I sometimes think that one of the best ways to ruin a piece of music is to take pen to paper and start writing lyrics. It occurs to me that adding lyrics can be fraught with difficulty; and oft-times reveals a writer’s narcissistic tendencies. Case in point, you may notice when listening to a Beyoncé song that it features a wall-to-wall lyrical assault, written in third person about materialism or her expectations for/from success and/or lovers, and that is…well…a lot for a listener to digest to say the least. Or you may come to realize that Sting could have been a stalker at heart at one point in his music career.
Lyrics tend to undermine the timelessness of music. The moment you add lyrics, a piece of music becomes a song. And a song always has a date, a time, and a place stamp pinned on it that ultimately cannot be disassociated. I suppose that no matter what you argue about the topic of adding lyrics to music, this is likely a universal truth and must be conceded. In my eyes, instrumental music has a chance to become ‘timeless,’ songs become ‘classics.’
Lyrics can be a distraction and, in my eyes, take the easy way out in communicating emotion. They can at times seem clumsy or sophomoric. They remind me of training wheels on a bicycle.
Have you ever watched a movie or television show that invokes the purview of a narrator? Does that insult your intelligence as the viewer, like it does me? Have we fallen so far into laziness en masse that we need to be told what to surmise, think and feel by a smug, know-it-all narrator? Does that reveal a weakness of the script? Or bad acting? I feel insulted, and I take it personally as an attack on my intelligence. Lyrics can have a similar impact on a piece of music.
And then there was my Uncle Paul, a song plugger from the Big Band era, who once had a thought he shared with me in the mid-1990’s after listening to my first album. He said “Tommy, a great song is a perfect marriage of music and lyrics, and you’re leaving the bride at the altar...” I get it. And that may be how most people think. But then explain the sublime, timeless beauty of Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio Italien,” Satie’s “Gnossiennes 1-6,” or Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (Note: It broke my heart that United Air Lines robbed us of this gorgeous piece of music by pummeling it with a branding iron for two decades).
To solidify my point, I will call out two of the most revered and iconic songs of recent generations:
• “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen...the recent trend of adopting this as a ‘religious’ song into gatherings for worship just because it has the word ‘Hallelujah’ in it is especially horrifying considering the earthy and secular intent of the lyrics
• “MacArthur Park” by Jimmy Webb…truth be told; I just shake my head in disbelief every time I hear about a lost cake recipe becoming the reason for the song’s dramatic payoff. Oh no!
Maybe this is a good time to mention that lyrics may not just ruin a song, they can infuriate as well.
To me, adding lyrics can bring a piece of music down to the human condition of this mortal coil here on earth rather than elevate it closer to the heavens. And to my ears, there is nothing more beautiful and refreshing than a piece of instrumental music that touches your heart and soul. I think it is one of the closest things we have in life to purity and beauty.