Personally, I love lyrics. I was at a friend’s house for a game night once, and someone complimented the playlist she had playing (which was very good) to which she responded, “Thanks, this is my upbeat jams playlist.”
“This song is so depressing though,” I interjected (It was. The song was ‘Hold It Down’ by Noah Kahan – by no means a happy song). To which she replied, “Yeah, but you pay attention to lyrics so much more than the average person.” Another friend seconded her response - to which I had none. They were right.
And while I don’t disagree with the camp that a song can be great on melody alone, and the lyrics can be put on the back burner, I still believe that the songs that stand the test of time put a substantial amount of emphasis on the lyrics themselves.
Let’s first take a look at why and how a song can be great on melody alone. A lot of these songs fall into the pop genre. Songs that have been engineered as if in a lab. A lab we call a studio. These are not typically singer-songwriter ballads made by some girl on an acoustic guitar. These are songs that were made to be catchy, made to be addictive, made to stay in your head late at night as you can’t fall asleep. Manufactured in the tone zone to be a hit, to slap so hard that you can’t get it out of your head; straight fire; and absolute banger. Capitalism in the music industry at its finest, or at its worst, depending on how you look at it.
So, here’s a list of songs that fall under this category – songs that are considered great by some metric, usually commercial success, whose lyrics are either incredibly bland, basic, make no sense at all, or the meaning behind the lyrics is so convoluted, most people don’t even know what the song is about:
‘I Want It That Way’ by the Backstreet Boys
‘Tubthumping’ by Chumbawamba (not even the good Chumbawamba)
‘Drops of Jupiter’ by Train (I’ve discussed this one at length in How Train Got Away with Highway Robbery)
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen – and now that I think about it, a lot of songs on the Top Ten White People Bangers list would qualify
‘Sugar We’re Going Down’ by Fall Out Boy
‘Dance, Dance’ by Fall Out Boy – literally almost any song by Fall Out Boy
‘Summer Girls’ by LFO
‘Feel Good Inc.’ by Gorillaz – yes, I know that there’s a deeper meaning to this one, but how many people actually know what this song is about?
‘Song 2’ by Blur – I do not know a single lyric to this song besides woohoo!
‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ by Brittany Spears
‘Blue’ by Eiffel 65
‘All the Small Things’ by Blink-182 – anyone calling talking about windmills in such a way that isn’t talking about Don Quixote clearly isn’t making any sense.
And this just a very quick list I made off the top of my head. I could keep going if I really wanted to. The list goes on and on. And there are so many songs that might make sense as a whole but whole lines and verse don’t make sense just to fit the rhyme or meter of the song.
Like I said, these songs are great, or at the very least, they have achieved a great amount of commercial success. But I am here to argue that while a song can achieve some amount of commercial success on melody alone, lyrics are what make a song transcend being just a song and become so much more. Lyrics can transform a song to become a rallying cry, what keeps you going on hard times, an anthem, your life’s mantra, etc.
You can see the stark contrast between songs that rely heavily on melody and catchy beats and hooks and songs that define generations and bring hope through their content no more than with rap. Now, I know there are countless examples of rap songs that I could use, but I am going to use an extreme example from my childhood.
I was born in 1992. Therefore, I was in middle school during the mid 2000s. I think that this era was an absolutely awful era for music. Not to say that all of the music was awful. I’m not saying that at all. I am saying that some of the music that was incredibly popular was downright some of the worst ever made. That’s why my extreme example of a popular rap song that makes absolutely no sense (and why the rap genre gets so much disrespect by suburban dads of millennials around the country outside of blatant racism) is ‘Crank That (Soulja Boy)’. This song was released at the end of my 8th grade year and hit number one the beginning of my freshman year of high school in September 2007. The song makes no sense. And worse yet, a really terrible dance done by white children everywhere came out of it. It might have reached #1 and eventually led to the release of another terrible song by Soulja Boy, ‘Pretty Boy Swag’, but I think we can all agree that this song was insignificant.
Now let’s go to the complete other extreme. Think about the rappers that truly changed the rap genre in the 90s and started a cultural revolution. And think about the artists that continue this revolution through their music such as Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole (I know there are plenty more, but I am not as well versed in rap and these came to my head immediately. Also, don’t worry, Shawn. I won’t make you divulge your thoughts and feelings about a J. Cole song anytime soon). Their music will hold a different place in history because of the lyrics. Do you think To Pimp A Butterfly would have reached its cultural significance and even be recognized by the President of the United States if Kendrick Lamar had focused solely on melody alone? Catchy, engineered, manufactured melodies solely for the purpose of generating another hit are no substitute for lyrics that strike you to your core and move your soul; lyrics that can inspire and give hope to those that listen.
Much like how lyrics can give hope on a broad scale to the extent of being the spark to a cultural or social revolution, they can equally make such an impact in our personal lives. In my post Top Ten Sad Songs to Listen to When You’re Sad, the connection I have made with these songs isn’t because of their catchy melodies. Their significance in my life was made through the lyrics. You don’t see people getting tattoos of the lyrics ‘I Want It That Way’, though I have no doubt someone out there has. No, they get lyrics of songs tattooed on them because they hold some greater significance in their life. To some, maybe that’s the only thing they’ve had to hold on to during hard times. I don’t listen to the song ‘Swim’ by Jack’s Mannequin on repeat during hard times because of its somber piano melodies and Andrew McMahon’s desperate tone in his voice, though those enhance the experience. I listen to that song when I am struggling because of the lyrics. I find the strength to keep going through lines like “I swim for brighter days/ despite the absence of sun/ choking on salt water/ I’m not giving in.”
Lyrics are how I make an emotional connection to the song most of the time. I have plenty of songs that I think are great because they're catchy, and I can't even recite a the lyrics that well, let alone know what they mean. But I mostly love music because of the meaning songs hold. I live for the emotional connection with the song. I would even go as far to say that if not for the lyrics of some songs, I wouldn't be alive today. Like Star Wars is to Ted Mosby, music is there for me when I'm home sick with the flu. I listen to music on rainy Sunday afternoons in the fall. I listen to (non-Christmas) music on Christmas Eve. Music is there for me in sickness and in health, in good times and bad. And the reason it is so effective is because of the lyrics.
But then again, maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe lyrics don’t matter. But I think they do.
So, come here often?