Why lyrics matter

I read a book once about Progressive Rock where the author claimed at one time that lyrics were only lyrics and had absolutely no importance in a song. That what really matters was the music and that was it.

Well, I’m sorry but I completely disagree. Although I can understand where he was coming from (his example of Pink Floyd’s “Arnold Layne” lyrics was very convincing) his arguments were too simplistic and totally ignored EVERY other style of music.

I’m not a big Bob Dylan fan (actually, I’m not a Bob Dylan fan) but how can you deny the poetic beauty of a lyric like “Times They Are a Changin”? I dislike 99% of anything Lou Reed did in his career, but I can’t deny the street poetry and the harshness of “Walk On The Wild Side” or “I’m Waiting For The Man”.

Lyrics are (most of the time) what bridges the gap between you and the artist or the subject the artist is talking about. And they don’t need to be extremely poetic, full of existential issues or politically challenging. For example: a lot of Hard Rock, Heavy Metal and Glam lyrics are simply about screwing. Is it ridiculous? Maybe, but who can deny that singing about sex with some metaphors is not fun? That’s another aspect of lyrics: they can be really funny!

Of course, one can make a case for Classical music. Yes, those melodies are forever entangled in everybody’s minds and all those composers are undeniable geniuses, but can you tell what went on inside Bach, Beethoven or Mozart’s minds while they were writing those? What they thought of the world around them? What’s their view of love, politics or even sex?  Were they trying to tell a story? Were they trying to portray a historical event? No one knows.

On a more personal note, lyrics were why I fell in love with the English language in first place. I was only 8 and clearly remember being intrigued by the lyrics of Cole Porter’s “You’re The Top”, because I heard the name Mickey Mouse in it. Fortunately my dad had a book called “The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter” that I grabbed it and never looked back.

I loved a lot of his lyrics, but most important I never stopped paying attention to music lyrics EVER again. It was through Iron Maiden’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” that I discovered that someone like Coleridge existed, it was through Metallica’s “One” that I had the urge to read Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun”, Queen’s “The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke” made me acquainted to a lot of Shakespearean characters and 90% of Frank Zappa’s lyrics lectured me on sarcasm.

And as a final note, I must confess that even today whenever I’m writing a story, I’m hugely influenced by song lyrics, just as much as my literary influences.


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