Thursday 17 July 2014

Why Do So Many Online Music Writers Ignore Lyrics When Writing About Music?

A couple of days ago we posted the following on Twitter. “I’m as guilty as any but why do so many blogs / sites write about the instrumentation and production of songs yet barely mention the lyrics?”

The response was interesting. Artists and musicians favourited the tweet, other interested parties conversed with us on the matter, but hardly any blogs or websites responded. 

So instead of trying to summarise a number of responses in a single blog post from bloggers and websites, here’s our own take on things.

If you don’t believe our original statement that lyrics are often ignored we challenge you to go to Hype Machine, pick any song where more than 10 blogs have posted about it and count how many of those describe the music or the production but not the lyrics. And when they do describe the lyrics or talk about what the song is trying to communicate see how many of those descriptions are near to identical as they just take the information straight from the press release that accompanied the track.

8 Reasons Why We Think Many Online Music Writers Don’t Write About Lyrics

1. The culture of criticism is a dying art form.

The vast majority of lyrics are not saying anything interesting anymore. They’re insipid, inane and full of cliché. Really, how many more songs can there be about shaking booty in da club? It's become a joke. However, there’s a school of thought that says this has always been the case. Anyone remember The Cranberries song Zombie for example? However, as music writing moves further away from a culture of criticism and more towards a culture of celebration (of which music blogs very much form a part of) the bad is often ignored and forgiven allowing artists to frankly get away with anything.

2. Modern production / mumbling or shouty singers.

It might make us sound like an old boring fart, but there are a lot of times when we can’t actually understand what the singer is singing anymore. This problem can often be exacerbated by modern production techniques and effects on the vocal.

3. Sometimes music writing is more fun when you're not writing about the music.

Because (and this one is fairly personal to Breaking More Waves) we like to write blog posts that don’t actually describe the music at all sometimes. Our theory is this – if we’ve embedded the tune on the blog you can press play and make your own judgements. We’d rather provide a conversation around the tune, the sort of thing you might talk about in the pub. For example this post from Tuesday talks about blog hype and our concerns about it - it hardly mentions the song. We think this is more interesting to read than six paragraphs of dry text describing every beat and every guitar or synth chord.

4. Music should be felt as well as heard.

Because sometimes we don’t ‘listen’ to music we ‘feel’ it. The words become almost immaterial. Take the classic Motown hits. They sounded joyfully happy but the lyrics were sad and sorrowful, yet we still sing along with big smiles on our faces.

5. We're not very good at riddles.

Sometimes even when we can make out the words being sung and they’re not dull and clichéd, we still have no idea what the artist is singing about. This becomes a particular problem when introverted artists sing about something that has happened in their lives but disguise it with poetic license and metaphor. The end result to the outside listener is a bunch of words that make very little sense. Sometimes we might try and write something about this nonsense, but will probably end up saying, this is just a load of nonsense, we have no idea what they’re singing about. 

6. Fear

The internet has increased the fear of getting it wrong. As lyrics are open to misinterpretation we can sometimes get it wrong. Pre-internet and particularly pre-social media if a writer made a mistake there would be little comeback. Now when someone gives an interpretation and gets it wrong they risk having their mistake painted all over the world. For example when Veronica Bayetti Flores called Lorde’s lyrics to Royals ‘deeply racist’ her article on made headlines all over the world.

7. Time

Because many bloggers and online journalists don’t actually spend much time with the music they’re writing about and don’t absorb the lyrics. This is a sad but true fact. We’ve spoken to bloggers who have told us that they sometimes only listen to a song a couple of times before posting. It probably explains the 2 lines of text that says something along the lines of  'so and so return with a new song that sounds flawless,' and very little else.

8. Great art doesn't have meaning and therefore lyrics don't matter

Content deadens art some say. It's all about style. So forget the lyrics. So argues this article from The Guardian here.


Anonymous said...

Strangely enough, I had just come to the opposite conclusion earlier today: that too much is made of lyrics in record reviews, especially given how few singers a) have anything to say, and b) are clever or literate enough to say it. For every Stuart Murdoch there are a thousand singers content with platitudes and cliches, so why bother with their trite musings? I'm content to read about (and hear) the music, if it's all the same to you.

Breaking More Waves Blog said...

The 'why bother' argument connects back to my point 1 above - how music 'criticism' is changing.

Sophie Jamieson said...

Hi Robin, this is really interesting. It actually made me feel quite sad to read. I get the feeling that you're referring to a particular kind of music here, to which lyrics matter less and less- at least I hope so anyway. There are a lot of artists out there to whom the words they sing are equally if not more important than the instrumentation or production, and who are only too aware of the greater impact their music can have on their listeners if they give these some actual thought. It may be the case that most topics have been covered lyrically in music now, and even many lines repeated, but I don't think it's fair to conclude from this that all lyrics are now cliche. We may as well all give up if so. The beauty of music and songwriting is that every person has their own way of expressing things, their own outlook on a topic, their own experiences to inspire it. That is what makes the art forever-lasting and forever-new. It is also what a lot of listeners really appreciate in the music they hear. Don't forget that most artists do not write simply to please the music press. They write for the ordinary human being, with both sadness and joy in their life, and are aware that this person is listening to every word they say. We don't all throw that privilege away.

Breaking More Waves Blog said...

Hi Sophie

Agree with everything you have said here - I certainly don't think all lyrics are cliche but as more and more songs are written there's a higher and higher chance of songs falling into that realm.

The key point of this article was to try and give some suggestions as to why some (but not all)music writers are writing so little about
lyrics. I know artists don't write for the press but the press are still listeners and if they're not listening to the words the there's an argument that that's quite a sad thing, especially if someone has put a lot of effort into expressing something beautifully or conversely when someone has paid very little attention to creating the words is not the job of a critic to draw attention to this?But as I suggest in point 1 above - the internet seems to a certain extent to be devaluing / changing music criticism.

SCRYST said...

1,3 but mainly 7 IMO

Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts and opinions here and like the best blogs this adds to the discussion around the subject. Thanks.