December 16th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The meaning of Christmas

CANBERRA OBSERVED Parliamentary stampede tramples freedoms

EUTHANASIA Palliative care remains the true solution

FOREIGN AFFAIRS The more Zimbabwe changes, the more it stays the same

AGENDA FOR AUSTRALIA Putting the 'fair' back in the fair go for farmers

OPINION The new Reformation: How Christians found themselves on the 'wrong' side of history

PHILOSOPHY AND SOCIETY Why Marxists will not engage with opponents

ECONOMICS Kim Beazley rides in as a white knight for the TPP

INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS Mergers could give unions a striking profile

MUSIC Sounds like ...: A vain search for meaning

CINEMA Casablanca: Contender for the 'perfect film'

BOOK REVIEW Australia behind the scenes in WWII

BOOK REVIEW Political sparks at the 'Friendly' Games

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Sounds like ...: A vain search for meaning

by David James

News Weekly, December 16, 2017

One of the most elusive and intriguing areas to examine in music is something other than the music: lyrics. Although superficially similar to poetry, the priorities are very different. The most important aspect of lyrics is how they sound; the musicality comes first. In poetry the phonics, the musicality, is important – Shakespeare’s, Milton’s or Keats’ musicality, for instance, is extraordinary – but it is not as important as the layers of meaning.

With lyrics, it is the other way around. The sound of the words comes first, and the meanings can be sketchy or ill defined. An example in pop music would be Elton John’s songs. The words of all the early songs were written by Bernie Taupin, who is one of the best of the pop lyricists. The method was always for Taupin to write the words first, then John to write the melodies and harmonies.

Taupin’s words are deeply musical and are as important to the success of the songs as John’s composing. John’s compositional technique in his earlier, and better, songs was to apply to Taupin’s words blues-influenced pentatonic (five note scale) phrasing, clever chord changes and modulations, and his distinctive piano style.

John also had in his earlier singing an exceptional vocal range, which meant his choruses were potent climaxes. In his later songs, as his voice deepened and coarsened, that vanished.

What is not important, however, is the meaning. An example is Take Me to the Pilot, which has been the object of much speculation. In reality, it is just incomplete.

John explains: “When Bernie wrote the song and I looked at the paper and I thought: ‘This is too long.’ And I just crossed the last verse out, and the last verse explained the whole song. But in that way you kind of create an enigma.”

There is little point analysing why some lyrics are intensely musical; it is simply unanalysable. It is also doubtful that there is much point analysing lyrics as literature because of the fragility (or often complete lack) of any meaning.

To take another example from John’s repertoire, the song Daniel has had many interpretations, including being considered a song “about being gay”. Taupin explained that it was actually inspired by a story about two brothers, one a Vietnam veteran who returned home to the farm after the war but couldn’t find peace and decided to leave America and go to Spain.

Once again, John cut the last verse out because he thought the lyrics too long.

Lyrics are not literature

That analysis of song lyrics as literature is at best a deeply flawed, even silly, exercise, has not stopped generations of music journalists from making it their focus. One reason is that many are frustrated literary critics and keen to demonstrate their facility.

Another reason is that they do not know how to talk about music: in part because it requires the kind of close understanding that comes from having been a practitioner, and in part because it is very difficult. Far easier to make foolish speculations about what a song is “saying”.

The result has been a widespread failure in the media to develop an intelligent way of talking about popular music forms. Ironically, perhaps the only time when media commentary becomes even remotely interesting is hip hop and rap, about which there is some interesting sociological commentary and aesthetic discussion – ironic, because the music itself is about as close to anti-music as it is possible to get.

Proof positive that there are significant numbers of people do not like music, but they do like the noise it makes.

There have been many great lyricists in the popular song tradition, such as Oscar Hammerstein and Lorenz Hart, both of whom teamed with Richard Rodgers; or Hal David, who teamed up with Burt Bacharach.

Many of the most successful performers are really great lyricists rather than great composers, such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springstein and Leonard Cohen. In some cases, they have been so good at developing musical and evocative lyrics, it has compensated for poor melodies (and in Cohen’s and Dylan’s cases, execrable singing).

Perhaps the singer best at extracting the musicality from words was jazz singer Mark Murphy. He was able to take the often trite language of jazz standards and turn it into profound music and rhythm. For those who wish to hear the very best intersection of words and music, recordings of Murphy performing live, especially towards the end of his life, are worth a close listen.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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