Do Lyrics Matter?

Welcome to the Thursday Topic! This is a new, experimental feature on the WUD Music Blog where a certain highly opinionated blogger will offer their take on a music-related topic of the week and encourage others to share their views in the comments.

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Dylan is seated, singing and playing guitar. Seated to his right is a woman gazing upwards and singing with him.

Lyrics have always had a rather uncertain place in music, sometimes holding great importance, as it was in the various eras of folk music revival, and other times less so, like when this guy sings. We appreciate master lyricists, but we also are content to listen to (and make hits out of) thousands of songs where the lyrics can be boiled down to “I love you babe.” Lyrics seem to be important only when we decide to pay attention to them. This selective listening results in a music landscape where Macklemore can win a Grammy for lyrical themes in “Same Love,” while Eminem can toss some anti-gay lyrics into a smash-hit single and few people notice.

So the topic for today is: do lyrics matter?

My answer is: ideally, no.

Great lyrics can unite a generation. They can strike a nerve that music, or any medium, can seldom reach. They can make something mean something.

But great lyrics are rare, and that’s good. Not every song can be “Imagine,” and not every song should be. The greatest lyrics often come with ideological baggage, and that baggage grows heavy in multitudes. Sometimes, a song should be a song. That’s why the best lyrics, in my view, are the ones that have the courtesy to step aside when you only want to hear the music. Not so profound that they demand reflection, but not so vapid that they serve as an annoying distraction.

That’s not as easy as it sounds. As a singer/songwriter (I know, I know, bear with me), I treat lyrics as nothing more than “words to sing to.” That being said, I put a lot of time into writing lyrics, writing and scrapping whole notebooks (or their online equivalents), and agonizing over every word choice. It’s a bit of a paradox, or irony or something: my lyrics matter a great deal to me because I’m trying to make them not matter; to strike that golden mean between poetry and noise. It’s easy to forget that the priority is the music, and lyrics are like the sound crew setting up for the band: they help make the show happen, but they also should know when to get the hell offstage.

Or we could just all scat sing. How about that?

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Now I turn it over to you. Do lyrics matter to you? Do uninspired lyrics bother you when you listen to an otherwise-great song? Do great lyrics salvage an otherwise-uninspired song?

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9 thoughts on “Do Lyrics Matter?

  1. We are talking about two vastly different production styles and rap styles, though; lyrics aren’t the sole difference. But yeah, hip-hop’s certainly the best bet for lyrical importance.

  2. Personally, I’m becoming much more conscious about lyrics, especially since I got so righteously outraged about “Blurred Lines”. Super offensive lyrics can really ruin an otherwise fun and catchy song for me, and that wasn’t the case a couple of years ago.

  3. Lyrics are just as important as the music in a great song. Are great songs rare? Of course, but that doesn’t mean that for most songwriters lyrics just need to get out of the way. And good lyrics don’t necessarily need to be laden with political gravitas, they just need to be catchy. Lyrics that stick around in the mind of the listener after the song is over, that you find yourself singing while you vacuum. I think those lyrics “matter.”

  4. Well certainly lyrics can have a big impact. If you look at wordsmiths like Cole Porter or Elvis Costello, there’s some wonderful material in the lyrics (the music isn’t bad either). Contrariwise, a bad lyric can certainly mess up a song. Take the middle section of Bridge over Troubled Water: most of the song is a lovely, poetic piece, and then comes this “Sail on silver girl” crap that has no business being there. It just wrecks an otherwise delightful piece of composition.

    Scat singing is good too. Sca badiddly boing boing boing dot da doo bap!

  5. Pingback: What’s Your Favorite Song? | WUD Music

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