But the Lyrics Are Lame

As I said in my Introduction for this site, I listen to the voice as an instrument – how does it sound with the other instruments – more than what the words have to say.  Practically speaking, that means a song could be one of my favorites despite the fact that its lyrics are lame.  Ten Years After: 50,000 miles beneath my brain? Huh? I’ll admit that there are songs that I really like, and have listened to over 100 times, for which I don’t know all of the lyrics.

For example, the following two videos are R.E.M.’s first national TV appearance October 6, 1983.  They performed Radio Free Europe (one of my all-time favorite songs) and an at-the-time unnamed song which was later called South Central Rain.  I don’t know if the lyrics are lame or not, because I can’t figure out what most of the words are, and it hasn’t been important to me to look them up.  The fact that Michael Stipe has his hands on the microphone means that most of the time you can’t lip-read to get a hint. I DO think that he has an awesome singing voice, which fits perfectly with the band.


As an aside, when writing this post I was pleased to find a “clean” version of the Radio Free Europe performance. When I first found it, in the only copy on YouTube (and still the most viewed), some clown had added a dialog balloon with “I’m gay” at about 0:50. It says a lot about the person who did it and nothing else. When I’m listening to a singer, I want to know how well they can sing and if they fit with the musicians. I don’t care who they sleep with.

So you might be thinking ‘How can you call it one of your favorite songs if you don’t know the words?’ It has to do with the differences in how people experience music. For many, you could say it’s like poetry set to music — the lyrics form a picture in your head, and the sound of the music plus that picture are how you experience that song. For other people it’s primarily about emotions — how the song makes you feel. For some it’s just background sounds.

In addition, I don’t think people experience music the same way all the time. I may not care much about lyrics, but if I dislike the lyrics strongly enough, it doesn’t matter how the song sounds. So I think each person experiences music in some combination of the ways I described above.

The sum of all this is that when you ask people for their favorite songs, the lists will differ. I’m not offended if you don’t like some of the songs I’ve featured here. How do you experience music?

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2 responses to “But the Lyrics Are Lame”

  1. 3rstuff says :

    I don’t think bad lyrics (unless truly awful) lyrics is a negative, but great lyrics enhance the the song completely. This is especially true for concept albums, where you need to listen to the lyrics to enjoy the piece as a whole. And for hip-hop, where the lyrics is where the talent is.

  2. fenster020 says :

    When I was in my 20’s I was a lyrics guy. Bad lyrics would turn me off a song in a big hurry. Now I am more like what you describe here. I see the voice as another instrument and if I like what that instrument does, I don’t much care what it really says. My liking of growling metal vocals is another example. I often have no clue what is being screamed or sang or shouted. I still enjoy the song. There have been times, after first liking a song, where reading the lyrics has made me like a song less. Classic REM stories by the way. Stipe’s deliberate mudding of the vocals is the stuff of legend. Great posts!

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