Sunday, April 19, 2015

Words Like Violence

"Name a lyric from the album you’re writing about that encapsulates either a) the album itself, b) your experience in hearing the album for the first time, or c) your experience writing about the album, so far. 

AC: I’m going to dodge this question, in a way, by saying that there are a lot of lyrics on the album that I still don’t know. I’ve never bothered to look them up or properly figure them out. That’s true for a lot of albums I love, and I don’t know why I’m this kind of listener, but I can know a record back to front, musically, and still not be sure what the songs are called, or what the lyrics say. I rarely look at album sleeves. Maybe it’s because I am a writer, and words are my primary obsession–I’m trying to resist privileging the words over the music. I like the way that lyrics sound within a musical context: the way they inhabit the mouth of a particular singer, and the vocal texture and emotional force that only singing can bring to those words. If you read them on a page, they’re totally lifeless. Lyrics always disappoint me when they’re written down, so I avoid encountering them in that way, and I try to concentrate on what I can hear, even if I’m mishearing. If I know all the lyrics to a song, I tend to follow the words as if the song is a story being read aloud, and that really undermines my listening pleasure. It makes a song “about” something, and music is about itself. It shouldn’t be the subject of literary analysis."

- Anwyn Crawford being interviewed on her new book on Hole's Live Through This, which I'm looking forward to reading

Glad I'm not the only one who feels this way.  I do think it's a little bit of a cop-out for someone who works in a critical capacity to actively ignore lyrics, particularly when they're available.  When reviewing records, I like to do a "deep read", which doesn't grant extra agency to the vocals over the rest of the instruments, but also recognizes that the language is an important part of the overall "message" of the music (though not its reigning authority).

However, as a listener, I find that lyrics make next to no difference until certain words or phrases jump out.   If a song's words are vile enough, I'll stop listening.  If they're moving, I may shed a tear.  But if they're just kind of there, mixed in appropriately into the instrumental's flow, I don't pay them much mind at all.  Like Crawford, I enjoy lyrics in this sense more for timbre, interaction with the beat, and emotion in queue with the sonics (which often conflicts beautifully with the music- ie,  the sunny melodicism of The Smiths's awkward prose of indignation and embarrassment).

I must concur though that music criticism should always remove itself from the boundaries of literary criticism.  Beyond specifically agitprop works (Tom Robinson Band, RATM, Public Enemy), a song's ultimate intention is itself, which is why the recent expectation of "perfect" politics from artists is off-base.  Critique from a feminist, class-based, racial perspective, et al., for sure, but to demerit songs based solely on one specific set of criteria is doing a disservice to music's ultimate function as an artform.

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