The Importance of Lyrics in Music

by Miguel Cruz

I was listening to a segment on an NPR program that discussed the disappearance of the instrumental rock song from radio airplay. It got me to thinking about a not-really-all-that contentious subject of debate that has floated among me and Chris for the last 20 years. I don’t really know Chris’ position, but he has reported to me on others who have the opinion that lyrics are the most important part of the song writing process. They say that it is the very first thing you start with. Some time ago I read a comment from a YouTube user, posting on a Faith No More video, criticizing those who only care about the music and whether the song rocks. They’re not getting the all important messages in the lyrics. (I tried finding the exact comment so I could quote it, but it looks like that version of the video was since been removed.)

I take the opposite position. I’m generally only interested in the music. Perhaps this is because of my time studying, practicing, and otherwise getting nowhere with the guitar, but if I don’t feel it in the tones and the rhythms, whatever message you’re trying to convey is going to fall on deaf ears. If lyrics are the driving force behind music, then what the hell were Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, Wagner, and Prokofiev doing?

Still I understand the basic psychology of hearing a human voice on a pop song. Music all by itself is one of the more abstract art forms. Visual and written media at the very least can convey some kind of information. A painting of a cottage by a waterfall shows you just that. That last sentence also conveys basic concepts to the reader, provided you understand the language in which it was written. Music can do no such thing. No matter what notes I play, in what sequence, and how fast, it will not ever tell you “house” and “waterfall”. A singer inserts information into the musical equation.

As it turns out, it apparently doesn’t matter whether this information is pure nonsense. Despite whatever meanings the listener gleans from most song lyrics, the meaning depends heavily upon what they bring to it themselves. Some songs are more explicit in its imagery. Take this segment from Poison’s “Something to Believe In”.

My best friend died a lonely man
in some palm springs hotel room
I got the call last christmas eve
And they told me the news

I tried all night not to break down and cry
As the tears rolled down my face

The lyrics present a fairly clear portrait of several melancholy characters: the suicidal Vietnam Vet, a greedy tele-evangelist, and some homeless people. No one should come away from this song wondering what it’s really about. Unfortunately, it’s one of the gayest songs ever recorded. I don’t mean gay in the guy-sucking-another-guy’s-dick kind of gay. I don’t mean any offense to the gays out there (Chris, Nathan). But you know. Gay as in stupid. It’s stupid because liking other dudes is stupid. Hence stupid stuff is called gay. No offense.

By the way, kids, all the examples I’m about to use are before your time. I haven’t bought an album since around 1995. I have no clue what the #1 song in the country is right now. I haven’t known what that was since before the turn of the millennium. I’m sure there’s someone out there blogging about the deeper meanings of the lyrical stylings of Lady Gaga and the Jonas Brothers (I know where they live), but that ain’t happening here. There’s a line from Skid Row’s “Youth Gone Wild” that has fascinated me lately.

Boss screamin’ in my ear about who I’m supposed to be
Get a three-piece Wall Street smile. Son, you’ll look just like me
I said, “Hey man, there’s something that you oughta know.
I tell ya Park Avenue leads to Skid Row.

If I read this right, this is an actual account of a conversation Sebastian Bach had while working at the Burger King drive-thru just prior to Skid Row’s getting a record contract. It has been pointed out to me that I’m incorrect in my ascribing the words to Bach, that Rachel Bolan in fact wrote the lyrics to the songs. First, I don’t care who wrote the words. Sebastian Bach sings them. Therefore they are his thoughts. Second, if Rachel Bolan wants them to be her thoughts, she should start her own band and sing them herself. Perhaps she and Alice Cooper can get together to form an all-girl band.

So anyway back to the lyric in question; at some point the store manager has just had enough of Mr. Bach’s failure to adopt a “Three-piece Wall Street smile”. Mr. Bach had been smiling like it was casual Friday on Commerce Street in some other city. That’s not good enough for store #7138. You gotta smile like you’re trading Piggly Wiggly stocks on the floor of the New York Stock Exchage. And Mr. Bach’s boss was really ripping into Bach over this particular issue, raising his voice, and even going so far as to scream directly in to Bach’s ear.

But Sebastian Bach was the clever one. He might not have his boss’s sense of style, but he has a strong counter-argument. It is simply this: Park Avenue leads to Skid Row. According to Wikipedia, which according to some other source I’m not going to bother looking up, Park Avenue is the most expensive street in New York City. For those of us who live in and near Fort Worth, Camp Bowie is the most expensive street.

Bach’s counter-argument can mean two things. Park Avenue runs directly into some run down part of New York City where there’s a lot of homeless people (aka bums). I don’t know the layout of NYC so I can’t speak to this. Or maybe it means that if you conduct business on Park Avenue (or live there if that’s possible) eventually you will find yourself homeless. I wonder if that’s backed up by any data. I suspect it’s an all around faulty premise. Does having the money to live on Park Avenue really mean that eventually you will be homeless with a bottle of Jim Beam by your side?

But boy Sebastian Bach belts it out as though he had the last word in that exchange. He’s bolstered by his bandmates who yell it with him in unison. And the kids who bought this tape in 1989-90 all came away thinking they just received some powerful insight from an insightful artist.

Part 2: Smells Like Complete Bullshit

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Lyrics in Music

  1. I concur. Most of the time in the popular songs out today. I can't even understand the lyrics they are singing anyway. For all I know, they could be singing in some obscure neo-paleolithic language from some tribe in Outer Mongolia for all I know. So Amen brother, Miguel and Rock On!

  2. Miguel you are a homophobe. I consider Chris my best friend. I like Chris and I am interesed in his happiness. That does not mean I want to make out with him or anything. Over the last several years I have been keenly aware of the importance of having good, close friends. That doesn't mean we paint eachother's toenails or anything. I mean, just look at season 2. I'ts all about that. Just sayin'

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