Lyrical Potency

I’ve been thinking a lot, of late, about the impact that music can have through its lyrics, particularly with that impact amplified and shaped by instrumentation, chord progression, and vocal timbre.  I strongly believe that there is power in pure instrumentals, as previous posts on here can attest to (including last week’s), but there is a potency that comes with lyrics that is unmatched by what any other medium has to offer, in my eyes (or ears, as it were).

In particular, my thoughts this week have been drifting back to something that an old friend once said to me about song lyrics: “Sometimes they’re good poetry, sometimes they’re bad poetry, but they are poetry.”  It’s always felt to me like that is an incredibly insightful characterization of how lyrics are often underestimated, and it’s stuck with me as a result.  Especially if a song is catchy or popular, people are sometimes so quick to nitpick and criticize, and they’ll look at a song or artist that’s particularly meaningful to them and praise it by saying that these lyrics are so good that they’re like poetry.  But I think it’s valuable to see all musical lyrics as poetry, and acknowledge that poetry doesn’t only exist as some lofty, elitist standard of writing, but that anyone can write poetry, regardless of the resulting quality.  And, like poetry, there is room for interpretation, extrapolation, symbolism, creative structuring, and so many factors within lyrics, all of which make these words art.

The most wonderful thing about lyrics, to me, is that, like every other facet of music, they are subjective.  True, you can look at figurative language, rhyming, and literary devices to examine a certain type of identifiable flow, but sometimes the simplest, most obvious line(s) can hit somebody just right, at exactly the right time, and it acts like a lifeline, giving a spark of hope, a bit of comfort, or just providing you with the feeling that you aren’t alone, even if it’s a line written by an artist you’ll never speak to who wrote the song about something entirely different from what you’re experiencing.

My life is constantly shaped by moments like that.  I think back to when I was enduring a painful waiting period and connected with “Wait It Out” by Imogen Heap, and constantly went back to the lines, “Everybody says that time heals everything / but what of the wretched hollow / the endless in-between,” and how the term “wretched hollow” became an anchor of sorts in what I was experiencing.  I reflect on a time when I was trying to enjoy what life had to offer me while unsure of how to tackle the looming end to that period, and I leaned on “For Heaven’s Sake” by Thriving Ivory and its command, “Don’t you dwell on the future / for it’s miles away.”  I found this effect in “Cheers (Drink To That)” by Rihanna, where the line ”Life’s too short to be sitting around miserable” inspired me to pull myself out of a rut and do what made me happy.  In recent times, this trend has persisted, with “Pol Roger” by Jimmy Eat World slowly helping me verbalize an understanding of love that I hadn’t even realized I had started developing, and “End Of An Era” by Marianas Trench turning my empowerment and determination to learn from a period and move forward into something tangible.

There’s simply something amazingly cathartic in finding a line (or set of lines) that strikes you so powerfully that you anticipate it every time you listen to a song and have to back it up just to hear it again and again.  Sometimes the effect is so overwhelming that it’s not even possible to properly verbalize, and sometimes a line isn’t so impactful on paper, or perhaps doesn’t even make sense in itself, but in the context of every note and harmonization within a song, it bleeds emotion.

Music does not function this way for everybody, and I am aware of that; I know many people who listen primarily (or exclusively) to instrumental music, and lyrical works simply do not hold their interest.  For some people, music in general doesn’t hold much interest.  But I think that every song’s lyrics—regardless of genre, regardless of if they’re by some artist with hard-to-interpret lyrics or from a song about partying—are poetry, and it does a disservice to condemn the impact a song can have based on how “deep” it is considered to be.  Lyrics can be such a powerful tool; they can express more than words alone can, creating emotions and understandings previously inaccessible.  That, above all else, is why I chose the quote I did for this blog’s title: If words alone are not enough, music is capable of bridging that gap.

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