It particularly matters in rock and roll. Like in all good relationships, it’s hard to develop a connection if everything worth knowing is on the table from the very first encounter. A band’s introduction needs to give the audience enough reasons to care but even more reasons to want to know more. It’s from that foundation that, hopefully, a long-term musical relationship begins.
Lyrics are an interesting role in that process. I’ve always wondered what inspires bands to include lyrics in their liner notes. Some lyrics, obviously, are well-crafted and poetic enough to warrant that sort of permanency, but most aren’t. In many cases, rock and roll lyrics read rather poorly on the page, their rhymes and rhythms failing to translate to the written word. And yet, with a voice bellowing them through the speakers they sound downright transcendent.
Moreover, there’s something exciting to me about leaving lyric interpretation open to the audience. It not only encourages repeat listening – trying to figure out what’s being said – but it makes the listener an active participant in the process. It gives them a sense of ownership: their sing-a-long phrasing is their own, something that they didn’t have presented to them in a stiff, unchanging manner but is instead fluid and evolving.
Maybe I’m biased in this direction having grown up as a big R.E.M. fan. Even though I didn’t discover the band until well into their major-label years – when Michael Stipe’s vocals sounded like they had actual words in them – there was something riveting about diving into their back catalogue and barely being able to make out a single phrase. Each line was like its own little mystery to be unraveled, a code of meaning just waiting to be cracked. The combination of strange metaphors and stranger mumbles made the lyrics feel as much mine as they were Stipe’s.
Sure, you get some funny mistakes when you leave lyrics open to interpretation. My personal all-time favourite misheard lyric is the National’s “Mr. November,” where the first time I heard it, I was sure that Matt Berringer was singing “I won’t fuck you sober” in the chorus (its actual wording, “I won’t fuck us over,” is a little more appropriate for the song’s brash romanticism). But that’s par for the course, and the benefits of the process far outweigh the downside of having a few mistakes littered across the legion of lyrics websites on the web.
No, the worst part of leaving lyrics mysterious is when the mystery gets shattered. It used to be that there were few ways to get “official” lyrics if they weren’t in the liner notes; occasionally, a songbook or other publication would be made available, and nowadays bands sometimes put full lyrics on their website. But now there are new music platforms where lyrics aren’t an option: they’re mandatory.
Example? The other day, Rock Band ruined Phoenix’s “1901” for me.
Well, okay, ruined is too strong a word; “1901” is far too unreasonably awesome to be ruined. But still, part of Phoenix’s charm is that, as Frenchmen, their English phrasing is just a bit stilted and otherworldly, with sentences that sound cool because they really don’t make all that much sense. Moreover, they rely on simplicity to get by, which makes their best lyrics endlessly singable.
“1901’s” chorus is one of those great nonsense phrases that’s just great to belt along to, but I wasn’t sure if it was “fallin’” or “fall in.” I kind of liked, that, though: it gave the song a couple of different layers of meaning. So imagine my shock when, after having played the song in Rock Band on drums and guitar dozens of times, I decide to try my hand at vocals and the lyric turns out to be…
…I’m not going to tell you.
No, that’s not a cop-out. I originally wrote this post planning to say what it was I discovered, but upon reflection it felt hypocritical to express such a commitment to mystery and then spoil it. If you’re really desperate to know what the lyric is, a bunch of online lyrics sites have it right and it’s stupid, far worse than either of my two options I was singing along to. I’d like to think that I could just stick with my own interpretation, but there’s an officialdom to seeing the words written out on the television screen that engraves them in my brain. For now, and forever more, the chorus of “1901” is different to me.
I miss the mystery.