Posted in Of Musicals

Of Words and Music

Bob Dylan and The Beatles : Obviously Photoshopped
Bob Dylan and The Beatles : Obviously Photoshopped

In the sixties, Bob Dylan and The Beatles would send each other their latest records. You know, like top artists do. Dylan, poet-lyricist-seer extraordinaire, would tell them to listen “for the words”. Lennon, on the other hand would say, no – listen for the sound.

Which one do you do, especially when you’re listening to something for the first time? I have to say, despite being a more certifiable literary person, it is the sound of music that is first and last, and everything in between to me. I don’t care for lyrics at all, unless I can feel the music first.

I’ve often found lyrics that make great pieces of poetry, but put me to sleep (and not in a good way) when I listen to them. I won’t name these songs and their artists, as they are mostly legendary people and musical geniuses. Let’s just say their complex compositions and moody melodies are too much for my brain, that was re-wired by the three-minute pop song. Heck, I come from the tag end of the video age, where Reality TV killed the Video Star, and Internet downloads killed the Album. Things are back to how they were in the 60s, and even if artists release opulent videos on YouTube to garner millions of views, the internet consumer has too short an attention span to go through the whole thing.

Thus, even the seemingly unconquerable music video format that ruled music promotion from 1980 onwards is no more the ruler of music consumption. What is? The Sound. The sound has been the same throughout. Take Shakira’s “Whenever, Wherever” from fourteen years ago. She, expectantly, dances in a sensual, graceful manner (Shakira means “full of grace”) and sings these lines at one point:

Lucky that my breasts are small and humble/
So you don’t confuse them with mountains.

Now, some of you will feel outraged at my including these lyrics in an essay that began with Bob Dylan and The Beatles, but hear me out. Whatever “Whenever, Wherever’s” faults/merits maybe, there is no denying in terms of sound, it just works, and brilliantly. At a time when electronic dance music had started to garner full traction even in the mainstream market, there came a song that used traditional instruments, traditional beats, fusion and yet made something completely new and in keeping with the times. It is still listenable (albeit the lyrics, which are still bad) and danceable.

I love to sing. And I do all the time, which people I’ve co-habited with, as well as neighbours, have always found both amusing and annoying. Still, I keep on keeping on. But, for it to happen, I need the lyrics, which if I haven’t correctly caught by ear, I have to look up. We would be here all day if I were to discuss all the lyrics that surprised me when I looked them up, especially if they don’t go with the sound. But, the thing is, if the sound didn’t matter in the first place, I doubt if the lyrics would.

It is enormously interesting how such a complex artist like John Lennon valued his musicianship over his writing. He had already published two books of his poetry and fiction (in 1964-65) by the time he was twenty-four, during the year when A Hard Day’s Night was released. Anybody who ever listens to his songs is always struck by how literary his lyrics are. They are sometimes surreal, but often deeply feeling. Even if he curses Sir Walter Raleigh for being “such a stupid git,” as if he ran out of contemporary men in power to criticise, Lennon’s lyrics are mostly thought-provoking. To find it secondary to his compositions and arrangements which includes his own voice which he liked to manoeuvre quite a lot, shows an understanding and humility towards how music, especially pop music, really works on people. You need the sound first, for the poetry to come through.


Writer, Blogger, Kate Bush Fanatic

5 thoughts on “Of Words and Music

    1. It surely does! That is why pop music, despite the apparent calculated aspect of it, cannot hope to be popular without lyrics. Words play a very important role. Dylan was right about his own talents. He wouldn’t have been so important if his lyrics were not as moving and provoking as they are.

  1. Interesting post. For me there are no set rules regarding lyrics. The most overly produced 3 minute pop song may have a lyric or phrase that is incredibly profound, while a gifted songwriter may resort to a tired cliche to make a point. Both of which surprise me when it happens. Like you, I find poetry in the lyrics to some songs (or if not poetry then just really good stand-alone phrases) difficult to remove from the music. Sometimes the lyric only truly works with a particular sound from the instruments, a tone, or a riff that compliments. When that is taken away, sometimes that lyric falls flat. In any case, discussions like this are exactly why I continually explore new music. It isn’t always easy, but when you find music that excites you, be it lyrically or musically, there are few things better!

    1. I totally agree! I would say nothing can beat finding new music that excites you. Not even new love!
      I can never separate song lyrics from poetry. To me, they’ve always been in the same category. There are university courses offered on studying pop music, both sociologically and as literary texts. While the music is never ignored, the lyrics are studied as any poem would be studied. Artists like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are regularly included in English Literature courses, but there are a number of unlikely (for this kind of thing) pop artists, like Madonna, who are also studied.

      1. Exactly! For me there are so many songs and singers that have value like that. Most of them are sadly under the radar but to me they are right up there with the established greats. In any case, great blog, I will be back for more 😄

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