I like to think of myself as a lyrics guy — somebody who values the text of a song as much as the music. And I definitely gravitate toward songwriters who have a way with the written word — Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan come immediately to mind as favorite artists valued as much for their lyrics as their tunes.
On the other hand, I’m a huge R.E.M. fan who doesn’t know what the hell Michael Stipe is saying on half of their records and doesn’t care. It’s not as if I apply a litmus test to an artist that requires them to excel at both music and lyrics before I consider them a favorite.
I mention that because frequent commenter Amy recently hinted at having just such a test, the implication being that “favorite” status can’t be assigned simply because you enjoy an artist’s “overall sound” if you don’t also have a strong appreciation for her lyrics.
She was referring to Aimee Mann, and I won’t head too far down that path because I disagree with the premise that Aimee Mann isn’t a strong lyricist. I’d rather discuss the broader issue of whether lyrics are all that important to great music to begin with.
I’m going straight to the top for my case study. I don’t think anybody can dispute that The Beatles are worthy of “favorite” status, right? But The Beatles have a lot of mediocre lyrics, even in some of their best songs. Consider:
I think it’s today
The girl who’s driving me mad
Is going away
She’s got a ticket to ride
And she don’t care
Nothing special about those lyrics. The phrase “ticket to ride” is interesting enough but the rest is bland. If Britney Spears sang those words about the boy who’s driving her mad, nobody would be afraid to say it sucked.
It’s been a hard day’s night, I should be sleeping like a log
But when I get home to you I find the things that you do
Will make me feel alright
Again, “hard day’s night” is a clever phrase, but working like a dog and sleeping like a log? Rhyming two clichés doesn’t keep them from being clichés.
But match those lyrics with the wonderful melodies, the harmony vocals, the guitar, bass and drums, all tied together with George Martin’s peerless production… and you have two undisputed heavyweight champion pop songs. They’re beloved not because of their lyrics but because of what they are as songs.
So I’m thinking I’m not much of a lyrics guy after all. I do love great lyrics (more on that in a bit) but I’m prepared to say they are decidedly in second place in the “words and music” hierarchy.
After all, there’s a reason I have no idea if the lyrics of Celine Dion or Metallica are any good. I don’t want to listen to their music to find out. You could show me a set of lyrics that bring me to tears but if they’re attached to a heavy metal song they’re not going to find their way into my CD rotation. But I love countless songs with mediocre lyrics.
The other question I’d like to explore is what exactly makes a good lyric. There are many answers to that question, of course, and no “right” one. As for me, I tend to gravitate toward lyricists who find poetry in the mundane. Bob Dylan has written his share of surrealistic poetry but my favorite Dylan lyrics are more straightforward. Some examples:
With a pain that stops and starts
Like a corkscrew to my heart
Ever since we’ve been apart
– ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’
Well, I see you got a new boyfriend
You know, I never seen him before
Well, I saw him
Makin’ love to you
You forgot to close the garage door
You might think he loves you for your money
But I know what he really loves you for
It’s your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat
– ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’
I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment I could be you
Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You’d know what a drag it is to see you
– ‘Positively 4th Street’
Bob’s son Jakob penned a simple line that’s one of my favorite lyrics:
Were just ice cream falling down
On the shoes of my world
Here’s one by Fiona Apple that I adore:
A hypnic jerk is that jolt in your body that you feel sometimes when you’re about to fall asleep. What a wonderful metaphor for an ex who broke your heart but won’t quite get out of your life.
John Mayer describes an awkward moment between lovers at a restaurant with this clever turn of phrase:
She looked out the window
Rolling tiny balls of napkin paper
I played a quick game of chess with the salt and pepper shaker
Ben Folds has made a career out of writing great lyrics in a conversational tone. When he’s on, he’s one of my favorite lyricists ever:
No, I can’t feel a thing at all
‘Cause it’s all smiles and business these days
And I’m indifferent to the loss
I’ve faith that there’s a soul somewhere
Who’s leading me around
I wonder if she knows which way is down
You nodded off in my arms watching TV
I won’t move you an inch
Even though my arm’s asleep
One day you’re gonna wanna go
I hope we taught you everything
You need to know
Alice, the world is full of ugly things
That you can’t change
Pretend it’s not that way
That’s my idea of faith
You can blow it off
And say there’s good in nearly everyone
Just give them all a chance
– ‘Alice Childress’
I could spend all day plucking out examples of lyrics I love. But what I’m noticing about the examples I’m thinking up is that every one of them belongs to a song I love musically as well. I’m trying to think of great lyrics to a song I’m not crazy about but nothing has yet come to mind.
That reinforces my premise above that lyrics are an important part of the music I love but secondary to the music itself (by which I mean the melody, instrumentation, production, vocals… the whole package).
What about you? What’s more important, lyrics or music? And can you think of any songs you love because of the lyrics but despite the music?