I saw this brilliant video by Jonathan Mann this morning, and it drove home something that I've known for a while but couldn't quite put into words: I suck so hard at understanding what people's songs are about.
The gimmick here is that Mann let the iPhone's new autocomplete feature do the writing, and then he added the melody and music afterwards. End product: An extremely catchy song that sounds like it all makes sense unless you pay close attention to the lyrics. This speaks to the brilliance of Jonathan Mann - he has written and posted on YouTube one original song per day since 2009 - check out more here. The guy's a machine, his shit is catchy and you could spend an entire day listening to his catalogue.
What this video made me realize was that, if I didn't know the premise of the song, I would have had NO CLUE that it was intentionally nonsensical. I would have listened half-assedly to the lyrics, said "Hey, this is catchy" and moved on. I've always known I had a hard time understanding lyrics. I've joked repeatedly that a song needs to include the lines "I have a drug addiction problem, and it is having a negative impact on my life as well as the lives of those around me" for me to recognize what the song is about. If it's not spelled out in black and white, then I have absolutely no clue what's going on.
Here's a fun game: take a look at these two passages and try to guess which one is from the Jonathan Mann video and which one is from the popular song My Body, by Young The Giant (this doesn't work if you listened to the song above and/or are familiar with My Body)
Stop the train is riding down to the station where you lived when we were school kids hey the rails are caught now and I am falling down fools in a spiral round this town of steam
The other hand is the only thing that would have to back and the best way of saying the best thing about it and it was not the only one of my life and death in morning
You, being an intelligent person who knows how words work, could probably figure it out almost instantaneously. But me, who has tried repeatedly to understand what My Body is about, would almost certainly not be able to tell the difference. They're both random bundles of words that I can't make heads or tails of.
I do pretty ok with words. I write a lot of very lengthy blog posts, as well as the hundred or so country songs I've written over the years. I tend to write in black and white too. It's all I know. My problem is metaphor and symbolism, and interpretation thereof (did I use thereof properly? Now I'm doubting myself, because I set myself up by saying I do pretty ok with words). I've always been terrible at that sort of thing. English class in high school was a disaster of teachers telling me Shakespeare meant this, Margaret Craven meant that. My head was swimming the entire time. I just couldn't make the connections, and would actually fight with the teacher and say "that's a load of bullshit made up by English teachers just so they could build a lesson plan". Suffice it to say, I was not a joy to teach.
SIDEBAR: One time, I was actually right, and it was glorious. We were reading Cry, The Beloved Country, a 1948 book by Alan Paton set in pre-apartheid South Africa. The phrase "Cry, the beloved country" is repeated several times throughout the book, and our English teacher, Mme Valiquette, asked in class, "Can anyone tell me what the author meant when he chose to repeat the title of the book so often throughout?" I'm sure there's some bullshit "correct" answer, but I saw through that. I put up my hand and said, "If you'd read the introduction, you'd know that the book was initially untitled, and that when the author gave copies to some friends to proof read, they independently suggested that he use "Cry, The Beloved Country" as the title, because it had been repeated so often throughout the book." Glorious. SIDEBAR OVER
As a result of me not knowing what in the hell any song is about, I very rarely pay attention to lyrics. This is funny because a) I'm a songwriter and b) I'm a music fan who has a weekly radio show in which I showcase other songwriters, whose songs I know nothing about other than "I like them".
I very often will say "So-and-so is a great songwriter" because it's the thing I'm supposed to say when someone is popular. Rarely do I ever believe this to be true, only because I don't know what I'm talking about. I'll still love a singer for their vocal styles and they way they use their voice as in instrument, as well the type of music they choose to back them up and whatever band dynamics come in to play, but in the end I usually have no idea what they're going on about.
As for my own songwriting, I've got a particular style that's mine all mine, and I just roll with it and don't try to colour outside the lines too much. I'm more about puns and clever and imaginitive rhymes, and about story telling. There's very little metaphor or other literary devices in my songs, and where they exist they're pretty in your face. I do some clever things that I'm quite proud of. Internal rhymes, imaginitive rhymes, clever song building, but in the end there's absolutely no question what my songs are about because I wouldn't know any other way to write them.
Another fun note: possibly as a result of my not knowing or caring what lyrics represent, I'm severely handicapped in my ability to even comprehend what words are being said. It seems like other people learn the words to songs no problem. Me, without the internet, I'm screwed. Here's an example. I like the hit song Take Me To Church by Hozier. The chorus is extremely catchy and a has nice melody with well-placed high points that are shiver-inducing
I'd been singing along to this for weeks on the radio before I finally decided to look up the lyrics to the chorus. I've underlined the parts that I was able to figure out all by myself:
Take me to churchI didn't even get the "Take me to church" part AND THAT'S THE TITLE OF THE SONG.
I'll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies
I'll tell you my sins and you can sharpen your knife
Offer me that deathless death
Good God, let me give you my life
In case you're wondering, I also have a Masters degree. So I'm not completely retarded.