Our Love of Lyrics

I’m back with more Amaze-ing Words Wednesday! In my post on Poetry You Actually Like, several readers pointed out that songs are poetry. Indeed, songs are simply poems put to music for our enjoyment. Lyrics speak to us in so many ways. Why do we have such a strong positive reaction to lyrics we like?

They are beautifully written. We appreciate the artistry of a well-written song. From Cole Porter to Carole King to John Mayer, we’ve had some great songwriters through the years. Arranging words on a page doesn’t really convey what happens with these lyrics. Instead, it feels like the lyricist went out on a dark night and stood among a throng of fireflies, catching only a few in their Mason jar, and then rearranging them to light up in just the right way to communicate to the whole world. There are over 171,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, and a songwriter can only choose a few of them, arrange them in a particular order, set them into stanza structure, often make them rhyme, and relate what they want to say within a few minutes. The best songwriters should get high marks for doing it so well. Thank you, McCartney-Lennon and many others.

They evoke strong memories. You know that song that comes on the radio and makes you think about the night you were 17 years old and the hottest guy in the room strode up and asked you to dance? Or the one that was playing in the background when you asked your wife to marry you? Or the hymn that you sang under the stars every year during the church camp bonfire? In a moment, a tune and its lyrics can transport you back to that moment and you find yourself caught up in the emotions of that memory.

It doesn’t have to be a profound memory. It could be a Beach Boys tune that makes you think of that time you foolishly drag-raced your friend and got pulled over by a cop. It might be the song you chose for your first choir solo. It might even be the Muppets Show opening theme that takes you back to your childhood and your love of Animal. (Yes, these are all my memories.)

But we remember those songs, and in particular their lyrics. It’s time to put on make-up, it’s time to dress up right, it’s time to get things started . . .

They express what we wish we could say. Recently, a friend of mine posted to her Facebook page “That song I dislike so much ‘If I die young…’ won’t quit spinning in my head.” I nearly gasped. How could she not like that song by The Band Perry with its poignant lyrics that give me pause everytime I hear it? Perhaps I like the song so much because events in my life make me consider dying before your time and how that would be, but that thought is not highly negatively charged for me either.

That, however, is the beauty of poetry set to music. It speaks to one person but not another. Sure, we can all agree that Jimi Hendrix is a paragon of poetry for the single lyric, “Excuse me while I kiss the sky,” but songs that touch us usually do so because they are so personal. We have those lyrics that speak to some part of us and say what we wish we could. In a few words or a few lines, a song might tap into a feeling that we didn’t know how to express, but now there is an avenue for it.

Maybe some of you relate to this one from Adele.

They cheer us up. Some lyrics are just plain fun and put a smile on our face. Instead of saying much about this, I’ll give you an example of cheerful lyrics. Here’s one of my favorite current songwriters, Brad Paisley.

Share your thoughts on lyrics. Why are words set to music especially poignant? What lyrics stick with you? What memories, emotions, or thoughts do great lyrics evoke? Share your favorite songs and memories.

16 thoughts on “Our Love of Lyrics

  1. Music, I think, often creates a man-made moment of grace. We spend our lives looking for that perfect moment and trying–on some level–to create it. Words and music set together usually fit so perfect that when they resonate, they do so in a big, big way.

    Some of it is that music makes us remember, but it also taps into our fantasies. A normal moment can become larger than life when you remember what song was playing when it happened.

    Some of my favorites:

    Sometimes I like what I like because it’s terribly romantic. “Magdalene” is that way. The song is about an outlaw trying to get his girlfriend to ride off into the sunset with him.

    “Magdalene” by Guy Clark: Don’t need no pistol for the tickets. I’ve got just enough to get us down the line. I don’t know what happens next. Your guess is just as good as mine.

    Sometimes the song reminds me of a certain time in my life. “Signs” was originally sung by Five Man Electrical Band, but I like the Tesla version better…because they say the effword and that’s what that song needs. I can’t hear this song without grinning at the least and yelling the the words at most–

    “Signs” by Tesla:

    Now, hey you, mister, can’t you read?
    You’ve got to have a shirt and tie to get a seat
    You can’t even watch, no you can’t eat
    You ain’t supposed to be here
    The sign said you got to have a membership card to get inside

    Sometimes the song is so poignant and meaningful for me that it makes a lump form in my throat and tears sting my eyes–

    “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” by Pearl Jam: I’ve changed by not changing at all. This small town predicts my fate. Perhaps that’s what no one wants to see.”

    “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac: “I’ve been afraid of changing because I built my life around you. But time makes you bolder. Even children get older, and I’m getting older too.”

    Fun post. I enjoyed it. Hope my reply was not too long. 😀

    1. In love with this phrase from you, Catie: “man-made moment of grace.” Frankly, some of the most poignant lyrics to me I probably wouldn’t even share publicly here; they cut too deep and say too much about me, I suppose. I loved reading what it meaningful to you.

  2. Great post, Julie, and great comment, Catie. I’ve always found it fascinating that after many MANY years I can still sing all the lyrics to hundreds of songs from when I was growing up. For me they bring back a time when I was carefree and had no obligations and had another life. I just got turned onto Adele in the last few months after watching the Music Awards because I love her lyrics. I believe the poetic words and music resonate with us in some personal way and therefore make us “feel”.

    1. Patti, my kids ask me all of the time, “How do you know the lyrics to all of these songs?” Even if I haven’t heard something for 15 years or so, the music still comes back to me. Example: “We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun…” That NEVER plays on the radio, but I think I still know it all. LOL! I agree that poetic words and music resonate in a personal way.

  3. Music is uplifting, of course it’s sad too. I still get teary-eyed every time I hear The Way We Were. But, I look to music to ramp up the energy and my favorite tune is Blue October’s Independently Happy. The lead singer goes on and on about how he doesn’t need anyone or anything to find his happiness, really he’s just very mad at an ex- the entire album, but it motivates me anyway.

    1. I had never heard Blue October’s Independently Happy. Had to look it up, Tiffany! (The title reminded me of Bjork’s song, Violently Happy; her lyrics are kinda cool.) I need to add IH to my playlist!

  4. I just did a blog post last week about how the words of songs can leap out and grab you – great minds…? http://mfantaliswrites.wordpress.com/2012/01/20/words-and-music/ 🙂 I think part of the power of lyrics to move us is the fact that we remember words so much more easily when they are set to music.

    I love artists who challenge me with their words and images, like R.E.M. or Peter Gabriel or Pearl Jam (as Catie mentioned). Use words that surprise me and make me think (“Supernatural Superserious”). Use images that I’ve never heard before, that draw pictures I’ve never imagined (“Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”). Tell me a whole story (pretty much anything by Dave Matthews or Adele). Yes, yes!

    Or, as the Beatles recognized early on in their careers, play with a cliche. I’m happy just to dance with you (although I think I might fall in love with you before it’s over)… and now the song is over and look, I’ve discovered I’m in love with you. Bang! Some of the best pop songs use this kind of twisty surprise ending (“Everything You Want” by Vertical Horizon; even the Jonas Brothers did it in “What I Go To School For”).

    There is so much we as novelists can learn from great lyricists; after all, they are working in such a tight and restrictive medium, with so much to accomplish in a very small space. For them, word choice is everything. It should be the same for us.

    1. I loved your post! Your examples are so great. What I adore about The Beatles in particular is their range. From I Wanna Hold Your Hold to A Day in the Life to Revolution (perhaps my fave) to I Am the Walrus, their words and images come alive for me.

      Your observation that lyricists work in a restrictive medium with a small space is so true. We novelists sometimes forget that we also have to work within a structure. I like that challenge! I enjoy the idea of conveying words of beauty and intensity within a framework. Fab insight!

  5. I love music and songs that take me back in time- Hey Jealousy by the Sand Rubies is a big one it was new when I had just moved out on my own for the first time and it gets me every time.

    1. Another song I don’t know! Where have I been? I think this post may cause me to make some iTunes purchases and create a whole new playlist. Thanks, Alica!

  6. “I bet Piper Bayard could make this thing jingle!”

    Yes. I have seen her belly dance a couple times. It’s impressive.

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