I recently came across a passage in a Douglas Coupland novel (Player One) in which one of the main characters, a barman called Rick, talks of his friend Lenny recently being sacked from his job as a pianist at the bar because he was always making up lyrics to the songs he played. Rick recalls his friend saying “the lyrics of a song are important only to a point. You probably don’t even remember the words to your favourite song, and that’s why you like it – because you like the words your brain made up to fill in the gaps. A good song forces you to invent your own lyrics”. AHA! I thought, I completely agree! I’ve always secretly thought of myself as being somewhat ‘musically disabled’ – this not to do with my hearing, but to do with my almost complete ignorance towards song lyrics. For years I’ve always struggled to memorise or even really focus on song lyrics, and I’ve I felt hugely envious of those people who seem to know vast amounts of song lyrics word for word. These people are everywhere! Particularly because many (in fact most) of my close friends (and friends of friends) play instruments and are generally pretty music savvy.
I’ve always felt strangely embarrassed about it, fearful of the lyricists and their critical stare: “You ignorant music noob – Be gone!”. To an extent, I agree, and feel my musical knowledge is let down by my lack of lyrical knowledge. But then I got thinking about this duality between lyrics and melody, and which (if any) takes precedence. I’d wager that most lyricists express that their is no hierarchy, they are as one. But the problem is, as in my case (and I’m positive I’m not alone in this) that this binary between the lyrics and the melody is enormously fluid from person to person. I do not doubt that there are many gifted people who can mentally converge lyrics and melodies to such an extent that they are almost indistinguishable: people that know the lyrics of a song word for word, and the narrative inside out, and so the lyrics and the melody become almost inseparable. But then think on the people who know very minimal lyrics to a song, maybe only a certain few words or short phrases, which serve as kind of tonal stimulants, propelling a very subjective and fragmentary inner narrative. The rest however, becomes white noise, empty words washed out by the melody. Perhaps a parallel can be drawn between paintings and comic books, in that both are visual mediums, but in the comic the narrative is expressly spelled out for you (though obviously there is some room for individual interpretation), whereas in the painting the potentiality for interpretation is much vaster, much more subjective, and is untainted by speech or language.
For the ‘lyricist’, the song is being primarily enacted through the lyrics, its narrative being propelled by language, the melody is therefore unavoidably subverted by the lyrics – this because the words spoken are subjectively influencing the listeners reaction to the melody. Interestingly, for the most part you find that people who invent lyrics to songs create substitute lyrics which have a similar phonetic sound to the original word, rather than a word that has a similar meaning but a different sound (let’s call this ‘lyrical malapropism’). Again, this then supports the idea that for the melodist (the person more likely to forget or not fully grasp the lyrics) places the lyrics in a role beneath the overarching melody, unlike the lyricist. You may argue that the divide is more just to do with progression: we start with the melody and as the song becomes more and more familiar the lyrics become more fixed in our memories (and so the song becomes more and more restrictive in its interpretation?). But then there are songs that I’ve been listening to repeatedly for years and I still know very little of the lyrics, this doesn’t tend to change. Maybe I’m just ignorant, but I’m with Lenny, I like to fill in my own gaps, and I like it that way.