Lyrics Again

Selfie With Tea Kettle, JMN, photo. (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.

Selfie With Tea Kettle, JMN, photo. (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.

One of my playlists I call “aMix” is an eclectic selection of some 50 songs from various genres and periods. (There’s also a list called bMix.) This morning I heard Jacques Brel singing “Ne me quitte pas.” As the poignant song washed over me while I cooked, I became aware of the phrase “on a vu rejaillir le feu….” Also something along the lines of “il faut oublier les malentendus.” It occurred to me to revisit thoughts about song lyrics and what they’re for.

I’ve tried to get on board with the notion that there’s good modern music in which the words being sung aren’t recognizable, and that that’s okay. The content of the lyrics is dispensable without diminishing the song according to this line of reasoning. It is, after all, music, not poetry. A poem must be exceedingly well wrought and articulated linguistically to be successful; I see no room for compromise on that score. It would make no sense to mumble a poem to an audience, or to make it difficult to read by using a script font, for example, or poorly calculated line breaks. Song lyrics, on the other hand, take a back seat to melody, harmony and rhythm in much modern pop performance — even to dance, as Eric Wayne usefully points out.

Hearing the throat-constricting emotion conveyed in Brel’s “ne me quitte pas” (don’t leave me, don’t leave me), I gave in to a wave of sadness over a lifetime of betrayals and abandonments perpetrated by me — of relationships, children, goals and ideals — and of my dogs’ forsaking me in turn by dying. The song worked on me that way and I let it, grudgingly — what are a few more drops in the tear bucket.

Notwithstanding my desire to embrace innovation and eschew crusty conservatism, a still small voice keeps whispering to me that the most complete realization of a song happens when the lyrics — their content as well as their sonic properties — actually do support the music intelligibly and are supported by it, rather than engulfed in instrumentation and visual razzmatazz.

(Perhaps I’m too cerebral, or have tunnel vision, but I mistrust the concept of multimedia as much as that of multitasking. The latter is a mask for nimble serial monotasking, I surmise. And the notion that we can be shotgunned simultaneously by diverse sensory stimuli, as in music videos, and still process the experience optimally, is suspect, I hypothesize.)

Selfie2, JMN

Selfie with Guitar Music, JMN.

Back to lyrics. According to my still small voice, at the pinnacle of song the lyrics are integral to the music, like melody, and not separable from it or adjunctive or dismissable. That sort of melding doesn’t happen all the time, but neither do masterpieces in any art form. And, of course, I’m not sure what to do with rap, which has gone in the opposite direction, mostly words chanted in staccato torrents with percussive backing that’s minimally tuneful. Rap is of major importance in the music scene, but I’ve already said more than I know.

Oops, not quite. Out of curiosity, I recently researched whether or not “hip-hop” and “rap” are synonyms. A source served to me by Google clarified that, strictly speaking, rap is one of the three elements of hip-hop culture, the other two being break dancing and DJ’ing. The distinction may not be useful enough to survive. My impression is that it’s common to use the terms “hip-hop” and “rap” interchangeably in casual talk.

(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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3 Responses to Lyrics Again

  1. Eric Wayne says:

    “Notwithstanding my desire to embrace innovation and eschew crusty conservatism, a still small voice keeps whispering to me that the most complete realization of a song happens when the lyrics — their content as well as their sonic properties — actually do support the music intelligibly and are supported by it, rather than engulfed in instrumentation and visual razzmatazz.”

    This is an appealing notion, but dangerous. I like the ideal. However, I would caution against any perceived standard of what is the best, or “most complete realization”. Hypothetically speaking, or if one had to choose a formula, I might agree with you. And I trust you enough to know you aren’t necessarily going beyond that into the proscriptive.

    We can’t really apply an external standard to a medium. I have to deal with this proclivity all the time, as people will boldly assert, to me, that “digital painting isn’t painting”, and other such inanity that seems rock solid to them, as long as one doesn’t look at my actual art work, which handily defies such notions.

    There are so many approaches and possibilities in music, and like food, we may sometimes hunker after a certain kind of music (metal), and at other times others (piano sonatas). Those two extreme examples are two of my distinct likes.

    Here are a couple more examples. A song that probably fits your ideal formula is (according to my tastes), “Some Velvet Morning” by Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SFghxk6Bms

    And here’s another of my favorite songs that is purely instrumental, with sound effects, and the only lyrics are some garbled spoken words. “Last Delicious Cagarette” by Matmos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5CzWc67aT8

    Note that I consider the latter song among the very most psychedelic (as is something you’d hear tripping off into another dimension) things I’ve ever heard.

    In the end what really matters is what the artist does with the medium, and they may be emphasizing any component (abstract art versus portraiture). When the bells come in at about 2:40, I’m drifting off I don’t know where.

    Ew, just thought of this song, “It Happened in Tennessee”, by Wayne Jackson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tV06RGciXTg&list=PLbllvt5jP9O2085umIZbgYcruBNvlYCoD&index=19

    Contains the lyrics:

    Violence was in his past
    and Jesus was his savior
    until they beat him up, and threw him out
    and changed his whole behavior.

    Yap. I do really like your ideal. There are just so many other spectacular possibilities.

    Lastly, for a sampling of my tastes, I put together a couple playlists on YouTube some years ago, called “Eclectic Horizons”. A search for those words will call them up. Here’s part one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4EPuhcilF8k&list=PLbllvt5jP9O2085umIZbgYcruBNvlYCoD

    • JMN says:

      Beautiful comments. This response will give me much to enjoy and ponder while I’m stuck in airports on my way to Spain! Your counterpoint is bracing and helps me steer clear of facile conclusions. I’ll check out the songs you signal, always glad to be exposed to new ones. I appreciate your insight that I’m not prescriptive about any form of art. My needle is challenged to hold a steady north on practically everything except a sympathy for small animals!

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