Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What draws us in

"What sorts of things do you look for in deciding what music you like?" asked Facebook friend Don. "Technical ability? Lyrics? Etc.?"

An interesting question. The quick answer would be that all of those things are important. A more accurate answer is that it depends on the song.

For instance, back in 1995, a friend turned me onto "You Oughta Know" by Alanis Morissette. I was putting together a mix tape of breakup songs. She informed me that "You Oughta Know" had to be on it. She quoted some lyrics:
And every time you speak her name
Does she know how you told me you'd hold me
Until you died, till you died
But you're still alive
Morissette's raw, angry lyrics expressed my raw, angry emotions perfectly. They pulled me in. The music? By itself, it was nothing much. The melody didn't do anything for me. Morissette hadn't quite mastered the art of singing yet. But that didn't matter. The music fit the words. And yes, she made it onto the mix tape.

On the other end of the spectrum are tunes like "Love Rollercoaster" by the Ohio Players. I was listening to this gem the other day in the car, singing along, and it suddenly occurred to me that most of the song only consists of two phrases. These are:
Rollercoaster ... of love
Rollercoaster ... ooh oooooh oooooh ooooooh
and ...
Your love is like
A roller coaster, baby, baby
I wanna ride
Without having to ask, I know that Don would hate this. His tastes run toward songs that tell stories and contain deep metaphors. He likes Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, and, yes, Cinder Bridge. Songs with inane lyrics over catchy melodies make him run screaming, hands over his ears. I can respect that.

On the other hand, could you even imagine "Love Rollercoaster" with profound, Dylanesque lyrics? Here—I'll make up something sensitive and thoughtful, and you sing the words to the "Rollercoaster ... of love" part of the melody:
There's a place in
My soul
Where I hide from
The world outside
Doesn't quite work, does it?

Which leads to a realization. It takes a special kind of talent to write mindless words that simply feel good to sing along to. That sounds sarcastic, but I don't intend it that way. For all the songs I've written, I'm not sure I'm capable of something like "Love Rollercoaster."

It might be worth trying someday. Challenges like that are a good way to avoid falling into a creative rut. The irony is that it would be ten times harder for me than writing something intelligent.

And for my trouble, Don and others like him would assume I'd gotten lazy.


Jeff Shattuck said...

You make such a good point in this. Simple, joyful songs are HARD. I have never written one, despite many, many efforts.

Brian McDonald said...

Any type of writing is easy if you don't mind it not being good.

As much as I love Bad Religion, their lyrics sometimes come off like the rambling of a cranky old man with a thesaurus addiction.

Ryan Hauck said...

I'm typically drawn much more to the music, and pay attention to the lyrics only after I'm enamored with the song. Sometimes that can lead to big let-downs, especially in hip-hop where the music is great but the lyrics are absolutely appalling. If it's just one or two lines of silly or contrived lyrics, though, I can usually ignore it.

OTOH I have an audiophile friend who pays much more attention to the lyrics first--and if they turn her off, then the song is basically trashed for her from that point on, no matter how good the music is.

I guess it could conceivably boil down to "emotion" vs. "meaning" and which effect you're trying to get from the song.

offcenterlarry said...

I often don't listen to the lyrics, at all. Morrisette's [first] album is an exception b/c the lyrics are quite in ya face. Plus I love her voice. But I listen to the bass -- hate songs without one! -- and analyze the chords... But there's a third option: I'm immediately drawn to a well-written mixed meter or odd meter song. UK, New Kind of Talk, even some early Cobham. 4/4 is so early 20th century!

DeppityBob said...

I look at this from the fiction writer's perspective. I'd say most readers are aware, at some level, that prose is melodic. Excellent writers choose words for the sounds they make as well as the ideas they convey, knowing the seductive power of melody. That's why reading Christopher Hitchens can sound like a piano sonata, where Kurt Vonnegut is like a cello quartet. Hunter S. Thompson is Frank Zappa. :D

It's that verbal music coupled with an agreeable, or persuasive, idea and melody that makes for a really catchy song. For instance, one of my favorite songs (really) is "Ray of Light" by Madonna. The lyrics don't make any sense, but read them aloud. They have a flow independent of the music they're set to and create an emotional image. Married with the musical melody, it creates an affirmative, positive emotional package in a catchy, enticing way. In this case, it doesn't matter what the lyrics actually mean. The words themselves are positive, the sounds of them are engaging, and they interplay with the music to create a whole.

So you guys go do that now.