“If I wrote you a pop song would that work
Four chords a guitar and some meaningless words”
Sometimes I work in an art gallery and the best question I ever get asked is ‘What does this mean’, with the visitor gesturing at some kind of strange film, or a bike that whistles out of tune. Its such a great question: completely redundant but also the hook on which all art and creativity hangs. I think good song writing hovers somewhere between meaning and nonsense. The explicit and the obscure collide to make really incredible lyrics that you half listen to for years only to one day think “Oh of course! That’s what that line’s about.” To me, I think, that is a good song lyric.
Many of the most effective and affecting song lyrics mean next to nothing . I’m thinking here of a lot of The Beatles early lyrics (i’m still reading Revolution in the Head so I’m pretty much always thinking about The Beatles) such as Eight days a week and Hard Days Nights – they are consciously non-sensical and were a central part of The Beatles whole schtick. But those songs mean a lot to a lot of people. They’re perfect pop songs that express so much. I guess I want to think about why its ok for meaningless things to become so meaningful. It seems like it should be kind of a cheat but I don’t think it is.
Bon Iver talks in this interview about writing the lyrics for his album Skinny Love not for the meaning as such but for the melody, in a sort of free form way and then realising there was meaning in them. One which I really like (I don’t actaully like that record all that much my self but I did listen to it quite a bit at one time and its interesting to think about) is “my knees are cold” which is in For Emma, Forever ago. I suppose the meaninglessness of that is nice beause its just one of those little details, and is something I hadn’t heard in a song before. So the lack of a standard relationship between words and meaning allows the writer to be more creative and original.
Converesly I also know that songs filled with personal honest confession can be excruciating. Particularly songs in the break up vain, like ‘Waking Up To Us’ by Belle & Sebastian. That’s a totally brilliant song but its quite painful to really listen to the lyrics. Similarly Kinya Dawson and Amanda Palmer (who I both really really like) can sometimes just be so personal that you have to switch them off and listen to The Monkees instead.
So I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how personal my own songs should be. As I said in my first post, when I started writing songs, I really didn’t want people to know what I was singing about a lot of the time, whereas now I absolutely want people to know what my songs are about. At the moment I think I have two ways of dealing with this. I have songs that are very literal accounts of things that have happened to me. These are really satisfying to write and can help me process those events. But I often worry about whether they are as enjoyable for other people, whether there is any merit in being that personal. I think there are moral and aesthetic issues involved. But it also can create such powerful songwriting. Basically I’m saying I think its self-indulgent but I like it.
I think the other way I have of writing songs is to take something (an event or an emotion) and sort of distill that into a song that is not explicitly about it but that expresses it. I think maybe my more successful songs work like that. One problem I honestly have with this is that I do end up forgetting what the original emotion was that inspired the song, which then leaves a sort of gap in the middle. Maybe it is the gap that makes it a good song for the audience because then they can find their own meanings. But this is a little disconcerting for me and makes me feel a bit like a record player rather than a performer I guess. Here is an interesting thing that the poet William Carlos Williams said which I think is relevant:
“To each thing, its special quality, its special value that will enable it to stand alone. When each poem has achieved its particular form unlike any other, when it shall stand alone – then we have achieved our language. We have said what it is in our minds to say”
Songs are, whether explicitly or not, such personal things and given to the audience in such a personal way that letting them stand alone can be incredibly hard. I think I’m going to try to get better at it though! And then the meanings will all sort of fall into place for me and the listener.