And if you wanted to find out, you wouldn’t exactly call up Glen Campbell to find out, would you? Likewise with Steely Dan’s “Home at Last”. You only need to Google “tied to the mast” for a broad landscape of allusion and narrative to unfold before you. So to compound our problems we may feel that the songwriter is not even the appropriate person to ask to explain their lyrics. After all, our culture is awash with baffling weirdness left in our hands by poets, songwriters and playwrights long since dead. But we don’t give up on understanding them. Far from it.
My guess is this: If you sit down and try - really try - to get something from songs you at first didn’t understand, something magical will happen. They will start sorting themselves. You will come across great lyrics which you can explore, and which reward you for exploring. Songs which open up new worlds to you and which encourage you to learn new things about yourself, about history, about humanity. You will also find yourself increasingly impatient with those songs which defy explanation but offer nothing to you in its place.
To put this process another way: just as it is your responsibility as a listener to judge whether you think a song is good or bad, so it is your responsibility to judge whether you understand it or not. But if not, it then becomes your responsibility to figure out why you don’t understand it. What’s missing? Is the songwriter making a literary allusion you are unaware of? Are they deliberately playing with words and metaphors in order to allow you to project yourself onto their voice? Or, and this is a very important question for you as a music fan, have they just written a shit song? A song that bears the same relationship to true meaning that an STV advert for “HappyLets” bears to responsible, compassionate property management.
Let me close this section by suggesting a slight re-wording: “Knowing what a song is about makes the song better for the listener. Why? Because you get into your own thought processes.”
“You gain a sense of context and place; you are able to separate metaphor and imagery from reality and fact; you can sing the words with a genuine understanding…”
This quote I have taken deliberately out of context - because I think doing so reveals a different, important truth: YOU can do these things. Don’t be afraid to love a song for your own reasons, and likewise don’t be afraid to delete it for your own reasons.
Consider this: on the one hand, song is not a format designed to be accompanied by an explanation, but on the other hand, the LYRICS are - as a matter of necessity - provided with an explanation: that is, the MUSIC. This song you’re having difficulty with - doesn’t the music provide you with clues, moods and details that the lyrics have cleverly left out in order to allow the music to speak? Are you sure? Ask yourself another question: Do you actually value lyrics? Maybe you don’t. That’s cool. That’s your prerogative - but if you decide that you do, then you will have to start rating your music collection accordingly, and it’s possible that some of you might suddenly discover the ground shifting a little beneath your feet as the tectonic plates of your iTunes collection realign themselves to this new paradigm. Learn how to tell the difference between good lyrics and bad, and respond to what you learn - and look bad lyrics square in the eye!
But please don’t do this: don’t ask songwriters to write a “York Notes” for their own work. By all means, come up with your own analyses and discuss them with others - this is part of your responsibility to critique - but unless the songwriter explicitly offers an explanation, don’t ask them to provide one. It might get you out of a fix, but in the long run it will lessen your relationship with the song.
And to my fellow songwriters, I would say this:
Never Explain, Never Apologise.
Think of a song you’ve written - have you had people come up to you and ask you what it is all about, as though in hearing it they were somehow left wanting? Maybe you are thinking of a song you’ve only just written - well, are you worried this is going to happen? Now ask yourself a question: How will you respond? Are you going to stand by your beautiful piece of handiwork, your immaculate musico-lyrical architecture that so effortlessly blends skill and creativity, knowing that it’s central ideas are built of steel and it’s facade is carved of stone? Or are you going to look left, then right, before frantically trying to prop up it’s straw walls before a harmless music fan’s questions puff the whole thing over? Are you ready? Are you really ready to present your song to the world?
It is possible you have actually convinced yourself that not only have you written a masterpiece of befuddlement, but that you yearn to get out there and start EXPLAINING it. Your song is actually better for the listener once you have had your chance to provide a Director’s Commentary. Well, you’re the songwriter - it’s your show. But in choosing to do this with your songs, I say you weaken the format. I say your song is a tent, not a building.
I stand by the cliched architectural metaphor. For a song should not be a tent, nor an electric car, nor a central heating system, nor a power tool - useless until we have been instructed or trained. It should be a building - and we all know intuitively what a building is for. We all know that a building is for going into - to be sheltered from the elements. And we all know that we can move on from this to decide if it is for working in, sleeping in, hiding in - or even for being kept out of. Likewise, we know intuitively what a song is for - it’s for listening to… and with that part of the act mastered, it’s for dancing to, or crying to, or driving to, or fucking to… Do people need to be told that your song can be danced to? Are you going to put a sticker on the front of your single saying: “Please don’t fuck with this on, I wrote it for my dog”?
Just like an architect, you had a purpose or message in mind, for sure - in which case you ought to have built the best song you can to fulfil that purpose, and that purpose or message will be intrinsic to it. You might have built a straight-forward 2-up, 2 down so that people can go straight in the front door and cosy down. You might have built a sprawling fortress of secret passageways and hidden doors. You might have built a Cathedral, a Parliament or a Flop-House. If you’ve done a good job, then be like an architect - build it, smile and wave when they cut the ribbon, then walk away.