“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.”
…so writeth Stereogum contributing editor James Toth in an opinion piece this past Monday afternoon called “That’s A Bad Lyric And You Know It”. The article has created quite a bit of a stir among music appreciators on the NPR Web site. Those in agreement with Toth cite the general inanity of lyrics of current pop music as a sad signal of the decline of the art of this industry, while those against his arguments label him as “pretentious”, with one even attacking his style of writing while admitting he “only managed to wade halfway through this fuster cluck of mental diarrhea” rather than give him the benefit of the doubt by reading the whole article. (Ummm…)
Personally, I thought it said what needed to be said, and he gave plenty of good examples to support his arguments. A couple years ago, I went to Boston on holiday and happened to see Best Coast in Cambridge at a place called the Middle East. (Toth uses the songwriting of Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino as an example of lyrical inanity in his piece.) I was really there to see support act Male Bonding, who represented one of the worst support / headline mismatches I’ve had the “pleasure” to witness: Male Bonding is a punk band from London, while Best Coast tries to do sunny Beach Boys-esque surf pop. Best Coast enjoys massive popularity both here in America and in Britain, and honestly, I wanted to see what the fuss was about.
I think about two or three songs in, I had no greater desire than to take a fork and poke my eyes out so I could be put me out of my misery. What the hell were we listening to? Yet, as I looked around the room from my vantage point at the bar where I had decamped to earlier (if you were wondering, I’d been hit in the head several times during the Male Bonding set by a kid who attempted to crowd surf, the soles of his trainers having hit the side of my head one too many times), everyone was smiling, gently bopping their heads from side to side, looking like they were in heaven. I, on the other hand, was bored to tears. What was I missing? Why couldn’t I enjoy myself? Did I have to be a Jack Johnson loving, surfing meathead to relate?
I realise I’m a word snob. I can’t help it. I’ve always been a writer and had the mind of a writer, for as long as I can remember, even as a child. At the same time, I recognise there is plenty of music I love and cherish that isn’t terribly intelligent lyric-wise. Take, for example, Friendly Fires‘ ‘On Board’, whose baseline alone makes my heart sing. Don’t get me wrong, I think everyone has music that speaks to them and their emotions, and we need music – and different music – for our different moods and different stages of our lives, and some of that might not require you to pull out a dictionary or sit down like Rodin’s Thinker and really ponder the meaning of life. And that’s a good thing. Music should move you, however it manages to do exactly that. What Toth’s article does very well, though it requires you to read through the whole thing and get to the last paragraph (whoa, what a concept!), is passionately reveal that it is the fault of the current state of music reviewing that has led to this “dumbing down” of lyrical content.
As I’ve “grown up” as a music reviewer, from my humble beginnings at the now-defunct PopWreckoning, through to my work on This is Fake DIY and editorship at TGTF, I’ve definitely noticed a change in the way I approach music reviews. When I became Editor at TGTF, I decided that there needed to be minimum word count for single reviews (at least 200 words) and album reviews (at least 300). Part of the reason for this was my own frustration reading those reviews in music magazines that practically require you to break out a magnifying glass. How anyone can distill the meaning, scope, and quality of an album that generally lasts over 30 minutes long in a couple of sentences is beyond me. I recognise that our Web site’s reviews are a hell lot longer than those on other Web sites and in magazines, and I am fine with that: I’d rather us do a better, comprehensive job on describing someone’s baby – in positive, neutral, or negative light – than gloss over the culmination of weeks / months / years of hard work by an artist.
As we’ve never instituted a word limit on TGTF, I noticed my own reviews were getting ridiculous in length, even the single reviews: the first really long one I did was in February 2011, for Dutch Uncles‘ ‘Face-In’, and I remember after writing it, I was internally apologising to the readers of TGTF who didn’t care for my lyric analysis and just wanted to know what it sounded like, and was it any good? But Toth’s article this week gave me further support for what I’ve already been doing for a while now, both here on Music in Notes and on TGTF. Lyrics do matter. And judging from the interaction I’ve had with Dutch Uncles’ lyricist and my friend Duncan Wallis on this very single and with other songwriters, my viewpoint is appreciated, because there are a lot of sites and publications that just don’t bother.
Why? They’re too preoccupied with what “sounds good.” (See paragraph 3 on this page.) I guess for them, they don’t think lyrics are an important part of the “sounding good” argument? I agree with Toth’s thesis statement that if bad lyrics are rewarded by music reviewers – especially as a result of their importance being glossed over and/or minimised, for whatever reason – there is no reason for any songwriter, except for his/her own satisfaction and self-worth as a writer, to aspire to be a good lyricist.
What is really happening at these publications and music Web sites? Is it sheer laziness? Are they are targeting the audience who doesn’t care a lick about the lyrics, and that audience far drowns out the ones of us who actually care about the words? Or do reviewers not have the background, let alone the desire, to want to do the proper research or indeed, the real nitty-gritty thinking that’s required to do a proper analysis? Probably a combination of all three. It’s a sad state of affairs, but I don’t really have a solution.
At the Great Escape festival and convention in 2012, I attended a panel that included music editors and writers from such storied publications as Q and The Sunday Times. I raised my hand and asked them what they thought about the length of reviews being shortened both online and in print and if they thought the shortening was being driven by the perceived audience’s desire for more instant gratification and readers’ lack of attention span, and if so, what were they doing to combat it. I didn’t really get a straight answer from any of them; I do recall one of them saying that I was doing no favours maligning their readers.
That wasn’t my point. I wanted to know what they thought about this travesty of the written word being truncated, seemingly everywhere, because in my mind, that was contributing to the less than useful reviews you see in most publications these days. I will read others’ reviews, surely, but I don’t put too much stock in them, seeking out the album or single in question so I can listen to it myself to come to my own conclusions instead of relying on a paltry paragraph from someone else to really tell me what I need to know about it. And if the impression that the sound of a song is far and away more important than the lyrics in it, then it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out it’s any discussion of the lyrics that will be cut and/or not even bothered with so the review fits in the confines of a template.
A final thought to leave you with. What I want to know from these people who call Toth “pretentious”, did they dare say to their teachers, “hey, you know that Grapes of Wrath door stopper you forced us to read? Now that’s what I call pretentious!”