I have a confession: I don’t often go out of my way to listen to lyrics. I’m well-acquainted with most of the tunes you might find yourself cranking up a car radio — dad jamz, ‘90s hip hop, any song to which your favorite movie characters once lip-synced. Put me in one of those bar mitzvah recording booths and I will bare my soul to the tune of any MIDI-saturated Celine Dion instrumental. If social interaction requires it, I will belt out some Smash Mouth, or whatever, though I’ll probably end up like this dude from a Clickhole Classic™, boldly making indecipherable noises to a song I heard once at a kid’s birthday party.
But when it comes to my day-to-day interaction with music, rarely, if ever, will I go out of my way to hear exactly what it is a songwriter is saying. Inevitably, I tend to focus on melody, dynamics, rhythm. Here and there, I’ll catch a clever phrase and over time, through aural osmosis, I’ll start to absorb whole verses. Yet, even if, through brute repetition, I find myself knowing a full song, I usually don’t go through the extra steps of processing what it is the lyricist intended. I’ve been listening to “Sultans of Swing” since I was six, but I never think about Harry, or why he doesn’t mind if he doesn’t make the scene.
I suppose it might help to provide some context. Early on, most of my musical taste derived from two sources: Q104.3, New York’s Classic Rock Radio, and the classical piano lessons forced upon me by my parents. I learned pretension early, and exercised it often. Unconsciously, I crafted an internal divide between the “good music” of my father, transmuted into my meticulously curated iPod Video playlists, and what I perceived as trashy, inane pop, which, I could only assume, was rotting everyone else’s brains. That obsession with taste continued into high school, where I abandoned the music of disenchanted old white men for that of disenchanted younger white men — mostly, I listened to Radiohead, complimented with jazz and, in classic Westchesterian form, music from the “golden age” of hip hop. (If it sounds like I sucked, well, you’re onto something … though, didn’t we all?) Overall, what I tended to notice was how music could score moments big and small, validating my emerging sense of self while providing a vent for my frustrations, fears, and hopes. Words never really played a role in these experiences — mostly, I saw the voice was just another instrument.
It’s not until college that I began to take songwriting more seriously. I dove into the catalogues of those deified songsmiths of yore: Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell. And, over time, I began to dig the poetics of the new masters, too (Stephen Malkmus, Trish Keenan, Angel Olson, Kendrick Lamar). I realized there were songwriters out there who practically beg to have their poetic verses interpreted, debated, screamed out, internalized, photoshopped into quote posters or scribbled into diaries. There are the lyricists who help us to cope with the massive, mercurial spectrum of emotions and anxieties which belie modern life, from existential malaise, to primal fear, to unbridled joy. There are those who tell epic stories, or force us to confront our own insignificance, or throw our bourgeois pretensions or latent paternalism in our faces. And, of course, there are those who sing about goofy shit.
Still, music is a medium that I tend to experience first and foremost on an emotional, intuitive level. I don’t think I fully realized this until I began working on a review of Parquet Courts’ latest album, Human Performance. I listened to the album all the way through once, noting how the interplay of the addictively simplistic, bare-bones instrumentation and lead vocalist Andrew Savage’s neurotic spoken-word delivery recalled bands like the Velvet Underground and the Modern Lovers. All that sounded nice. But I realized that, while I felt like I was absorbing the album’s sharp, alternatively dread- and cheer-inducing themes, I didn’t really ever listen to what Savage was saying — I’d catch a verse here and there, and appreciate Savage’s ferocious, yet vulnerable approach, but mostly, what I appreciated was the vibe, the rebellious attitude, the complex series of emotions and wayward thoughts that can be triggered by such a simple sonic construction.
Does this make me weird? Am I destined to become a social pariah, exiled to a hotel lobby in Hong Kong where Kenny G plays on infinite repeat? Maybe. On the other hand, I just downloaded the Genius app. Maybe it’s not too late to change the way I interact with the sonic world.
Sam Bromer is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. No Place Like Bromer appears alternate Thursdays this semester.