Life & Arts Opinion

Rocking through the pandemic: The value of music lyrics

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Bob Dylan and Joan Baez (image by Wiki Images via Pixabay)

'Rock lyrics are poetry (maybe).' So wrote Robert Christgau in 1967.

That was when rock was just a tied-dyed teenager. What’s the value now of this maybe-poetry? Who remembers it and why? Will it long outlive the pandemic?   

COVID-19 has been an unprecedented upheaval for the popular-music industry. Widespread cancellations of shows and festivals. Sales have been struggling.

What to do, if you love live shows, not live streams? I went down a favourite wormhole. Rock songs and their lyrics. Only to discover, I’ve been misspeaking lines in a couple of classics. Since forever.

These errors are “mondegreens”. Mishearings of lyrics, often silly or amusing, but such as to lend a new twist.

Sure, the lyrics interest people. As the traffic on specialised websites attests. But what is their broader value?  

Younger people relate the most, to popular songs of the day. Commonly, interest fades with age. Or moves away from the mainstream.

Parents and oldies may retain their songs of youth. To recreate at karaoke nights. It’s rewarding to remember any song. Or it remembers you.

Some fans (and performers) persist with popular music when older.

When 2000s indie rockers An Horse returned to Australia, just before lockdown, their young audience embraced a few of us oldies. I’ve joined mixed-age U.S. gatherings, for 1990s legends like Saint Etienne, Luna and Built to Spill.

Even a hometown LA reunion, of 1960s Buffalo Springfield. “We’re from the past,” jested Neil Young, aged 65 at the time.

At these musical reunions, we sing along. They’re just as inclusive and uplifting as Scott Morrison's Horizon services.   

Some of us even say: this song saved my life. Which is also a song, by Canada’s Simple Plan. Strand our type on a desert island. For solace, we’d have our songs to recall.

Back in 1967, Christgau was thinking about the young Bob Dylan, rather than anticipating Dylan’s Nobel Prize. Not even The Simpsons saw that one from afar. 

“Modern poetry is getting along fine,” observed the U.S. critic. But St Bob might have started something “just as good”

Great lyrics may thrive, when printed or recited. Or, the vocals and music ignite the buzz of the lyrics. 'Pleasure is where meaning begins', the older Christgau puts it.

Right under COVID-19, here’s Lana Del Rey crossing over to poetry. Not the first pop artist to try. Rock lyrics have always borrowed from poetry. So too does vernacular speech.

Our recall of the lyrics echoes earlier eras. When songs or stories passed down in the oral tradition. Take the lyrics as their own realm, I reckon, not just as wannabe poetry. So what else might make them “just as” good?

English, and the Anglophone nations, are notable. Shortly before COVID-19 struck, the latter still claimed four of the top ten spots in global recorded-music revenues.

Rock in English varies from more “black” (rap and soul) to “whiter” (rock and country) idioms. Memorable lyrics might pop up in any genre.

Elvis Presley has long since “left the building”. But Little Richard only died this year. Imbibing American traditions, the Beatles “invaded” the U.S. The Byrds “answered” via Dylan and Gene Clark compositions. The music crosses and recrosses the Atlantic.

Young hails from Canada. He and the Australian Steven Kilbey (of The Church not Chvrches) are among the most durable rock composers.

As is Dylan. He of this year’s wordy 17-minute epic. But great songs often last five minutes or less. Here, English offers fruitful invention, catchphrase, expression and compression.

All the arts have their hits and misses. Not much lasts. There’s more quotation and mimicry, than deep ingenuity and originality. Maybe rock lyrics are similar.

Yet the best composers do have special “signatures”. It’s a mystery, how they’d ever invent their best songs. Just as mysteriously, the muse may desert them.  

Performing artists forget their own songs. Forgive them. There’s a scientific explanation. Some artists have too many compositions to recall. Teleprompters can help. 

Also, there are such things as earworms. Irritating or banal songs you can’t shake off. And yet, simple memorability is one sign of merit in the lyrics. Life-saving songs (artists) may fold into memory for many years. Lesser tunes might fade. 

Back to mondegreens. Wouldn’t you just look up the words? That’s not foolproof.

The composers or publishers for many (not 100 per cent of)  rock titles appear under performing rights organisations like ASCAP, BMI or our own APRA AMCOS. But these supervise commercial “rights” to play or perform “works”, rather than lyrics for private use.

To access music audio, there are iTunes or Spotify. For lyrics, you can dial up dedicated websites like Genius or AZLyrics. In different ways, these sites have managed to monetise the millions of lyric searches each day.

They’re not exhaustive. They can disagree. Or hit copyright flak.

Other lyric sources are an artist or fan websites, sheet music, LP or CD liner notes, and YouTube. For some artists, reliable sources remain elusive. 

The various sources, though extensive, are not ideal. They may not prove super durable.

Sixty years hence, you might locate lyrics promptly for Dylan or the Beatles. Maybe Joni Mitchell. Less likely, that other “writers’ writers” from 1960-2020 would leap out at you.

Thus far, the ill-starred Clark can’t even crack the U.S. Songwriters Hall of Fame. Same with Young and Kilbey. Though several Brits have been inducted.

Perhaps this is no grave situation. Perhaps the lyrics weren’t aiming for immortality anyway. Not separately from the music.

Or maybe rock itself is out of puff. As has been said forever, of both rock and jazz. According to rocker-turned-writer Dave Warner, words to pop songs no longer matter.  

Nevertheless, recognisable “top 40s” and “hit records” chug along. Lyrics keep being uploaded in droves.

With 1990s grunge receding fast, “rap” seems to be outpacing “rock”. One instant rap hit this year was Cardi B’s WAP duet with Megan Thee Stallion. The explicit lyrics were praised, but controversial.

By now, the lyrics torrent has generated a distinctive literature. Perhaps too much to sift. Though there are recent anthologies for Dylan and for rap generally.

That literature is not just love and sex. It also evokes changing society and mores. Including angles you might not find, in movies, fiction or poetry.

Nevertheless, once you get beyond the big names, I wonder whether a 2080 cultural historian would attribute great significance, to the present-times songs and their lyrics.

If there even is a 2080, that we’d easily recognise. One 21st Century tune whose words do matter is Barstow, Jay Farrar’s mordant eco-lament. “They’ll be digging through the landfills,” he quips, “to find evidence of our great demise".

Stephen Saunders is a former public servant, consultant and Canberra Times reviewer. 

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