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.