by Chris McGinty
As Miguel goes on with his article he starts to pull from such great sources as late 80’s hair bands and modern pop to show that, “How can lyrics be important when the words that go into songs are all dumb?”
There are a few issues with this. The first is that Miguel listens to almost no music that has good lyrics, and therefore has a skewed view as to how well lyrics contribute to an overall song when well written.
Let’s first deal with what the voice is when used in music. It is simply another instrument. If all instruments were equal then folks would love Tejano and Industrial Dance as much as they liked Pop and Rock. The accordion and the piano would be equally moving, and that electronic bullshit would be as authentic as an electric guitar. Miguel acknowledges that there is a psychological need to hear a human voice in pop music, and that lyrical words are imperative to convey meaning because notes and melody without language is too abstract. What Miguel doesn’t acknowledge is that the human voice is a unique instrument, and at times it is the only instrument that will fill the spot properly.
Let us also consider the instruments that are used most frequently in music. They tend to be instruments that are more versatile. The human voice is very versatile, and especially because of its ability to use language while singing. If vocals were entirely limited to the syllables Do Re Mi Fa So La and Ti, then I bet it wouldn’t be used quite as much. But the fact is that if I wanted to sing this entire article to you I could.
This is where lyrics come along. It gives the singer a focal point for the melody. As the Miguels of the world would have it, that would be all that was necessary is just some words. And what does it matter what those words say, because lyrics aren’t important. But lyrics at their core are poems. And poetry is not really considered to be good unless it conveys a mood or concept, usually at a tightly metered pace with inflections on certain syllables, and often times rhyme to finish off the different lines of verse. If critics would be so quick to dismiss poetry as poorly written then there is only so much you can get away with in song lyrics, right? But song lyrics can be forgiving because as Miguel pointed out, if Sebastian Bach can make you believe that what he’s saying is important, then it comes across as important.
It seems to me that Miguel’s criticism of the songs only proves why it is that crafting good lyrics is important, because people see through the bad ones eventually. I remember Miguel being turned off to the song “You” by Candlebox, because he used the words “I would die for you.” This is one phrase in the overall scheme of the song’s lyrics, and it was too glaringly cliché to a guy who claims not to care about lyrics. And this points to why it is that every song can’t just use the same lyrics as just about every other song, but sing it differently. People would just eventually lose interest. One line and Miguel was happy to dismiss the song altogether.
Miguel and I read something once, either written by Aimee Mann or said by her in an interview, in which she discussed over used clichés such as: I would die for you, rolling the dice, the ace of spades, queen of hearts, crying in the rain, and she said that if one more person prays for rain that she was going to scream. This was a heavy influence to me to try to avoid overused phrases, choosing instead to pay tribute in less obvious ways.
Frank Black discussed the importance of using your voice in unique ways while singing, and how the use of lyrics can help you attain a unique performance. And this calls to mind for me a book I partially read that suggested that your name could be used in the same way that your Chinese and Zodiac astrological signs can be used to predict your personality. I don’t lend much credibility to these studies, but what the book claimed is that certain sounds, and certain combinations of sounds in the spoken language, register in the brain in different ways creating a situation in which the phrasing of a sentence might be as important to your attraction to what it says as the shape of someone’s face and distance between their eyes might be to your attraction to that person. If there is any credibility to this then not only are lyrics important, but they may be a make or break point.
In Part Three I will deal with a couple of examples that Miguel uses And in Part Four and Part Five, I’ll give you a very rare look into the process by which I write poetry, which then hangs out in notebooks or word processor files as potential lyrics depending on the quality of the piece and how well it fits a musical selection that needs lyrics, or how well it suggests a mood that I might try to touch upon instrumentally.
I say this is rare because I’m one of these irritating artists that Miguel mentions in his piece: “Some artists get real coy about the ‘meaning’ of their lyrics. When asked, ‘What's it mean,’ they give cop out answers like, ‘I don't want to ruin it for anybody. So I choose to let the listener decide for themselves what it means.’
That’s me. I like a little mystery in what I’m saying. The last thing I need is a cipher that will tell everybody what I’m talking about or who I’m talking about. Sometimes these things are clear enough, but other times they just don’t need to be.
But before I go this time, I’d like to deal with one last thing Miguel said: “‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was part of a trend in which the title is never actually mentioned in the song itself. I hesitate to say that it started the trend because I don't really know.”
Well Miguel, I’m willing to bet that the trend started with those instrumentals you miss so much. The strange thing is that never once does someone say “Ride of the Valkyries” in Wagner’s hit song. But like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” it gives you a nice little hint as to what the song is supposed to be about. More on that in Part Three.