Saturday, November 27, 2010

021: On the Meaninglessness of Lyrics

I had a little revelation recently. I don't know if you've been on this tip for a while, or what, but it's shaken me a little bit. It goes like this:

Lyrics don't mean anything.

I don't mean that you can't convey meaning through song lyrics. What I mean is that, by and large, no one cares what people say in a song. What they care about is how they say it. McLuhan was right—the medium is the message. Or, in this case, the tone is the message.

I've been listening to the new Kanye and Girl Talk albums a lot and it has made all that extremely clear. There's a sense of pure power that comes from rapping along with these artists— Raekwon, Missy Elliott, M.O.P. come to mind—whose rhymes embody little to nothing of my own personal ethos.

Now, there's my love for that bullshit rap music like P. Diddy on "All About the Benjamins," Rick Ross on "Hello Good Morning," and then there's my love for basically all of MF DOOM's oeuvre, with its constant multisyllabic rhymes that make no sense unless you study them scholarly. Which is more pleasing? The sound or the message sent? And Jay-Z, too. I love Jay's lyrics, but to be honest, I think I love his voice more. I love the sound of swagger, and frankly, I have to spend a lot of time convincing myself it's okay to like stuff like that when I feel like, lyrically speaking, I shouldn't. But, fuck, do they sound good. And Nicki Minaj... who can say that they'd still listen to her if she didn't break into pure ferocious snarling once a song? It's not the same. Why do I love "You Ain't Got Nothin' On Me" from Tha Carter III when I give so little of a fuck about Fabolous and Juelz Santana, and when their hyperviolent misogyny ought to disgust me? They just sound so fucking good!

It's more than rap music, though. Have you ever read Bon Iver lyrics? All I'm saying is, Rick Ross isn't the first person Justin Vernon's smoked up with. His lyrics are completely stupid, and yet, wow, his voice—you can't say no. It's so emotional. Conor Oberst is my indie Jay-Z—sure, he's a great songwriter. But fuck it, I love his voice; no surprise that I fell in love with Patrick Stickles' Turbo-Oberst snarl so easily. On the other end of the spectrum, Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes—wow, beautiful voice. Lyrics? Enh. So-so. But jeez, do I worship that guy.

Or how about all of Rage Against The Machine? How many of their fans got into them purely because of Zack de la Rocha's unbridled angry spitting? Has anyone ever made "ugh" sound so poetic and sexual before? I don't think it would have mattered what he was yelling about; all of white teenage male America would have been on his junk regardless. The labels knew that; they knew that RATM's sound was more important than their message, or you never would have heard of the band in the first place.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is... no wonder nobody listens to backpack rap and Soulja Boy is huge. No fucking wonder. If even university-educated overly-analytical left-wing pinko eggheads like me would rather listen to a singer who sounds good than one who can put together intelligent lyrics... No wonder.