I Disagree: The Importance Of Lyrics

In our ‘I Disagree” feature Reviler contributors disagree with each other on some fundamental aspect of music.  In this post Jon and Kyle argue about the importance of lyrical content in music.

Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre (Guante)

Of course lyrics matter.  Lyrics are what separate soulless escapism from music that can radically alter the path of your life.  They’re an entry point for any listener searching for something more than just a hot beat to nod to or a pretty melody to reminisce over.  Music with bad lyrics is like a one-night stand: it can still be a lot of fun, but it’s not anything close to true love.

To be clear, I’m not talking about music that is meant to be instrumental.  Classical, jazz, electronic music and all that—they all exist on a different plane, and their function is fundamentally different.  I’m talking about music that contains—and usually foregrounds—vocals and lyrics: hip hop, pop, rock, country, soul, etc.

The thing that so many songwriters and vocalists forget is that a lot of what we value about our craft isn’t really that hard to do.  Thousands upon thousands of artists have created (or bought) pretty melodies, wild multi-syllabic rhyme schemes or unique, compelling voices.  What truly separates genius from “pretty good,” however, is what you’re saying, not how you’re saying it. 

Of course, both are important, and nobody wants to listen to meaningful lyrics without any craft or subtlety, but to say that lyrics don’t matter is to ride along on the all-American bandwagon of celebrating mediocrity.  Good music can have crappy lyrics.  Great music cannot.  And there’s enough good music in the world; let’s reach for something deeper.

As a rapper, and as someone who works with young rappers and songwriters every day, I get to see first-hand how this debate plays out in real life.  MCs are constantly pushing themselves: write more songs, come up with more complex rhyme schemes, tweak the flow so it sounds more natural, ride the beat better, write catchier hooks, etc.  So precious few, however, are challenging themselves to write more compelling stories, or dig deeper into the emotions on display in a given song, or say something that hasn’t already been said a million times.

The result is a national indie-rap scene that not only tolerates but values and rewards mediocrity.  MCs are judged by how closely they follow the aesthetic standards set up by our golden-age heroes, not by whether or not they’re saying anything with some substance. 

With other genres, this is taken to an even further extreme—how many singers or bands are giving us lyrics that aren’t either (1) derivative middle-school love poetry, (2) faux-artsy, pseudo-intellectual nonsense or (3) pandering pop-culture references sprinkled between cookie-cutter club-jam pickup lines?  This is a major reason why so much rock, pop and soul music today is so disposable; it’s not just blog culture or people’s shortening attention spans—it’s the fact that so few songwriters are worth a damn.

And I love some songs that don’t have ultra-deep or original lyrics.  I also love some songs that are sung/rapped in languages that I don’t understand.  I’m not saying that lyrics should be the first or only criterion for judging whether or not a piece of music has value.  Just that they should be on the damn list… and much higher up than most people put them.

Maybe this is a losing battle, but I still believe that music can—and should—be something more than momentary distraction, more than cultural signifier and more than background noise for our lives, that the head-nodding and humming along and tingle of joy that we get from a good song are actually just the by-products of something much deeper.  I see music as, above all else, a form of communication; it can be meaningful, and at its very best, it can be transformative.  To get to that level of craft, an artist needs to use every tool at his or her disposal, and lyrics are a major tool that go neglected all too often.

Jon Behm (Reviler)

I DISAGREE!! Just kidding. I actually agree with a lot of what Kyle says.  I would never try and argue that lyrics don’t matter at all. They are one of the available tools in music-craft that can be employed at different levels to contribute to creating a great song.  Great lyrics, alone, cannot make a song great.  They can certainly help, but without the underlying structure of the tune they may as well just be poems.   To give you an example, take the words to your absolute favorite lyrical song and set them to the tune of “Hanging By A Moment” by Lifehouse.   I’ll bet that your great lyrics won’t do anything to make that song not sound horrible.

And while I do think lyrics are a hugely important part of music, I don’t agree with the folks that hold them in esteem above all other facets of music making.  Trying to say that any single part of music is more important than the others is misguided.  Holding lyrics above all else is just as bad as those guitar-jam loving Umphrees McGee fans who only care how the band is playing and couldn’t care less what they are saying.  In fact, if you wanted to make the case that lyrics are actually the less important factor then you might have a stronger argument.  Just ask Brian Eno, Sigur Ros, or the Dirty Three.

And while it might be tempting to say “well, hip hop is an exception because it’s much more lyrically focused than other music genres,” I still disagree.  Hip hop abides by the same rules as any other form of music and when it isn’t utilizing all its facets correctly it won’t work.  Try the above Lifehouse test on your favorite hip hop jam and you will see. 

To my mind there are three main parts to hip hop – the lyrics, the flow, and the beat.  If you got lyrics and flow, but no beat, congratulations – you have an excellent piece of slam poetry.   If you got the beat and the flow – but your lyrics suck, congratulations, you just might be Kanye West.  Ok, the Kanye example might be a little extreme but what I am getting at is that you can’t have one piece of the pie without the others and expect to succeed.

Even when you are talking just lyrics too, you have to realize that sometimes it’s not what is being said at all but how it’s being said.  Consider the Old Dirty Bastard (RIP).  The ODB was usually downright impossible to understand, and when you can make out his lyrics they often just plain don’t make sense.  Whereas ODB’s lyrics were strange and occasionally nonsensical, his persona and delivery more than make up for that fact.  He was intense. He was in your face.  His style was threatening even if you couldn’t figure out just what he was threatening to do. 

Consider that, along with the fact that, if you’re anything like me, you have probably gotten down to a jam that was written in a language you don’t understand.  Does this mean your appreciation of the song is invalid? No, it just means that the other facets of the song – style, delivery, beat – are more than enough to make up for the lyrical lack.

Lyrics are important – again, I don’t want anyone to think I am saying they’re not.  I just don’t agree with anyone who gives them too much importance without considering the equal sway of music-craft’s other facets.  If lyrics were the one true key to music then techno would be universally reviled, rap needn’t bother with beats, and no one should ever bother with listening to music in another language.

8 Responses

  1. Guante says:

    NEITHER OF THESE PIECES ARE INFLAMMATORY ENOUGH SO I THINK EVERY COMMENT SHOULD BE WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS.

  2. DJ PETE says:

    I DIDN’T EVEN READ THIS BUT I’LL COMMENT IN ALL CAPS.

  3. AMY KUE says:

    “Music with bad lyrics is like a one-night stand: it can still be a lot of fun, but it’s not anything close to true love.”

    I WANTED TO RETYPE THAT IN ALL CAPS BUT I’M TOO LAZY AND IT’S EASIER TO CUT AND PASTE. BUT I DID WANT TO SAY THAT I LIKED THAT STATEMENT. AND THE KIND OF LIKE YOU CAN LIKE ON FACEBOOK. AND THE KIND OF LIKE THAT MAKES THAT A NON-ONE-NIGHT STAND TYPE OF STATEMENT.

    THESE WORDS IN CAPS ARE SCARY.

  4. I guess I feel like lyrics (in songs that contain them) cannot and should not be divorced from the music of a song. Lyrics are are neither an additional instrument, nor simple text that gets paired with a piece of music (though it has certain properties in common with both these things), but rather they are intricately woven into the fabric of a song and help to define it.

    And it’s a two-way street. Lyrics do not stand on their own separate from delivery, tone, melody, the notes they are being played over, rhythm, or anything else. A change in any of these factors can reshape the entire meaning or context of a song. (For that matter, so can the title, the time period it was written or is being listened to in, the content and style of other songs on the album, and a host of other things that are beyond the scope of this discussion)

    Frankly, some of the best lyrics in my opinion are ones that would hardly mean anything at all if you just read them from a page, but which come to full life and clear meaningfulnes only when they are infused with the music meant to accompany them. Or–again at its best–lyrical music can express emotions and ideas that have no expression in straightforward grammar and written or spoken language. A sort of expressionistic or impressionistic soulfulness. In fact this is the essence of the very best soul & R&B music.

    Van Morrison is a master at this, and for that reason is one of my favorite artists and performers. His 1974 live double-album “It’s Too Late to Stop Now” is perhaps the greatest testament to this lyrical approach, and it’s very fitting that it’s a live album because the band (the 11-piece Caledonia Soul Orchestra) really responds and enhances the lyrics in a living way, and they are delivered in a living way that brings out the essence of the songs.

    Never underestimate the ability of a well-placed, horn-punctuated “Good God!” or “Mama!” to outstrip the most unique, heartfelt, and verbose confession of sentiment in terms of depth, meaning, and effect when executed in the right context.

  5. DREW says:

    THE ONLY THING THAT I DIDN’T LIKE WAS JON’S DISS OF KANYE WEST, ON THE BASIS THAT HIS LYRICS WERE LACKING, WHILE IN THE VERY NEXT PARAGRAPH HE PROCEEDS TO TALK ABOUT SOME GUY NAMED ODB THAT HE ABSOLUTELY LOVES AND APPARENTLY HAS TERRIBLE LYRICS. DOES THAT MAKE SENSE TO ANYONE?

    MUSIC CAN BE BROKEN INTO MANY CATEGORIES. CATCHINESS, TONE, MUSICIANSHIP, LYRICISM, HARMONY, RHYTHM, THE LIST IS ENDLESS. AND I FEEL AS IF THEIR WEIGHTS SHOULD BE DISTRIBUTED DEPENDING ON THE GENRE, AS GUANTE ARGUES. YOU CAN’T HAVE A CHORAL ARRANGEMENT THAT ALWAYS USES THE AMEN BREAK, AND YOU CAN’T HAVE A ROCK BAND SHOW UP ONSTAGE WITH A CD PLAYER.

    THE BIG THING IS, I DON’T SEE HOW ANYTHING BUT LYRICISM WOULD BE AT THE TOP OF THE LIST FOR HIP-HOP. I JUST DON’T. HIP-HOP HAS NEVER BEEN ABOUT ANYTHING ELSE, AND LYRICISM IS ITS DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC. YOU CAN TAKE AWAY TURNTABLES, TAKE AWAY INSTRUMENTS, AND JUST BRING IT ALL DOWN TO A BORING-ASS FOUR-TO-THE-FLOOR DRUM MACHINE, AND YOU STILL CAN HAVE GOOD HIP-HOP WHEN YOU INTRODUCE GOOD LYRICS. THAT’S NOT TO SAY THAT ALL OTHER FACETS ARE UNNECESSARY, BUT THEY JUST AREN’T AS IMPORTANT.

  6. Your view is kinda cool. Never looked at it that way.

  1. August 28, 2012

    […] it is said in the ‘Reviler: I disagree: The Importance Of Lyrics post’: “MCs are constantly pushing themselves: write more songs, come up with more complex rhyme […]

  2. September 27, 2015

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