Do song lyrics matter?

by Craig Evans

I sometimes worry that perhaps I am not as passionate about words as I should be, given that I am a student of language and linguistics. I certainly love conversation and I am fascinated by the way discourse works, but I never delight in rolling individual words off the tongue, just as I imagine Jeremy Brett playing Sherlock Holmes might, or Stephen Fry perhaps.


‘Indubitably’ is the kind of word I can imagine them both making a meal out of, but then I guess such mannered enunciation comes with the territory when you’re an actor, especially if you’re a theatre actor.


Some people definitely seem to put a lot of stock in individual words, but for me, as long as I get the gist of what’s being said, rhythm, tone and intonation are what matter most when I am listening to language as part of a performance.


Which brings me to song lyrics – does it really matter what’s being said?


I was reading the music critic Neil McCormick’s blog recently, and came across a review of Thom Yorke’s latest offering, a side-project from his usual work as lead singer of Radiohead. McCormick’s language vividly conveys the emotional experience of music:


“…jittery, propulsive afro-rhythmic bass … fizzing futuristic electronica, shuffling percussion … crossing the up-tempo groove with a ghostly sadness… a rumbling, subsonic bass note … the nervy, morse-code synth rhythm and desperate, yearning melody…”


At the end of his review McCormick addresses what he perceives to be an ongoing issue with Thom Yorke’s work:


“over the course of nine tracks, familiar problems start to manifest. Like: what is Thom Yorke singing about? And why should we care?”


Given how much he has interpreted meaningfulness from things like rhythm, tempo and melody, it seems strange that McCormick should then take issue with the unintelligibility of Yorke’s lyrics.


What does it matter what he is singing about? Don’t the voices of most singers function similarly to other instruments in the way that they are meaningful in the context of a song?


Granted, there are genres where lyrics do matter such as with folk music that comes from the tradition of using songs to tell stories. And in hip-hop, words are foregrounded by the integral part played by rhyme in creating the flow of the music.


And then there are of course lyricists whose individual style draws attention to what’s being said. Take Morrissey, for example…


I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour / But heaven knows I’m miserable now


… I can sing along to a surprising number of his lyrics, and they meaningfully influence what I feel about the song. However, with most songs I can usually only manage the chorus:


Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque


What the hell?




Well, nonsensical at least, but that doesn’t stop the song making a meaningful impression on me as I cheerily sing the nonsensical words.


The song this chorus comes from is Prefab Sprout’s ‘The King of Rock N Roll’, and after a quick search on Google I have found that it is about a has-been pop star from the 50s whose life consists of singing his one hit over and over, which is represented by the silly chorus.


Now that I know this, will it change what I feel about the song? No, it won’t. There are too many things going on musically – melody, tempo, rhythm, the timbre of different instruments, including the singer’s voice.


In the end, it probably does just come down to how people hear music differently. Personally, I don’t think incomprehensible lyrics should get in the way of a good song, and if the lyrics happen to mean something as well then all the better.


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