But do the Words Matter?

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If you’ve ever seen The Graduate you probably remember the scene where Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) is franticly driving his Alfa Romeo convertible through tunnels and fields to try and break up Elaine’s wedding. You probably also remember that throughout the scene, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” is playing in the background. What you may not remember, though, is that, as the song plays in the film there is only one chorus and no verses, just some “Dee da dee’s.” The reason being, Paul Simon hadn’t written the words yet. When he did get around to putting lyrics down, “Mrs. Robinson,” whose tune was already familiar to anyone who saw the film, went to number one on the charts and became the group’s second major hit after “Sounds of Silence.”

When asked in a recent interview why “Mrs. Robinson” became such a huge success, Art Garfunkel answered that he didn’t know but that all big hits have something about their rhythm that just appeals to people. Sure, Garfunkel wasn’t the lyricist of the group, but his statement does make you wonder if half of such a lyrically-rooted supergroup concedes that songs connect to people because of their rhythm and not their words, then where does that leave lyrics in the broader sense? How important were the lyrics to “Mrs. Robinson’s” success? Does it matter what we, the listeners, are singing along to?

It’s easy to come up with examples of music where lyrics play second fiddle to a song’s overall feel (not to mention all the instrumental songs out there). Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Pearl Jam’s “Evenflow,” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” are just a few random examples of this. But even with songs where we can understand the lyrics (and love them), do we really like the song because of what it is saying, or are we most drawn to it because of how the song says it?

Take Bob Dylan. A supremely talented songwriter and supremely underrated musician, we mostly think of Dylan’s work as lyrics before music. But, anyone who knows the Dylan catalogue knows how many musical styles and aesthetics he has successfully embraced over the last forty years. My personal favorite recording is his 1973 soundtrack for the film Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. Strangely, there are only two songs on the entire album in which there even are lyrics. If there were such a thing as a folk film score, this would be it. It’s all music before lyrics.

I find this to be the case almost across the board with Dylan. His best work tends to be his most rhythmic or even catchy. Would anyone have cared about the story of the Hurricane if it weren’t for the song’s driving rhythm? Or how about the brilliant lyrics in “Mr. Tamborine Man,” to take a Dylan mega-hit for example. Would anyone have listened to what he was saying if the song didn’t have that playful and elusive rhythmic quality about it that Garfunkel was at pains to describe?

Don’t get me wrong, Bob Dylan is the second best lyricist ever (Townes Van Zandt being the first). But is the lyrics-cart being pulled by the rhythmic/melodic-horse? Can the lyrics drive the song? Or do they, at best, embellish it? Even Van Zandt, a relatively unpopular troubadour, connected with people in large part because his best songs were hummable or foot-tappable. His beautiful words, while deeply connected to the music, were being pulled along by that music.

I love words and I love songwriters. So, you can imagine my worry as I started going back over my favorite songs and realized that maybe they spoke to me on a rhythmic level more than a lyrical one. They all do share a unique ability to connect to me through their sound, their aesthetic, their ability to make my foot tap, or make me feel a certain way; but not necessarily with their words.

Just as it’s almost impossible to pinpoint that elusive quality in rhythm that makes us like one beat more than another, it’s just as difficult to pinpoint that elusive quality in lyrics that encourages us to sing along, even if what we’re actually saying is meaningless. Could we have just as easily sung along with and felt connected to “There’s the food, you’re the only one,” instead of “Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson?” Maybe. But, I guess that’s one of the great things about music, we can’t always pinpoint why we like what we like. And that’s OK.


Written by JustJake

April 17, 2008 at 2:36 pm

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