Music soothes the savage beast, goes the old aphorism, and when we need a study break nothing quite beats a little rocking it out and dancing it up courtesy of our favourite genre. Ambient soothing auras can be an auditory study buddy and so can more in-your-face lyricisms. A question I have, though, is where to truly draw the line between form and content, between theme and verisimilitude in lyric-oriented songs. Putting the sociological imagination to work is more than a pedantic joy for our studies; it’s a shot in the arm where we can do something concrete with our learning and apply it in discussion within our social milieu.
Not all music is quotable, per se. For composers like Rimsky Korsakov, Richard Wagner, or Johann Sebastian Bach the lines of musical sight are clear: at some distant vanishing point a merging occurs between cognition amenable to language and emotion expressible as a written statement. Instrumental and classical music, not to mention live streaming crickets, waves, waterfalls, or Tibetan monk meditations, serves a clear purpose: to provide an apt backdrop to whatever it is the rest of our mind’s eye is absorbed in and generally working at. As students, we require a substrate from which our minds can venture forth with pedagogical purpose, if not rapture.
While occurs this process of osmosis whereby music augments our reality, a typical rock or pop song utilizes in parallel a thin but high test line that metaphorically reels us into its lyrical realm. Words and utterances, be they nonsensical ‘ooh and ahhs’ or Lady Gaga’s fellatial appropriations, affix themselves to our being. Songs are catchy because they capture our attention and stick. So what are we to make of the actual lyrics of a song and how serious should we take them?
Speaking academically, we have to make something out of what we’ve learned that shows we’ve adequately learned it. Any topic composed of facts emboldens us to express a creative, yet realistic, meaning from its material so that we may demonstrate, mineral-like, our absorption rate in terms of intellectual osmosis. A good essay states something new while stating something old; likewise, many songs utilize similar time signatures and chords while adding a new harmony to the pantheon of pop culture.
Affect and Lyics: Not a Two Way Street?
With song lyrics, as with core course content, there often appears a certain contradictory dithyrambic: a tune sounding happy and jovial may simultaneously impart darker lyrics suggesting moral ambiguity or ethical edginess. Likewise, although I’d argue very rarely, the opposite may be true. Anger and sadness, rage and sorrow, typically echo in the musicality of a song’s sound.
So why do lyrics about moral dissipation sometimes accompany music with lilting and pleasant harmonies? Perhaps just as AU allows us to see our social space anew and to interrogate the hermeneutic underpinnings of both the darker and brighter facets of society to acquire a better view of life and the dynamics of workplace and domestic relations, music lyrics grant us the opportunity to discover cultural realities that mere emotions, courtesy of a pleasant harmony, can only hint at. Just try humming a happy jingle and then switching to an angry hummed diatribe: negative emotions are hard to hum.
A Brooklyn Bridge Between Feeling and Speaking
Next let’s consider the 1984 blockbuster film Ghostbusters. A crucial moment has two characters sharing their favourite apocalyptic Bible quotes as they consider the connection between real ghosts and imaginary end times. The two men’s minds meet in choir-like harmony as they consider the consequences of their times and then, as if on cue, one reaches to turn on the radio dial and says to the other five infamous words: “how about a little music”.
All too often music, and musicality up to and including the sacred and profane realm of dancing, comes to cover over meaning in its strictest sense; such that meaning in a literal prosaic form finds itself muzzled. But where there are words to a tune there arises the capacity for us to relate and reconsider a song’s actual meaning. After all, feeling is often secondary to facts, even in the most noblest of social spheres: that diaphanous, ambiguous, even ambivalent, landscape of love.
Investigative Action: The Devil of Meaning is in the Details of the Lyrics
Let us investigate some lyrical examples, bearing in mind that the phrase ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ itself lacks structural cohesion in that music exists not outside of us in the speakers of its transmission but indeed as an act where hearing and interpreting occur simultaneously. The magic’s in the making, tunewise, and each of us hears and interprets a song as does a dancer in a staged context. The noted music writer Robert Christgau described this process:
“One of the many foolish things about the fools who compare writing about music to dancing about architecture is that dancing usually is about architecture. When bodies move in relation to a designed space, be it stage or ballroom or living room or gymnasium or agora or Congo Square, they comment on that space whether they mean to or not” (http://www.collapseboard.com/where-the-metaphor-fails-writing-about-music-is-like-dancing-about-architecture/).
Clearly context matters, and meaning is not separable from the big picture.
To take lyrics seriously, then, is to address them as a whole, rather than merely as tunes to hum or choruses that loop in one’s head. Take the classic Beatles tune “I Feel Fine” which, perhaps not coincidentally, begins with one of the earliest recorded moments of guitar feedback ever committed to tape. Perhaps the feedback is a portend of the dangers to come for the naive protagonist. Witness these key lyrics:
“I’m so glad that she’s my little girl
She’s so glad, she’s telling all the world”
All fine and dandy except she seems to be telling others that:
“That her baby buys her things, you know
He buys her diamond rings, you know
She said so
She’s in love with me and I feel fine
She’s in love with me and I feel fine, mmm” ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrAV5EVI4tU )
While the refrain of being in love and feeling fine is most memorable, it encapsulates only the emotions of the man and doesn’t necessarily clarify the full cognitive circumstances of the situation. Questions remain as to the statements made by the lady in question.
Oh, love is in the air, to be sure, but is the female in question bragging about her acquisition of material possessions, telling lies to upgrade her beau’s economic background, or even talking about another man, perhaps her legal husband, who showers her with gifts even as her heart truly lies with the song’s narrator? Who’s to say? As she tells the world about their love her original suitor may become disgruntled and vengeful, no doubt it. Or maybe the song is just about one man and one woman and that’s that. Anyway, to ask these question is to engage in the art of interpretation. And if there’s one thing that university studies teach us, it’s to find creative inquiry anywhere we look. A song is never just a song and common sense is never value neutral.
Lily Allen on a Sunny Day
A second lyrical example likewise combines pleasant happy harmonies with the darker, seedier, side of social reality. The song is ‘LDN’ by Lily Allen. At first one may only recall the chorus that goes:
“Sun is in the sky
Oh why, oh why would I wanna be anywhere else?”
Yet it’s the verses that resonate about the reality of her, or any urbanite’s, surroundings. She sings:
“Riding in the city on my bike all day
Cuz the filth took away my license
It doesn’t get me down and I feel okay
‘Cause the sights that I’m seeing are priceless
Everything seems to look as it should
But I wonder what goes on behind doors
A fella looking dapper, and he’s sitting with a slapper
Then I see it’s a pimp and his crack whore
You might laugh, you might frown
Walkin’ round London town”
Sandwiched around these snapshots of the uglier side of city life are the lilting melodies of an innocent and ironic appreciation or a rare sunny day in England:
“Sun is in the sky, oh why, oh why
Would I wanna be anywhere else?” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmYT79tPvLg)
Cherry Cola and the Damage Done?
A final example worthy of inclusion is the classic “Lola” by the appropriately-named band The Kinks. In it, a transgender person possibly date rapes the protagonist:
“I met her in a club down in old Soho
Where you drink champagne and it tastes just like Cherry-Cola
She walked up to me and she asked me to dance
I asked her her name and in a dark brown voice she said Lola
Well, I’m not the world’s most physical guy
But when she squeezed me tight she nearly broke my spine, oh my Lola
Well, I’m not dumb but I can’t understand
Why she walked like a woman but talked like a man.”
And then, as the dubious champagne kicks in:
“I pushed her away
I walked to the door
I fell to the floor
I got down on my knees
Then I looked at her and she at me”
Finally, the narrator figures out what’s up.
“Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
It’s a mixed up, muddled up, sup world, except for Lola
Well, I left home just a week before
And I’d never ever kissed a woman before
But Lola smiled and took me by the hand
And said ‘Dear boy, I’m gonna make you a man’
Well, I’m not the world’s most masculine man
But I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man”
Only champagne mixed with cough syrup and/or a drug cocktail would taste like Cherry Cola, right?! (It’s true that lawsuits shifted the words from Coca-Cola to Cherry-Cola but that’s a bit of the same difference.) Who’s heard of a cola flavoured champagne? The moral of the story is that we ought to look behind the catchiest tunes, replete with simple harmonies, and see what else is going on is the words. Often the best subtly is in the written word, where not everyone is comfortable to tread.
Reality is a complex organism and if one only heard the sound of these songs and disregarded or (as is quite natural, though not inevitable) the lyrics one would miss key components of the big thematic picture. In life, as in our studies, the key to creativity abides in looking in places we might have previously failed to glance. AU student life is about blending our learning with our reality in a way that improves our lives and our futures. Everywhere newfound scholarly methods seep into our essences, and the songs that enliven our study breaks are no exception. Meaning and alternative meanings are all around!