Here’s a question for you: what role do lyrics play in how you listen to music? Do you listen to music for the words and message of a song? Or do you listen to music for the music itself? Or perhaps some mix of the two?
I’ve thought about the musical tastes I’ve acquired over the years, and noticed some pretty inconsistent genre preferences. I like some genres of music almost entirely, which I think can be considered my “taste” in music. But then there are significant number of songs and artists that I listen to that fall into categories that I almost never listen to.
Is it just natural variance in musical preferences? Or is there some other explanation for why I like some songs in genres that I usually have no interest in whatsoever? These questions started me thinking about the actual features of a song, artist, or genre that interest me. And after thinking about my listening habits, I don’t think lyrics have much to do with any of my listening preferences.
There are some notable exceptions, like the Decemberists and Rage Against The Machine, that I actually find myself paying attention to the lyrics. But for the most part, singing voices just act like additional instruments in the band. The “message” of a song often escapes me. Even when reading the lyrics to a song, I’m often left wanting something more than an overly cryptic code, overly generic story, or plainly distorted message meant to fit the constraints of the melody and time signature.
Is this an undesirable situation? I don’t necessarily think so. If I want to hear an argument for why the political system should be changed, I’m going to read a book or article. As much as enjoy listening to Rage Against The Machine’s angry liberal lyrics, I hardly consider it a well-composed argument. But that’s ok; I listen to the music for the MUSIC, not the lyrics.
However, I think I’m in the minority here. Most people I’ve talked with (a very limited sample, of course) usually have particular favorite bands that have meaningful lyrics with a message. Or at least they see a message . . .
What role does interpretation play in teasing out the meaning in song lyrics? I know, there are some examples of blatantly obvious songs with a clear meaning. But given the limited scope of song lyrics (there aren’t usually a plethora of paragraphs in which to explain one’s argument), isn’t “The Message” at least in part a creative endeavor on behalf of the listener?
I think the paucity of clear meaning in songs may have been what caused me to pay little attention to “The Message” of a song, and just enjoy the song for its melody, tone, mood, etc. There seemed to be a lot of additional work involved in ever “really” finding out what a song artist means – what was their background, their political identify, etc. Couldn’t someone just ASK them what they meant in the song? A couple paragraphs of clear, direct exposition would save everyone the hassle of trying to figure out what “The Message” is of a particular song.
For example, let’s take a look at Robert Frost’s famous poem:
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know,
His house is in the village though.
He will not see me stopping here,
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer,
To stop without a farmhouse near,
Between the woods and frozen lake,
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake,
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep,
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
— Robert Frost
There have probably been a significant number of PhD. literary dissertations written about the meaning of this particular poem. Now, the following is probably apocryphal, but if true makes a pretty amusing point:
An english teacher of mine once had a girl in her class. This girl’s relative once had Frost himself visit their school for an assembly. Someone asked him about this poem, and he said that it was about one night when his wife asked him to go get groceries and nothing more. He ended up stopping on the way home to watch the snow falling, but he knew his wife would get angry if he was much later since he had miles to go before he reached home.
Wait, what happened to “The Message”? Where did it go? Wasn’t it clear and obvious or at least something more significant than just Frost’s trip to the grocery store?
So, before I get accused of hating words or something, let me say that I listen to songs with lyrics all the time. And of course, I try to piece together a rough idea of what the song is trying to convey (if I can even make out the lyrics). But I never put much confidence in my ability to discern what the author intended, what “The Message” entails, or even if there is a canonical message at all. It’s fun to try to figure out what a song might mean, but I never put any additional effort into it other than a passing thought.
Is my reaction to lyrics too glib? Do I not give artists enough credit for clear meanings in their songs? Well, that’s certainly a possibility. So, anyone out there with a markedly different opinion on the matter? I’d be interested in any song lyrics that present a clear argument or message that doesn’t require a lot of creative interpretations on behalf of the listener. Not because it isn’t fun to do, but because it is disingenuous to pass off your own interpretation as the artist’s intent.