I don’t think lyrics matter.
Well they do, but that statement was the only attention-grabbing way I could think to start this. What I mean is that I don’t think lyrics should be the main focal point of music. It took a bizarre combination of music genres for me to arrive at this conclusion, but let me see If I can walk you through my reasoning.
In my junior year of high school I discovered the Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós. The albums Ágætis Byrjun and ( ) specifically worked their way into near-daily rotation on my iPod. At the same time I also began to fall deeply into metalcore as I frustratedly grappled with my first real breakup. Metal’s harsh screaming vocals, pounding cannon drums, and abrasive guitar seemed to be a perfect reflection of how I felt internally most of the time. Any time I needed a break from that aggressive stuff, I’d go straight to Sigur Ros and use them as an escape. It was like mixing uppers and downers: I used these two genres to accentuate whatever I was feeling at the time. In jumping back and forth between two (seemingly) different types of music so frequently I started to notice some odd similarities. The primary connection I noticed was the way they both approached lyrics. As much as I loved the hardcore scene at the time, I almost never understood the lyrics. The typical criticism of “how can you even tell what they’re saying?” was completely valid. At that time I never had an answer to that criticism, but now I realize it was because I didn’t care about the lyrics; I cared about the music.
Lyrics are great. I’m a writer, I’m obligated to love the written word. Within the context of a piece of music however, I feel that lyrics shouldn’t be viewed as the most vital element. Even in hip-hop, a genre where the voice is the primary focus, there are still interesting ways to create music without focusing on the words explicitly… but I’ll come back to that in a second.
The connection between Sigur Ros and my newfound escape of metalcore was lyrics. Not the content, or the delivery, but the approach. Unless you spoke Icelandic, you had no idea what Sigur Ros songs are saying. Furthermore, some of their songs are written entirely in “hopelandic” a nonsensical language invented by the band which has no meaning. As the band describes hopelandic as “a form of gibberish vocals that fits to the music and acts as another instrument.” While that’s an interesting and novel approach, to an average listener (especially an American high schooler) the whole thing was unintelligible to me. As was metal. I began to realize that both genres were approaching vocals in the exact same way. Obviously you can make out the occasional lyric in a metalcore song, but to me the vocals simply became a part of the larger musical texture. I understood the emotion that was being conveyed without understanding exactly what was being said. I began to view the voice as an instrument.
While both of the genres were using vocals to the same end, they both had very different applications for me. Metalcore became the devil on my shoulder that screamed unknowable words in anger, and Sigur Ros became the angel who gently sang me into a lullaby-like trance. There was suddenly a duality to nearly all of the music I was listening to, it simply became a matter of asking myself what I was in the mood for.
As time wore on I got over that relationship and moved away from metalcore. I wasn’t that mad all the time, and I didn’t want to be. I transitioned into a more positive pop-punk phase which centered heavily around The Wonder Years. While their vocals are far cleaner than what I was used to, the ever-present nasally punk style was still difficult to decipher at times. After listening to The Wonder Years for some time I sat down one of their albums album and a lyric sheet in front of me and ended up discovering an entirely layer to the songs. Not only did I understand what was being said, I suddenly saw a deeper level that the music was operating on. There was something interesting about listening to an album dozens of times and only fully-deciphering it when you sit down with that as your intent. Listening to an album with unclear vocals makes a record replayable and allows the listener to fill in the gaps with their own meaning. Lyrics can add an additional layer to something that’s already enjoyable.
Which brings me back to hip-hop. One of my favorite hip-hop artists Young Thug started out as a very divisive figure within the rap scene. This article by the New York Post does an excellent job of articulately explaining why Young Thug’s music is fascinating. I often use that write-up as a primer when trying to get friends into Thug and while I think the whole article is a great read, it is long. I’ll post an excerpt here that’s relevant:
“genius.com is the watering hole around which today’s rap enthusiasts gather to parse lyrics and ponder the meaning of life. Young Thug has pages upon pages of lyrics posted on Genius. Many are riddled with debates not over what his words might be trying to convey, but what’s actually being said in the first place.
The refrain of “Lifestyle” crescendos with Young Thug’s syllables piling up like rush-hour wreckage. The crowdsourced consensus at Genius states that the rapper is “livin’ life like a beginner and this is only the beginning,” – but “beginner” sounds a lot like “volcano,” and the garbled ambiguity of the whole thing elicits a distinct pleasure.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped conservative rap fans from turning Young Thug’s inscrutability into a punch line. Less-than-imaginative listeners simply hear it as a stylish quirk. But it’s really a mode of being. Instead of skipping off into the hyper-communicative valleys of the Internet, Young Thug conceals things. He mangles his words in mumbles, swallows them in yawns, annihilates them in growls. He’s not concerned with being understood. So we listen a little closer.”
Within the past year there have been a whole crop of new artists in the hip-hop field taking after Young Thug. Up-and-comers like Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, and Desiigner have all sparked online debates over what “hip-hop” is and where lyricism fits within that.
My two cents (as you can probably guess) is that it doesn’t matter. Music is music. In fact, two of the artists mentioned above don’t even consider themselves rappers. So what does this mean? Are we headed for a Idiocracy-like future where all music is mumbled nonsense? I don’t think so. All I think this means is that the tides are changing. There will always be lyrical music, and people who need to get something out that can’t be communicated through sound alone. The difference is it’s just becoming more acceptable for this alternative non-verbal approach to be viable.
I love this type of music because I can project whatever I want onto it. That’s why I started to love it in high school. I could listen to the abrasive angry stuff and get my emotions out in a safe, harmless way. I could listen to Sigur Ros and reflect, or use it to bounce back from a spiral caused by too much of the other stuff. It all became a mirror of my own thoughts and emotions.
I still look at music the same to this day. Sometimes I listen to an album so much that I’ll memorize the lyrics, but my first listen is always dedicated to taking the piece in as a whole. Trying to decode what’s being said can end up taking away from the overall experience, so I don’t make it my sole focus.
Lyrics are just one piece of the music. You could pay just as much attention to the guitar, or the drums, or the beat, but lyrics are an easy thing to focus on because they’re decipherable. The lyrics are often at the forefront of the music (there’s a reason people call singers as a frontman), they give listeners a common point of reference and something concrete to focus on.
Furthermore, lyrics can add onto a song, but they can also detract massively. In the case of The Wonder Years, The Upsides was an album that I already loved before I knew every single word. Sitting down with the lyric sheet simply added an additional layer and gave me a deeper appreciation for something that I already loved. On the flip side, lyrics can be flawed, and it’s easier to notice flawed lyrics than flawed music. There are only so many words at the end of the day, but there’s an infinite number of sounds. A bad lyric can stick out like a sore thumb, just look at the mania surrounding a single lyric on Drake’s most recent album. Or listen to Ab-Soul’s verse on Chance the Rapper’s “Smoke Again” and tell me his plea for ass-to-mouth isn’t off-putting. Kanye’s magnum opus “Runaway” is a track I love but one that still contains a handful of lines and deliveries I don’t really dig. The song’s verses are followed up by a four minute outro which contains no words, but a garbled vocalization from Kanye. As discussed in this video those four minutes are a prime example of what vocals (not necessarily words) can do in a song.
I believe (at least within hip-hop) the lack of emphasis on lyrics can be traced back to Kanye whose early work represented a shift not necessarily away from lyrics, but towards a greater emphasis on sound as a whole. This was movement was capitalized by people like Lil Wayne who have decent rhymes, but were carried by swag and personality more than anything else. The current crop of “non-rappers” (Yachty, Uzi, etc.) are simply the next evolution of that.
Ultimately everything falls into a spectrum: on one side you’ve got extremely lyrical artists like Kendrick Lamar or The Mountain Goats, and on the other end you’ve got the complete absence of lyrics in groups like Sigur Ros or Explosions in the Sky. Don’t get me wrong, I love it all, and I’m definitely not “anti-lyric” I just believe taking a song as a whole is more powerful than taking it at “face value” and only paying attention to the lyrics. Every piece within the music is vital, lyrics are simply one component. Lyrics are as important or unimportant as you want them to be, but I think focusing too much attention on them turns music into a narrow art form. Emotion can be conveyed without words, and songs can tell a story through sound, we just need to listen to the whole thing.