Understanding Lyrics

Jakob Dylan, from his Facebook page.

Jakob Dylan, from his Facebook page.

My sister told me I had to listen to “One Headlight” by Jakob Dylan and The Wallflowers. A friend had introduced her to the song. “Before you hear it,” she said, “I just want to say, you’re going to find that the drums are crisp.” She gave plosive emphasis to the ‘p.’

I listened to the song and liked it: a steady, upbeat tempo (crisp), pleasing melody and chorus, a thrilling chord change or modulation midway — however you say it musically — all things I respond to readily as an unschooled listener. The son’s voice reminded me of the father’s. I nodded approvingly when the song finished, thinking of adding it to my pop playlist.

Only then did I reflect that I hadn’t understood a word of the lyrics of this wildly successful song. “Did you understand any of the words?” I asked my sister. “I think I picked up ‘Cinderella,’” she said. That was all, and she had listened to “One Headlight” several times.

I ponder with fascination what seems to be an evolution in pop (and folk) music away from understandable lyrics to ones that are not (for me at least). I can understand the Beatles’s lyrics; can’t understand Robert Plant’s. I can understand Paul Simon’s lyrics; Elton John’s not so much. It’s maddeningly difficult for me to follow what Sarah Jarosz is saying — her words get trapped somewhere in her nasal recesses, falling shy of her tongue, palate and lips; Suzanne Vega is clearer. Listen to “The Wanderer” sung by Dion in the dark ages, then by Status Quo later.

Frankly, the lyrics of a great percentage of pop music simply get past me. One working theory of mine is that instrumentation or accompaniment — call it what you will — simply overwhelms the vocals. It’s largely a matter of volume. The singing is backgrounded, inverting an earlier relationship. Also, singing legibly use to involve a certain exaggerated articulation, unnatural in conversation, whereas many modern artists sing the same as they talk, and sense gets swamped. Idle thoughts.

(c) 2018 JMN.

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day, and watch Netflix and Prime Video for entertainment. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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5 Responses to Understanding Lyrics

  1. I must say I do enjoy the parallel, alternative lyrics we all invent to close the gap. I also often think mine are better and more insightful. I’m going to see a band tonight so there will be that bit when I’m singing along happily then come to a bit I don’t know. To awkwardly, abruptly stop singing or try and bluff it? What does annoy me is having to turn up the tv volume for films and even rewind to listen again because they are mumbling and murmuring at their best.

    • JMN says:

      Yes! I do it all the time. Must be universal, the mental supply of alternative lyrics. I too think mine are better, or at least funnier! I chuckle often at what my ear and brain make of what’s blasting from the radio or speak, and is unintelligible despite endless repetition. Ditto on TV and film dialog as you say, being an instance in which it’s even more urgent to understand the words. Some productions seem to cross a line in the muttering and whispering. I stream a lot of UK fare, to which I’m addicted, and sometimes struggle with the different accents and dialects, but it’s not usually a question of mumbling, and never curtails my enjoyment. Encountering expressions such as “Steady on!” and “Marmite soldiers” makes it all worthwhile! Just took up watching “Bodyguard.” Enjoy the band!

      • I find I’m incapable of committing to any tv series, so have not seen the bodyguard which I’ve heard good reviews of. I do like a subtitled Scandi Noir/detective We find we .can talk all the way through it without missing anything because it’s quicker to read the subtitles than listen to the dialogue. My staple however has to be Columbo. Essential weekend afternoon viewing whilst painting or drawing. That and Dad’s Army, has that ever travelled?

      • JMN says:

        Loved Columbo! I’m sure I’ve seen every one of them in reruns over the years. Don’t know of Dad’s Army. Must see if it’s available. Can’t count the UK series I’ve watched. Some twice, such as Doc Martin.

  2. I am clueless on the topic of pop music, but Colombo and Doc Martin 👍👍😎

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