The question has nagged at me for some time now. Its persistent presence in my thoughts leads me to believe that I’m not as crazy as I might think for asking it.
Do lyrics even matter?
About a year ago, I started down a path with a new genre of music, metal. I’d always liked harder rock and didn’t mind some yelling, but the screaming and growling was a bit abrasive for my taste.
Incorporating metal into my repertoire was a big step. For years, I could hear the musicality of it, but had a hard time moving beyond the vocals. The shifting time signatures, polyrhythms and necessary technical skill was intriguing, but it came bundled with lyrics delivered in an unintelligible growl, aka “rough” or "Cookie Monster" vocals.
Listening recently to “Farewell, Mona Lisa” (above), a cut from The Dillinger Escape Plan’s latest album, it occurred to me that I didn’t know if Greg Puciato was even talking about Da Vinci’s famous painting.
Not only that, but I started wondering if it even mattered. Knowing wouldn’t change my opinion about the instrumentation, which is complex, challenging and rewards an attentive listener.
Does that mean lyrics don’t matter?
My answer to that is a firm, decisive, uh, well, kinda.
Yeah. Definitely maybe.
A few cases to illustrate the confusion.
Iceland’s post-rock group Sigur Rós showed how unnecessary lyrics can be. Faced with the dilemma of recording its 2002 studio record in its native tongue or English to entice fans beyond its borders, the group flipped the script and turned the situation to its advantage. “( )” (right) became about interpretation, a record without a name, song titles, liner notes or, unbelievably, lyrics.
Vocalist Jonsi Birgisson wails in an elegant-sounding gibberish dubbed “Vonlenska,” which he created. The vocals for “( ),” named so in an effort to get fans to even ascribe their own title to the record, then become more of an instrument rather than a vehicle for delivering meaning.
It can’t be denied that having and knowing lyrics adds value to a song’s meaning, though. It’s a much bigger challenge to pull off an instrumental concept album, for example, because the vocal thematic elements aren’t there to give the listener a strong narrative.
Still, we’ve only thought of the word “lyric” as “words to a song” for about 150 years, which, given the fact that even the earliest humans played music, isn’t very long. There’s a great supply of music that has no vocals.
Instruments, notes, scales, tones, pitch, time signature -- those are what define music and separate it from literature. Listeners don’t need to listen to Wilco’s records to read poetry. But to the band perform its unusual blend of experimental country folk, one has to play the group’s records.
Hip hop seems the strongest argument for the necessity of lyrics in song. Word choice, content, rhyme, flow, cadence and delivery are all essential to being a good rapper. Great beats are but one part of the puzzle.
But lyrics do matter. They can help shape a song’s identity and give it a personality.
Sometimes they’re gibberish: “Mmm bop duba dop ba doo wop,” “Bawitdaba da bang-a-dang diggy diggy diggy said the boogie said up jump the boogie” or “Hee-dee hee-dee hee-dee hee, hi-di hi-di hi-di ho.”
Sometimes they’re silly: “You and me, baby, ain’t nothing but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel,” “Some people call me Maurice ’cause I speak of the pompatus of love” or “Peanut butter jelly with a baseball bat.”
Sometimes they’re ironic, such as “Born in the U.S.A.” (left), which sounds patriotic and anthemic, but is about Vietnam vets’ inability to get jobs when coming home from battle. It’s so much more “Deer Hunter” than “Black Hawk Down,” but even Ronald Reagan wanted to adopt it as a campaign song due to the misinterpretation.
Sometimes they’re painfully appropriate. It’s haunting to hear Kurt Cobain repeat “And I swear that I don’t have a gun” during the refrain in “Come As You Are” when we know how his life ended.
Perhaps because it’s spoken and we think and communicate in language that lyrics are often the most easily identifiable part of music for many people.
But these are examples of lyrics that define songs. We know these tunes in large part because of their lyrics.
So lyrics may not be necessary, but do they matter?