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.

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