I wrote a piece earlier this year questioning how far music is about the lyrics and the concepts contained within a song, or whether it is more about the melodies and the audial agreeableness of a song. I concluded that it was about striking a balance, underlining that I personally like some songs because I really connect with the lyrics, even if the actual music isn't all that spectacular, and vice versa – sometimes it sounds great but the lyrics are trash.
And it is this second instance that I want to focus on in this post, taking it beyond whether we simply like or dislike a set of particular lyrics. Recently, on the advice of my friend at University, I have started listening to a lot of the rapper Young Thug. He assured me that his vocals are exceptional, but warned me to ignore the lyrics, because they are well and truly abominable. And I found, interestingly, that despite the name and despite the aura of negative publicity Thugger seems to carry around with him, a lot of his songs are indeed quite soft and vocally delicate.
However, his lyrics, as my friend warned me, are entirely the opposite. While his croons may tempt some to place him in a genre other than Hip Hop, his subject matter anchors him firmly in the rap realm. And it's a shame, because the explicit and often crass lyrics jar starkly with the innovative vocal techniques Young Thug uses, meaning it is hard to really empathise with the song. We’re left unsure as to whether we’re supposed to feel in awe of all the money, drugs and girls Thugger supposedly has at his disposal, or be moved by the vulnerability in his voice. It seems my friend got it right, and you can only really appreciate the rapper's masterstrokes if you block out his lyrics. But surely we shouldn't have to do this? Although we admitted earlier that you can enjoy music without loving the lyrics, at the same time, surely the lyrics are still important to the overall listener's experience. Music is, after all, often about identifying with the artist as they supposedly reveal the innermost layers to their soul. So if the voice is beautiful, but the lyrics are unpalatable, how can we truly latch onto the song's wavelength?
But okay, perhaps if the vocals are really that good, we can look past the lyrics. How many pop hits have had earth-shattering rhyme schemes and cleverly interweaved metaphors anyway? Good lyrics are not, it seems necessary.
Or are they…?
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
Photo credit Tom Øverlie NRK P3, flickr.com
Back in sixth form, I remember being sat in the computer room, and my best friend tapped me on the shoulder. He was pinching in between his eyes, you know, like when you mock cry at something. Except when he looked up, there seemed to be genuine despair etched into his expression. What was wrong?? Had his girlfriend broken up with him?! Had he just gotten a detention?!
He answered my frenzied questioning with a pained point towards his computer screen. It was displaying a YouTube video of some indie rock band song, the visuals being in black and white, the vocalists displaying gloomy expressions, like the cameraman had just told them their budget’s been restricted so they’re having to drain away the colour – along with any life that might once have occupied the singers’ eyes – from the video. As I realised that they were actually the cause of my friend’s distress, a puzzled look stretched across my face.
‘Bro, seriously, what are you doing? Why would you want to listen to music that makes you sad? Music’s supposed to be a form of entertainment,’ I remember complaining as I rolled my eyes and returned to my own work. “It’s a good song though”, I heard a grumbling voice mutter from my left.
And this is where my confusion began. I used to try and limit my phone’s music repertoire to upbeat tracks and albums with a positive message. That stopped when I was introduced to the grimy world of American Hip-Hop and Rap, and as you will have gathered from previous posts, the often moody and melancholic Travis Scott is now one of my favourite artists. The so-called Emo-Rap, although I didn’t initially realise it, has probably been my favourite genre for the past few years now.
However, I often encounter a dilemma regarding the conflict between my old musical habits and my new ones: When we’re feeling a little despondent or upset, should we listen to upbeat music to try and drag ourselves out of our rut? Or, should we listen to music that mirrors our mood, and that we can relate to in that moment?
I used to opt for the first one because I thought this was common sense, but now I almost always go down the second route. Does it make me feel better having someone else reciprocating my mood down my earphones? Ultimately, I’m not sure it does. But in that low space, I definitely don’t feel like putting on some chirpy country music.
I find it interesting that many artists nowadays seem to be at their most creatively productive when they’re feeling their most desolate. Look at Adele, Drake, Beyonce’s Lemonade, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, and Kanye West. Their most revered work is undoubtedly their most despondent. Is this because critics feel as though they’re seeing the real artist when they lay themselves bare and open up to us about their deepest doubts and fiercest fears? Perhaps despair causes the artist to become more introspective, and subsequently more honest?
But I’m not completely convinced. Pharrell Williams, arguably the most prolific hit-maker of this decade, is almost exclusively positive in tone and in message. Calvin Harris’ latest album saw a return to the days of carefree disco-funk. And my dad’s favourite Country artist at the moment, Zac Brown Band, have a running theme throughout their songs of forgetting your worries and sitting back on a beach deck chair with a cold beer and a guitar, which is certainly a refreshing attitude to life, isn’t it?
It seems, as always, that there are two sides to the story. There are now songs for every mood. But which shade should we go for, brilliant gold or gloomy blue? Does musical wallowing just cause us dive even deeper into our dejection? Should I have stuck to my sixth form guns, is there really any sense in listening to music that makes us sad? Or do these tracks have more artistic value than bright, free-spirited, but perhaps less substantial ones?
Whose side are you on?
Stay down or turn up?
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
Call me old fashioned, but last Friday, I bought a song on iTunes. No, I haven’t got Spotify, Apple Music, nor Tidal. I still like paying for music that I’ll be able to keep, not paying for music that I can keep as long as I pay £10 a month for the rest of my life. Maybe, if you psychoanalysed me, you might find this streaming stubbornness is something to do with an inner desire for some kind of permanence in these times of constant flux, or maybe it’s some deep-rooted sense of greediness that leads me to want to actually own the piece of music… Whatever, all I know is I’m still on Team iTunes, even though Apple, I’m sure, would much rather I transferred to the more profitable Team Apple Music. Well, in all honesty, I’m not sure I feature that highly on the multi-billion dollar company’s list of interests, but anyhow…
Sorry for the diversion! Rant over, that’s for another post…
Where was I – oh, yes, I bought a song on iTunes. For those of you interested, it was Coldplay’s out-of-the-blue collaboration with Big Sean, Miracles (Something Special). I’ve never been too keen on brackets in song titles (to me it looks like the artist couldn’t make up their mind what to call it), but I decided to overlook that minor sticking point on this occasion…
It’s a very motivational, carpe dium, ‘ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp’, kind of song – which is why I like it. I’ve written before about the ‘Gap Year mentality’, where you constantly feel like you need to be productive. So the Miracles vibe really resonated with me, because I’m currently trying to push myself and reach for the stars with my golf, my writing, my song-writing, and my academic career.
I’ve mainly gotten this attitude from my dad, who’s always instilled in me a sense of pride and aspiration. So, I thought I’d play him the song.
Now, as you might imagine, my Radio-4-loving dad isn’t exactly too fond of my rap/hip-hop predilections, so I thought ‘hey, let’s ease him into a bit of Big Sean on a song without any swearing, nor any drug references or innuendos, and on a song with my dad’s own crie de coeur at its core. He’s bound to like it, right?’
So as we were driving to golf that same day, I connected up my phone to my cherished aux cable and pressed play. My dad winced, expecting some heavy basslines and hard-hitting rap to jar through the speakers, but instead was greeted with a light, mystical piano. His expression eased, shifting from surprised, to relieved, to contemplative.
As the song meandered through the warm vocals, the upbeat synths and the inspiring lyrics, finishing on a high with Big Sean’s verse, I glanced across eagerly at my dad. What did he think??
He shrugged nonchalantly, and then grinned at me, saying, ‘It sounds to me like they’ve written this pretty dodgy song, and thought, ‘Hmm, lets put a rap at the end to make it sound a little less boring.’’
But…what about the stirring message??
Another shrug, ‘I’m sure the lyrics are great. It just doesn’t sound to me like that good a song.’
And that got me thinking. Every car journey, I try and convert my dad to the wonders of my musical penchants, and every car journey, I fail miserably. I think he once said he liked a Lil Yachty song, which I’ll give him credit for, but apart from that – nada. And in all honesty, that’s fair enough, it’s good of him to even put up with my constant Travis Scott, Kanye West, Drake and Big Sean merry-go-round in the first place, when I know he’d much rather be listening to Test Match Special. And anyway, since when are our parents supposed to share our taste in music?
But my frosty Coldplay reception made me realise something. My dad had criticised its catchiness as a song, looking at it purely as a piece of art, and judging it objectively, as a music critic would. And, listening to the song again, I actually get what he’s saying. The chorus doesn’t really go anywhere, the vocals are perhaps a little restrained, and Big Sean’s verse is tight, but he’s written tighter.
Yet, I wasn’t drawn to this song because of its abstract, musical quality. It might not be an earth-shattering piece of art, and it probably didn’t get amazing reviews in the papers and magazines. However, the lyrics made an impression on me, they made me feel inspired, excited to go out and make the most of life, and they still do every time I listen to the song. And that’s how I judged it, purely on how it made me feel, regardless of whether I thought the song had any objective value.
So what does this mean? Should we judge music how my dad and impartial critics might judge it, or should we just go purely with how it makes us feel, whether it provokes an emotional response from us or not? And how far is music now about the lyrics, the message, what the artist has to say underneath all the shimmering synths and driving drums? Or is it still mainly about the music, and should artists focus on this, rather than trying to deliver any real substance to their listener?
Or should artists be able to strike a balance between the two?
Food for thought…let me know what you think!
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
*2018 Update, seeing as this post was written roughly a year ago - call me week-willed, but I now have Apple Music
How would you define your favourite musical genre? What makes pop, pop? What makes country, country?
More and more we are seeing a blurring of the lines that used to keep rowdy rockstars separated from just as rowdy rappers, and prevent fisticuffs breaking out over who got cow muck on the soul singers’ suits, as a sheepish Blake Shelton guiltily averts his eyes in the country section.
Nowadays, Hip Hop’s Kanye West can claim from the Glastonbury stage that he is the ‘Greatest rockstar on the planet’. Well, I’m not sure he strictly can claim it, if we’re talking conceptually, but credit to him he went ahead and did it anyway.
And on iTunes (yes, call me old-fashioned, but I’m still standing firm against the streaming revolution), the genre R&B/Soul seems to be far more prominent than R&B or Soul on its own. Even our own music curators can’t seem to figure out this whole genre business. And does Taylor Swift still really make ‘country’ music? I mean, her songs are the closest I can get to finding a pure and simple definition of ‘pop’. Yet her 2014 album, 1989, which was full of rural romances and small-town love stories, such as in the song Welcome to New York, was classified as ‘country.’ It’s as though the editors have forgotten what a Genre even is anymore, taking it to be some little-known French village, or a neo-Americanism meaning ‘Generational Replica.’
But perhaps this is a good thing. Maybe the music execs have realised that fixed genres are an anachronism, a relic in this era of albums continuing to be edited after they’ve been released (Kanye’s TLOP) and playlists instead of albums (Drake’s More Life). Perhaps the agents and managers are worried about upsetting some human rights movement by pigeonholing their musicians into stereotypical categories. Katy Perry, of course, would have every right to call herself a rapper, just as Lil Wayne shouldn’t feel there is anything stopping him from being deemed a classical chorister.
And why stop there? Who should be so narrow-minded as to say that Donald Trump can’t be President of the United States, British Prime Minister and the President of France, as well as fulfilling a side role as King of Thailand? Who says Mo Farah isn’t eligible for America’s Next Top Female Model? How could anyone be so bigoted as to suggest that circles can’t be called squares?
So, it is as I listen to world famous rapper Travis Scott professing ‘I am everything except a rapper’, that I seal the envelope containing my application to be the World’s Best 100-year-old Greek Bison.
You won’t catch me being called a Generational Replica.
Yours sincerely, but not too seriously,
Hello! I'm currently studying Philosophy & Theology at Oxford University, UK. Having always loved writing and music in equal measure, and having always hated decision-making, I figured hey, why do I need to choose between the two?