Lyrics, music, musicality
The various discussions about songwriting that have cropped here and elsewhere recently bring to mind a point that often gets lost in the cut and thrust of analysis, argument, and debate about a particular lyric’s merit or a given song’s artistry. Namely: lyrics are only half of the equation (and some times less). Music – musicality – matters. Such a self-evident truth bears restating because while we might all agree on this point, it doesn’t come out in the wash of our talk about what makes good music good.
Obviously, lyrics don’t exist in a vacuum. They come to us through the vehicle of melody and instrumentation and arrangement – in short, the power of music. It’s easy to forget this when debating what good songwriting is and isn’t, especially online where we debate by writing, which usually divorces a lyric from its melody. This is one reason why I often try to incorporate a discussion of composition, arranging and orchestration when I write about music.
But even this is an imperfect measure (often executed imperfectly in my hands). It’s possible, of course, to introduce sound clips in online writing about music. Ron Rosenbaum did this in his Cancer Country piece, but unfortunately even Rosenbaum’s exception proved the rule, because he never once discussed any element of the musical style (the way, for instance, five-seven chords and steel guitars add pathos to the ideas expressed lyrically in country music). Instead he focused on country music’s “idiom” whose “excellence in elliptical emotional compression rivals the best contemporary American short-story writing.”
True, but this just assumes that country music SOUNDS the way it does musically because it’s country and western, when in fact many of the lyrics he wrote about (perhaps all of them) worked – or failed to – in no small part because of the music to which the they were wedded.
So music matters in songwriting at least as much and often more than the lyrics themselves. We know this so well, and yet the point is often lost on us as listeners, not only because (at the most general level) we are a intensely verbal society but also because it’s much easier to study, close read, analyze and deconstruct lyrics (written words) – to wring meaning from them and disassemble them in order to understand how they work – than it is to understand why or how those five-seven chords and a run up to the one hammered out by a bass guitar and a piano can create that certain feeling in the mind, body and spirit that they surely do … but do so fairly mysteriously.
Thus we tend to privilege the lyric disproportionately, I think, because it’s the easier of the two dimensions of popular music to grasp hold and make sense of. Consequently, we tend to think of great songs as Big, Important, Lyrically Profound Works of Art that place deep-seated demands on us – morally, spiritually, ethically, spiritually – as listeners. This is true in some cases of course, but just as often it’s not.
Given that songwriting is at least as much about musicality as it rhetoric, diction, syntax, metaphor, and other elements of written style, a great song might well be a lyrically simple one. Take “I’ll Fly Away.” Separated from the music, lyrics about flying away to heaven can seem almost juvenile in their singsong meter and obvious rhyme scheme and their reliance on the predictable Christian imagery of a heavenly flight to celestial shores. But the song’s tune and arrangement are masterfully simple – as opposed to simplistic: a catchy melody and clappable rhythm organized around ascending chord progressions and high, bold whole notes that combine across the expanse of the chorus to suggest the very experience of spiritual flight.
Now, combined with this music, the lyrics seem – not simplistic – but perfectly imagined … clear and unclouded, hopeful and upward looking. But ask even gifted and insightful writers why “I’ll Fly is Away” is “good” and they’ll probably say something how powerful the unadorned lyrics are and then launch off into a vague encomium to the spirit speaking through the simple faith believing of a child etc. This may well be true, but it still leaves unexplained how the song remains poised perfectly between simplicity and dunderheaded simplism.
Marty Funderburk calls songs like “I’ll Fly Away” puff pastry. The Big, Important tunes are “steak songs” (Funderburk was clearly very hungry when he wrote all this).
Some days you sit down and write a song of epic proportion that covers every theological base with a seven-fold “amen” on the end. Anyone who knows me knows I live to do that. Nothing is more satisfying than a huge power ballad that drives another nail in the coffin of doubt. I couldn’t be more pleased with 2 songs I have out there right now – “It’s All About the Blood” (Brian Free & Assurance) that I wrote with Tammy Dunaway, and “Once Upon a Cross” (Mark Trammel Trio) that I wrote with Gina Boe. I would consider those “steak” songs. On the other hand, Jerry Kelso and I wrote the title cut of Triumphant Quartet’s new project, “You Gotta Love It.” I would consider it a “puff pastry.” It’s light and airy and disappears in your mouth about the time you sink your teeth into it. But it’s so much fun and a tad addictive.
Pithy as this may be, it strikes me as a bit reductive. Funderburk seems to proceed from the assumption that most people think “good” = Important or Profound and thus bases his defense of less lyrically serious music on something like the old axiom that all work and no play makes Marty a dull Christian. There’s nothing wrong with this idea (certainly evangelicalism will only benefit from continually cultivating a lighter side, dumb tenor jokes or not), except that (you guessed it) it inadvertently privileges lyric over music.
In explaining why his song “It’s All About the Blood” is a “steak” song (and here the bloody imagery begins to get a bit too thick for me), Funderburk describes a lyric that “covers every theological base” and “drives another nail in the coffin of doubt” (I for one liked “It’s All About the Blood” better when it was called “It’s Still the Cross” … so does that make the BFA tune country fried steak or a twice baked potato?). But one need only to hum “It’s All About the Blood” to the tune of, say, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to see that lyrics exist symbiotically with music.
I don’t think Funderburk actually intended to short shrift musicality. Indeed, I assume phrases like “seven-fold amen” and “light and airy and disappears in your mouth” are ways of gesturing toward the role of musicality (as opposed to lyrics in isolation) of creating a song’s effect. But when compared with sharp descriptions of lyrics that seal the tomb of doubting, his use of oversimplified food imagery to account for musical effects is telling.
The upshot is that simple is not the same as simplistic and the difference can often be measured in musical – rather than purely lyrical– terms. Good is not only a function of writerly craft but of music composition. While we know how to talk at length about lyrics, we are not nearly as comfortable discoursing plainly and illuminatingly about what makes good music good. This, you might say, is food for thought.