Monday, December 15, 2014

Music: The Lyrical Steroid

How does the listening public hear certain song lyrics and not demand recompense for the time lost in listening to them?

Yesterday, Bryan Adams's old song, "Heaven," came on the radio. It came out when I was in high school. I think it was our prom song in '86. That lyric is a pile of cliches. That's all it is.
"Now, nothin' can take you away from me.
We've been down that road before
But that's over now.
You keep me comin' back for more."
It must have taken him about eight minutes to write. (But what more can you expect from a guy who would go on to write a song called "18 'Till I die"?)

"How can anyone allow this happen?" asks the lyricist in me. "How can you people listen to this?" asked the teenaged, progressive rock/classical-loving high school kid I was...

Well, I know how. And between you and me, I, too, have fallen prey to bad lyric songs: they're relatable, which is the stuff of a cliche, in the end. But the main reason this happens is that music kicks the proverbial butt of all other art forms. People can see lyrics as "good enough" because music is to lyrics what steroids are to a 40+ home run hitter; it can raise the most inane drivel into the realm of the sublime.
"Hmm... 'Poopsie, you are everything I need..'
No. 'Baby you're all that I need.' That's it!"

It's not that Bryan Adams is a master composer, by any stretch. It's that music is that powerful. Even a simplistic chord and song structure like the one in "Heaven" is impressive to the non-musician's ear. Float that mediocre music and brainless lyric out there to a hormonal sixteen-year-old who is convinced that the girl he met in chemistry class is worth dying for because she is a good kisser, and you are guaranteed success.

I can just see my classmates delving into each other's eyes on the dance floor...boys singing into the girls' faces ("Baby you're all that I need..." ) and the girls tearing up as if they had just been presented with a wax-sealed Shakespearean sonnet.

Admittedly, I even (unconsciously) lower my own standards for words when I write songs. I find myself allowing mistakes and stylistically questionable choices because the music makes them so forgivable. Many a time I have listened back to a recording and thought, "How could I have done that?"

Of course, the other direction some go in is to forget about the music and to speak of songwriting as if it is just about the lyrics. I even had a student once, at Rutgers (who dressed and talked like Bruce Springsteen), tell me he wrote songs and ask me if I would give him pointers. He came to me with a pile of lyrics on ragged spiral notebook paper. I asked him where the music was. He said he didn't play an instrument. Awkward.

Still, there are some brilliant lyricists who are not great music-writers. Bob Dylan would never be confused with Richard Rogers. My own most profound lyrical influence, Neil Peart, of Rush, certainly wrote for a band not known for its songwriting abilities. (With them the music was always a vehicle for playing.)

Outside of some of the American musical theater writers and the songwriters of the 30s and 40s, it is hard to find perfect marriages of music and lyrics. I think, in popular music, maybe Billy Joel is one of the most underrated lyricists who writes exceptional music as well. But there just are so few.

I'll leave you with the profound, groundbreaking words of Richard Marx, 80s sensation:
"Wherever you go
Whatever you do
I will be right here waiting for you
Whatever it takes
Or how my heart breaks
I will be right here waiting for you."
I remember having liked the album this song was on and even the song itself. But I also remember, at one point, having had an epiphany: "Hey. Wait...these lyrics that I have been singing with such feeling for three months...they're embarrassingly horrible!"

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