Edd Westmacott/Photoshot/Getty Images
Edd Westmacott/Photoshot/Getty Images
Hang the DJ!
Because the music that they constantly play,
It says nothing to me about my life.
—The Smiths, "Panic"
In October, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article by Arthur Krystal titled "The Missing Music In Today's Poetry." In it, Krystal argues that contemporary verse, with its abandonment of traditional meter and what Krystal calls "rhythmic design," has become atonal, unmoving and unmemorable. As a music fan and critic, my initial response to the article was sympathy: I have often contemplated the reverse, bemoaning the missing poetry in today's music. But this is a gross oversimplification. While it is true that 2013 will go down as the year in which my disgust for the unchecked inanities in the lyrics of mainstream indie music reached something of a peak, possibly explaining why I felt some kinship with Krystal, it is not poetry missing from the lyrics of today's music, but a sense of accountability on the part of artists and critics alike. When music criticism promotes an environment of immunity for the insipid, the unimaginative and the superficial, do artists, perhaps subconsciously, take note?
To preempt accusations of priggishness, I wish to emphasize that I am in no way arguing that lyrics have somehow "gotten worse." I was born in the '70s, grew up in the '80s, and spent the '90s investing every spare dime in a CD collection that now requires its own storage facility. I can attest with authority that America, New Order and The Cranberries have all committed crimes against the English language that Win Butler, short of suffering some grade of concussion, could never hope to perpetrate. But in studying previous decades of pop and rock music journalism, I have noticed in pans and raves alike a strict attention paid to the words being sung; lyrics are largely the reason Kurt Cobain was hailed as the voice of his generation, and why Scott Weiland is still widley considered a buffoon.
Today's almost complete lack of critical interface with lyrical content provides no such distinctions. Indeed, a person taking a survey of several leading print and online publications might be forgiven for concluding that a song's words are no longer a measure of its failures or successes, but an arbitrary component unworthy of serious discussion. Albums instead seem to be judged on a criterion of attitude, atmosphere and that nebulous catchall imprecisely referred to as "production." This sort of negligence not only allows artists like the Black Keys to get away with writing lyrics that would make an ESL teacher wince, but also threatens to shortchange the few remaining songwriters who exhibit a genuine talent for lyrical verse by asking them not to try so hard, lest the swine trample — or, perhaps worse, ignore — their hard-won pearls.
Let's take a look at some lyrics by four popular mainstream indie artists. (I choose to narrow my focus because the genres of country, hip-hop, R&B and pop contain their own unique — and, on the whole, less apparent — problems in this regard, and warrant separate consideration).
"Afterparty in a hotel room
Pretty soon there will be no moon
—The Black Keys, "The Go Getter"
"You know I'm bad at communication
It's the hardest thing for me to do
And it's said it's the most important part
That relationships go through
And I gave it all away just so I could say that
Well I know, I know, I know, I know
That you're gonna be OK anyway."
—Haim, "The Wire"
"Turn around and no one's there
Don't know why I even care
Moods, they swing, the seasons change
Is it you or am I to blame?
I always complain ...
Before I can stay inside
Oh, how fast the time goes by
Take a pill, spend the bills,
Seems to be the way I get my thrill
A never-ending hill."
—Best Coast, "Why I Cry"
"It started storming, storming
So early in the morning
It started storming, storming
So early in the morning
I received no warning
Now that's heartwarming
Alright, the weather's boring
—Sleigh Bells, "You Don't Get Me Twice"
I quote these trite, hollow lyrics not to shame their authors — after all, even great lyricists occasionally fail to measure up when their words are removed from their original context — but to question the mettle of the influential music journals who heard them and failed to factor them into their respective ratings. Simply put, any critical voice that ignores lyrics like these is guilty of condoning — even endorsing — vapid nonsense. I contend that if the above artists were held to some higher standard, many of them might concede good-naturedly with an "Ah, you got me!" and try a little harder next time. I don't know the writers of these songs personally, but I am positive they can do better because almost anybody could. I don't believe these lyrics are the products of trivial, impoverished minds, but of thoughtful, intelligent people who, fearless of critical castigation, just don't give a damn. What's worse?
When critics do engage with an album's lyrics, their critiques are often neutered by secretive editorial policies. By now, almost everyone who reads online music reviews knows that many album scores are determined not only by the writer of the review, but by the editorial board of the journal, blog or magazine for whom he or she is writing. An album's rating ostensibly provides the time-pressed consumer with the minimum amount of information he or she needs to make an informed purchasing decision; it doesn't dwell on the details. Fair enough. But when this rating does not correlate with the accompanying review, this practice becomes problematic. In Pitchfork's 8.3 review of Haim's Days Are Gone, which received a Best New Music distinction, Larry Fitzmaurice acknowledges that the album's lyrics "aren't necessarily built to withstand close analysis; largely, the words function to add a bit of weight to the effortless, feather-light melodies."
Discrepancies like that aren't unique to 2013. Two years ago SPIN's David Marchese wrote of the Black Keys' El Camino that "Auerbach ... says very little — women are trouble; people will take what's yours; life ain't easy," which didn't prevent the magazine from granting the album an 8/10. In 2010 Noel Murray of the A.V. Club admitted that the songs on Best Coast's Crazy For You "shuffle the same few words around, mainly 'love,' 'weed,' 'I,' 'miss' and 'you,'" but the site rated it a very respectable B. This October, the same publication gave the same rating to Sleigh Bells' Bitter Rivals despite an accompanying review by Eric Thurm conceding that the band's lyrics "still leave something to be desired, but they've never really been the band's main selling point."
So what are these scores based on, if not content? After all, the above writers pointedly acknowledge the lyrical shortcomings of the albums they are writing about. Ignoring the larger question of why leading indie outlets rely on democratic, consensus-based scoring instead of allowing the respective critic to make such calls, why are such critiques not factored into the overall editorial score? The above albums appear in stores affixed with boastful stickers announcing their sterling numerical rating, but never the accompanying review that would seem to undermine it; the potshots will have little to no bearing on an artist or their sales. The reviews, then, result in a sort of cognitive dissonance: I agree with the complaints, but not the conclusions drawn from them. The authors of these reviews are mostly very fine writers, so why aren't they deemed trustworthy enough to supply a grade consistent with their evaluations? Such starchamber practices are practically kindling for ad revenue-based conspiracy theories. Imagine an elementary school teacher who takes great pains to evaluate a student's work ethic, class participation and behavior, only to have a principal on the payroll step in and award that student an unmodified 'A' for reasons unknown, and unquestioned.
It is the rating, after all, that's paramount. Metacritic is an aggregate website that averages print and online scores given to albums, films, DVDs, games and television shows, gathering a critical consensus. As of this writing, the site shows not a single overall "negative" critical rating for Sleigh Bells' Bitter Rivals or Haim's Days Are Gone — not one. Ditto El Camino and Brothers, the two most recent albums by the Black Keys. In fact, of the bands we've examined so far, only Best Coast fails to emerge unscathed: the band's Metacritic score is blemished by a single negative review of Fade Away, the EP the band released this year, by Drowned In Sound's Tom Fenwick. Excepting this lone example, a perusal of Metacritic would have you believe that our culture czars are in universal agreement that the Black Keys, Haim, Best Coast and Sleigh Bells are truly the best that Generation iPhone has to offer. It doesn't take into account the suspiciously apologetic tone of the reviews cited above, only the ringing endorsements of numerical, alphabetical and star-based shorthand. Like Roman emperors in a post-Siskel and Ebert sort of world, the music press judges with thumbs, not thoughts. Meanwhile, the Refrigerator Magnet Poetry school of lyric-writing reigns supreme as breathless praise for albums containing lyrics that wouldn't garner honorable mention at a 3rd grade poetry writing contest saturate the feed. Some respectable critics and media outlets (including this one) even refuse, out of policy or politeness, to publish reviews deemed too scathing, too potentially damaging to an artist's career, foreshadowing a future of music journalism as little more than a series of glib, presskit-parroting advertorials.
Lyrics can often mean the difference between a song worth hearing and a song worth ignoring. A review that ignores a song's words, then, renders poetry indistinguishable from pap. Let us now compare and contrast the lyrics to songs by two young songwriters, both of whom released acclaimed albums in 2013. A scan of critical reactions to both artist's current albums would suggest little difference between the two; very few reviews I've read of either discuss the matter of lyrics at all. But the differences are worthy of comment, and, more importantly, distinction. First, we will look again at Best Coast, whose Bethany Cosentino is perhaps the most egregious offender in the war on words. From her recent single, "I Don't Know How":
"And I don't know why
The sun's in the sky
The rain, it falls down
Down on to the ground."
And now, an excerpt from "Tomorrow, Tomorrow," another relationship-themed song, this one by Eleanor Friedberger, from her 2013 album Personal Record:
"Today was perfection — the axis of bliss
I was calm in your arms waiting for the kiss that never came
I hope that it's more of the same."
These samples are largely indicative of the styles of both artists. As a writer, Friedberger is consistently sharp, lucid and thoughtful, while Cosentino is unerringly cliché-prone and syntax-challenged. Friedberger's lyrics here are evocative; her words pique my primeval curiosities. The kiss Friedberger expects never arrives, which doesn't prevent her from describing the day, poetically, as the "axis of bliss," and hoping that these events — missed smooch and all — continue to tantalize her as the new dawn approaches. Cosentino, on the other hand, is so lovesick she is puzzled by the sun's placement in the sky and by the fact that the rain falls down on the ground (as opposed to up someplace else); the lyrics sound as if they were scribbled in a taxicab on the way to the studio to record the song. Friedberger vividly constructs a scene; Cosentino sings some words that happen to rhyme. Cosentino has gone on record saying she doesn't believe that lyrics need to be "deep," advising like some Zen master of solipsism to "just write whatever comes out of you. You don't need to find intense meaning in everything." For Cosentino, a good song is analogous to an amusement park, an ultimately valueless enterprise meant only as an escape hatch from the gnarly world of international conflicts, government shutdowns and other bummers. "Fun" becomes synonymous with willful ignorance in an era that has never needed apathy less.
If lyrics like Cosentino's are to serve merely as syllabic placeholders, why write words at all? After all, many resourceful bands have found ways to circumvent the pesky tyranny of speech: Icelandic band Sigur Ros invented a language they called Hopelandic, which universalized their dreamy, ethereal music; John Tardy's wordless gargling and growling on Obituary's seminal Slowly We Rot proved innovative even as it humorously pointed to what's sometimes hidden behind indecipherable death metal vocals. I applaud these rare cases for showing enough respect for the form to abstain from a craft that, like air conditioner repair, may be best left to experts. These and other examples — jazz scat singing, backwards lead vocals, international artists with largely Western audiences vocalizing in their native tongue — prove that familiar words and expressions can be circumvented while retaining the phrasing, tone, rhythm and mood that tends to satisfy and attract Western ears. A bold and audacious thinker once proclaimed "I have nothing to say, and I'm saying it" — good for him. But John Cage never wrote pop music, and even his most impishly experimental writings were often as bracing and provocative as the best Dylan songs. Maybe even Cage understood, in his way, that while music may be a universal language, words mean things.
To be a mouthpiece of any kind in these content-saturated times is an enviable and increasingly rare position, and with this privilege ought come certain responsibilities: An artist's lyrics should honor the reciprocal contract between artist and listener; they should aim to seduce, puzzle, bewitch or provoke something in us that reflects our shared human experience. They should say something to us about our lives. But we as listeners and critics must fulfill our end of this bargain, and hold our favorite artists accountable for what they say — and more importantly, what they do not. Modern music media who refuse to confront music holistically — who cut lyricists slack — are complicit in the destruction of a rich modern tradition that begins with WC Handy and might very well end with Bill Callahan.
James Toth is a Contributing Editor at Stereogum and regular contributor to Aquarium Drunkard, among other online and print publications. He also records and tours under the name Wooden Wand.