June 1, 2015 § Leave a comment
What’s the deal w/ lyrics?
I can probably only vaguely date it, but at some point between the ages of 18 & 20 I stopped caring very much about what the words to songs were &/or what they meant. (The variations here are important, & I’ll return to them.) I recall not only studying lyrics – their diction, structure, logic – very closely (I actually printed out the lyrics to This Nation’s Saving Grace & Hex Enduction Hour, wh/ is some perverse commitment*), in the same way that I studied poetic texts as if to crack the whole process of writing myself, but carried them in memory in the same way I carried quotes from Beckett, say: as little nuggets of personal meaning only tenuously dependent on their original performance and context. (I wrote them on the covers of exercise books: O, how much ballpoint ink I wasted on The Smiths.) In other words, I treated them the same as any other half-nutty antisocial teenager sexually frustrated, too young to drink & hopped up on his own sense of Profound Meaning. So I suppose the change was part principled renunciation, part fight-or-flight recoil from the leaden weight of Meaning that depression gifts the world, its reduction of culture to a fatal script within the ontology of the everyday. But it was also a shift of genres: from music in the rock tradition to electronica, hip-hop, (black) metal, jazz; from vocal-centred music, in other words, to instrumentals where voice-text was just part of a general texture.
That distinction is self-evidently weird – it’s impossible to extract the linguistic content of, say, ‘European Son’ or ‘Rocks Off’ or ‘Day in the Life’ or ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ or ‘Monterey’ from its sonic surroundings, as if the latter really were just a backdrop, as they’re often presumed in rock criticism to be – but it seems one ingrained in the working assumptions of the historical genealogy of rockwrite. The complaint I came across occasionally when writing for Plan B, that the founding & unshaken methodology of existing music criticism treated lyrics (usually of canonical post-Beatles songwriters, Dylan especially) as the central fact of a song abstracted from performance and sonics, was only partially correct. Sure, Greil Marcus was set to be a political science don before writing about records & Christgau did English at Dartmouth. But Lester Bangs didn’t even go to college; Richard Meltzer, the bitterly unacknowledged pioneer, though a Yale grad student, wrote an aesthetics for rock that brusquely rejected Meaning’s textual fixity (‘Surfin’ Bird’, not ‘Blind Willie Mctell‘) a couple of years before Derrida showed up to do the same. But still the sense persists that, for rock writing – & this is the content of the middlebrow press’s approach to rap: if the lyrics mention asses it’s terrible, if they’re nice & ‘conscious’ then it’s automatically good – the lyrics carry an importance, a specificity, to be set against the vague abstraction of music. Spinal Tap’s ‘Jazz Odyssey‘ remains the archetypal image of instrumental music. But, more than that, lyrics seem, in the value-system of rock criticism, to sanction & create the meaningful structure of songwriting itself. & they’re partly right in their own context – pop after Tin Pan Alley & rock. & it’s partly that most music critics writing on rock, pop, electronic & experimental musics don’t have training in musicology so don’t – in theory – have the tools to follow & explicate the meaning of musical shifts (harmonic leaps, key changes, counterpoint, the logic of chord sequences, etc.) From the (cloistered) perspective of western art music, these are simply two competing forms of literacy. But this isn’t the way they’re figured: there’s only language, w/ music being formed by analogy w/ this. Hence the term ‘literate’ as applied to wordy indie bands (to pick names from the hat: The Go Betweens, post-Boatman’s Call Nick Cave, Elvis Costello, The Smiths (again), Tunnel Of Love-era Springsteen). It may only differentiate a certain fraction of band from others that the writer likes (Costello vs. The Stooges, to be as antiquarian about it as possible) but it’s not difficult to know the axis on wh/ that differentiation is being made: a universally kowtowed-to form of cultural capital.**
It’s a vexing situation for someone – ie, me – who comes from a culture in which illiteracy & semi-literacy is far from exceptional. There’s a double-movement of annoyance involved: that the conventional, class-inflected forms of ‘intelligence’ are the terms in wh/ work is judged, but that these are the only forms available, & that they can just as easily be flipped & turned on specific achievements of literacy. Morrissey, the flamboyantly contained autodidact, is at first regarded as something of an upstart & then assimilated w/in the pantheon of ‘legends’ of rock because, having minted a new variation of rock ‘literacy’, he managed to stay within it for the next 30 years. If he decided he’d had enough & was gonna record a Samuel Kerridge-style primitive shouty techno album, he’d be laughed back to LA***. Whereas – & I know this isn’t quite the same thing – Oxford-educated Elisabeth Price can make all the ‘literate’ video art she likes & no-one bats an eyelid. If the aesthetics of rock were originally about the reclaiming of ‘culture’ for the working class – & hence exploding what ‘culture’ signified, turning the process of culture’s division of hi-lo labour into a permanent revolution – then this simply represents a return to a crypto-Leavisite form of cultural judgement.
*though nice to find out the lyric on ‘Deer Park’ I thought was “large type menstrual rash” was actually “minstrel ranch”, less embarrassing
**this is different from the question of what sort of songwriters get taken into the embrace of middlebrow institutions, eg only the ‘literate’ ones (Paul McCartney included, his ‘literacy’ being mostly just another aspect of his shifting virtuosity).
***I’m not quite sure where his literate but far from erudite Autobiography fits into this – esp. given that he seems to have written it in part b/c no-one outside of his existing fanbase is buying or enjoying his albums anymore