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In this day and age, when we’re being constantly brainwashed by poppy tunes emanating from every possible audio device, it’s easy to forget that song writing is an art form, another medium connecting artists and listeners/readers just like poetry or art or literature. The transformation of writing and social media in the last decade has reduced songwriting and music to simplistic 140 character tweets and texts, leaving little room for creative license. DEV likes her beats fast and her beats down low (as she likes to remind us in monotone about two million times). Nicole Scherzinger throws away all conventional grammatical rules and wails ‘me like the way that you hold my body’.
But how about this:
You say that music’s for the birds,
You can’t understand the words.
Well, honey, if you did,
You’d really blow your lid.
Cause, baby, that is rock and roll.
These are the words of Jerry Leiber, a legendary songwriter who died in Los Angeles just last Monday. Here he’s stressing the importance of words: lyrics. Music has the ability to lift poetry/literature into sharp three dimensional relief and vice versa. Leiber collaborated with Mike Stoller, a composer, to write hits such as ‘Stand By Me’, ‘Hound Dog’,‘Jailhouse Rock’ and ‘Kansas City’ over their three decade career. Leiber took the 50s and 60s and translated it into pithy song lyrics. It’s difficult to think of Elvis Presley without thinking of Hound Dog, and it’s difficult to think of the 50s without thinking of Elvis Presley. It’s not so much the quirkiness of the lyrics that makes that song one of the most prolific of its century, but the way it melts with the jazzy blues rhythms; it’s a perfect marriage between Elvis Presley’s Southern drawl and the social colloquialisms of that time: a language that was the ultimate musical zeitgeist.
Another Leiber song, ‘Is that all there is’, was directly inspired by the Thomas Mann short story ‘Disillusionment’, and is perhaps one of the most poignant and startlingly realistic polemic on the nature of life. “Is that all there is/ If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing/Let’s break out the booze and have a ball,” Peggy Lee sings in her sweet mystified voice. The lyrics are depressingly existentialist, but there’s a faint ‘carpe diem’ theme running throughout (in the slow, plodding beat as well that reflects the slow, plodding juggernaut flow of life – nothing stops, nothing goes, it just flows) that really captures the spirit of Mann’s ‘disillusionment’.
Song lyrics are integral to the song – think of all the songs you’ve ever listened to. Have you ever listened to Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’? More importantly, have you ever felt like a plastic bag drifting through the wind? I know I haven’t. It’s a cliché, but it’s not a relatable cliché. But then you have songs like The Strokes ‘Last Nite’ or The Naked and Famous’ ‘Young Blood’. They all hit on specific emotions/scenarios that some of us may or may not have experienced, but through the expertise of their songwriting and music we can all relate to them. Listening to ‘Young Blood’ is like swimming in a pool of nostalgia, although the song is relatively new: ‘the bittersweet between my teeth/trying to find the in-betweens’ – will mean something different to every person, but in the end still evokes a clinging longing for youth. That’s good song writing. ‘Late Nite’ is a complex song, although not in the same vein as Oasis’ ‘Look Back in Anger’ or Suede’s ‘Beautiful Ones’ (both relying on fragmented poetry to convey their messages). It might be about the disaffected youth culture dealing with depression, their inability to connect with others on a basic human level. But then again, it might be Julian Casablancas writing poetic verse. The man himself has confessed his love for Rumi, the 13th Century Persian poet, exclaiming in an interview with American Songwriter: “That stuff is bonkers out of this world cool. And out there crazy and yeah, that’s always the dream; that the lyrics can still work like that. Cause I think he was a musician, you know? So it can feel like those poems he sang, that’s like ideal.”
Broken relationships – love – are such troublesome themes in music and lyrics. Recently, they’ve been undergoing drastic retardations, years and memories wiped out by a single red heart icon on facebook. Everyone gets the same torn heart when they break up – everyone is going through a mass produced, generic trauma. But think of Donna Summer singing ‘MacArthur Park’.
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
’cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again…
The lyrics are, clearly, a metaphor for a failed relationship. They are undoubtedly strange (earlier on in the song love is compared to a pair of striped pants). But that’s the point – each relationship is unique, individual, just like a song, and the song lyrics should reflect that. Just like how Joni Mitchell looks at clouds, or how Mumford and Sons urges a cannibalistic girl to come out of her cave walking on her hands. Or Ben E. King hypothesising how he’ll be alright if you just stand by him when the mountain crumbles to the sea, literally (another great Leiber song). They all make weird, logical sense. Much more than the ditties produced by all the Nicole Scherzingers and Katy Perrys out there.
Emily Cleaver is Litro's Online Editor. She is passionate about short stories and writes, reads and reviews them. Her own stories have been published in the London Lies anthology from Arachne Press, Paraxis, .Cent, The Mechanics’ Institute Review, One Eye Grey, and Smoke magazines, performed to audiences at Liars League, Stand Up Tragedy, WritLOUD, Tales of the Decongested and Spark London and broadcasted on Resonance FM and Pagan Radio. As a former manager of one of London’s oldest second-hand bookshops, she also blogs about old and obscure books. You can read her tiny true dramas about working in a secondhand bookshop at smallplays.com and see more of her writing at emilycleaver.net.