Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Half-thoughts and their dangers

I suffer from more than a fair degree of intellectual dilettantism, swinging from "brilliant idea!" to "brilliant idea!" without ever actually finishing the development of any given one. Heck, look at these blogs.

But at least I don't write a newspaper column.

John Harris at the Guardian wrote a rather appalling column about lyrics in popular music back in June. He complains that they are not meaningful enough. Pop music lyrics, not deeply meaningful? Imagine that!

Judging by the narrative development of said column, he seems to have started with an unimpeachably great idea: Coldplay fucking sucks. Chris Martin fucking sucks. Their music is not half bad, other than the orchestra. Most of all, though, Chris Martin's lyrics are bathetically bad, the sort of scribblings you might expect from an earnest ninth-grader or a precocious and sensitive twelve-year-old -- but not from a grown man! I mean, Christ:

Ideas that you’ll never find
All the inventors could never design
The buildings that you put up
All Japan and China, all lit up
A sign that I couldn’t read
Or a light that I couldn’t see
Some things you have to believe
But others are puzzles, puzzling me

Great galloping bollocks! are these bad lyrics, still more from the "world's most important band" of the moment. Not that Chris Martin means ill, it's just hard to write anything meaningful when you don't know anything meaningful.

Anyway, let us, for the time being, take Coldplay's immense badness as a given. Mr. Harris could have produced a wonderful piece by tripping back through the history of "important" bands with dogshite lyrics. (A certain popular group from Dublin must stand and represent here for the atrocities of their latter career, all apologies to a Mr. Cooke.) Oh, how David Crosby might have trembled! (or not.)

But instead, Harris begins to veer off on a weird tangent about modern lyrics not being meaningful enough. I quote:

One need only listen to the songs written by such equally confused groups as Keane, Snow Patrol, Embrace and Athlete to understand that, just as rock musicians once opportunistically sang about peace and love, punk-rock anarchy and the 1980s imperative to "go for it", so the latest generation often seems to be united by a fondness for inconclusive songs that try to capture life's most elemental aspects, but end up evoking nothing much at all.

Far be it from me to defend these bands. I haven't the faintest idea who the last two even are, and have only the faintest (and not too positive) impressions of the first two. He says they're "lushly produced self-helpery," and, sure, I'm willing to believe it. Not really news that a band like Coldplay would spawn imitators, but, OK. And then he goes off the cliff.

And what of the wider socio-economic picture? The ideological age of culture wars, in which sparky musicians felt compelled to adopt the mantle of social critics, is long gone. ... It would be nice to welcome some 21st century equivalents of John Lennon, John Lydon, Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker, but the chances look pretty slim.

Guh? John Lydon I'll grant you, regardless of his motives. But to elevate John "Freda People" Lennon and Mr. "Meat Is Murder" Morrissey as socially conscious artists all young bands should imitate? We're treading on dangerous ground here. (I am a great devotee of Lennon's music, and much less a devotee of the dangerously broken man, but has this man ever heard "Sometime in New York City"?) Much as I like a few Morrissey/Smiths songs, the man's so full of shit that, well, complete that as you will.

And then further he falls:

There's an easy retort to all this, of course. Coldplay, Keane and Snow Patrol are not the only successful groups; should anyone tire of all their lushly produced self-helpery, they need only turn to the more prickly music being peddled by the likes of Franz Ferdinand, the Futureheads, the Kaiser Chiefs and Bloc Party. Their stuff comes with satisfyingly jagged edges; the words seem a little more worked-out than the rest of the stuff you hear on the radio. ... But what's still missing is any real sense of rock consistently engaging in the art of social comment. Worse still, even the most promising minds among modern musicians don't seem to have much of a facility with words.

Thence follows mockery of the lyrics to Kaiser Chief's "Oh My God", not a terribly intelligent lyric but a very brilliant song. Besides, "Drifting apart like a plate tectonic" is a great lyric. And there are some real gems elsewhere as well:
"Cu- cu- cu- creosote is pouring out of my brain
I swear I heard the floorboards; they were creaking your name."

I would submit those lyrics to a poetry contest sooner than I would "Mind Games", that's for certain.

Thence follows a very good mini interview with Andy Partridge of XTC, who seems to have thought about the theory of good pop lyrics more than even I have. Then again, I don't like XTC much, but who's counting. Then it's onto a professor of Modern English Literature at University College London, John Sutherland.

With whom he assaults "Morning Bell" by Radiohead. Alright, so I'm predictable. Anyhow:

We spend an hour or so picking through a selection of lyrics: the entirety of X&Y, gleaming examples of rock's past glories by the likes of Morrissey and Paul Weller, and Radiohead's sense-defying Morning Bell, an embodiment of the idea that if narrative coherence is among the duties that modern musicians have abandoned, Thom Yorke may have quite a lot to answer for.

Sutherland scrolls through the lyric to Morning Bell on his computer screen. After a couple of lines, his face has screwed into a mixture of bafflement and distaste. "What are they doing? There's no grammar in there; no syntax at all. Even Coldplay have a bit of that: subject, object, verb. There's none here, is there? It's just bits of language, floating loose. There's poetry like that - Ezra Pound, for example. But a lyric like this tells us nothing at all. 'Release me/ release me/ Where d'you park the car/ Where d'you park the car/ Clothes are on the lawn with the furniture.' What is this? Eviction? Prison? TS Eliot said, 'Real poetry communicates before it's understood.' But with this, I'm not sure it does either."

I may be biased, but there is more sense in Morning Bell than in half of the Pound oeuvre combined. And I like Pound! But just look:

The morning bell, the morning bell.
Light another candle. Release me, release me.

You can keep the furniture. A bump on the head.
Howling down the chimney, release me, release me.

Where'd you park the car? Where'd you park the car?
The clothes are on the lawn with the furniture. Release me. Release me.

And I might as well, I might as well
sleepy jack the fire drill
Round and round and round and round and round
Release me. Release me.

Cut the kids in half.
Cut the kids in half.
Cut the kids in half.

Lights are on but nobody's home
Talking about but noone's listening
And I'm walking, walking, walking, walking

Lights are on but nobody's home
Everybody wants to be a villain
Everybody wants to be a villain
Nobody wants to be a slave
and I'm walking walking walking walking...

The obvious "social context" of the song is a divorce. I mean, "cut the kids in half." Sheesh. The clothes on the lawn with the furniture. There is a subtext of amnesia and ghostliness: howling down the chimney, a bump on the head, lights on but nobody home. (Also, and this suggestion comes from SongMeanings so take it with a box of Morton's, "The Morning Bell" happens to be the name of a rather good and very evocative painting by Winslow Homer.) There are very needlessly obscure Radiohead songs; this is not one of them. Both official versions, furthermore, are some of the ghostliest things I've ever heard.

And that takes us back to why we sing: some of us sing in the dark to ward away the ghosts, some of us sing to remember our ghosts, some of us sing because we have no ghosts to trouble us. Lyrics matter insofar as they reinforce these higher reasons. I can't enjoy Coldplay or "Walk On" because the lyrics feel banal, empty, trite and disappoint the music. I can enjoy the songs of Neil Young, whose lyrics tend to lie dead on the page but come to life when sung. But while I'm all for the importance of lyrics, it seems sheer folly to try to look at them as poems. They're no more meant to be poems than a Pound Canto is meant to be sung.

I could continue my response to the essay -- there's not much to go -- but I've made my point. I'll just close out with a little quotation from an artist we both admire, from a fantastic song that delights in not making "coherent sense" and in not being rooted in any particular time, though its place is unmistakably British:

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Don't you think the joker laughs at you?