Thursday, 9 April 2015

Song Lyrics: Why do they need to mean anything?

The news recently was that the original lyrics for Don McLean's American Pie were being auctioned off, the pages and pages of hand scrawled notes expecting to fetch a good price. But part of the media speculation was that 'at last' the 'meaning' of the song might be found. It is well known that the first verse and chorus about the death of Buddy Holly but the rest (there's a lot of it) is less clear.

I've seen it called 'pop's most enigmatic song' although arguably this accolade goes to A Whiter Shade Of Pale by Procul Harem.

But why does it need to mean anything? And even if it did mean something to Don McLean when he wrote it, why can't we each interpret our own meaning how we want to, or just enjoy the music.

Part of this is probably that lyrics are part of the poetic tradition, being essentially poems (at least things that are in verses with rhymes, which isn't quite the same thing) set to music. And poems really ought to mean something. The deliberate nonsense poems of the likes of Edward Lear a notable exception.

But songs have another component - the music. What if you have a good tune and want to just stick some words on it, because songs sell better than instrumentals (or at least are more marketable by popular music radio stations). Or perhaps there's only one phrase that's meaningful but it needs a bit more structure around it to make it into more of a conventional (and therefore acceptable to music publishers) song with verses and a chorus etc.

There are examples of this. My favourite artist is Brian Eno. If you haven't heard of him you have heard his work. He started his musical career as the synthesizer wizard for Roxy Music, processing all their instruments so they didn't sound like any other band. He is therefore on the music side of the creative process (despite for many years claiming to be a 'non musician') and the words are just another instrument, there to give counterpoint to the tune.

He has created some very meaningful lyrics, but by the same token some are just nonsense, sometimes resembling something Edward Lear might have written. He has said that he just says random words, syllables and noises into the microphone and then plays it back to tries to coerce the sounds into something that sounds a little like English. Other times he has used words from a dream, or even the English translations of a series of Spanish phrases from a book on learning Spanish.

Sometimes the lyrics simply have no meaning except any meaning that the listener imposes on them. And that's a good thing.

And the real meaning of American Pie? According Don McLean it means never having to work again...

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