Sound, Song, and Word
The formula goes like this: sound makes music attractive but words make it stick. When describing why I pay attention to something, it has to sound good. But lots of things sound good, too many to keep track of, and the number of times a decade when some genuinely new sound is invented is trivially small — one or two? So what distinguishes between similar sounds is different songs (i.e. melodies & words). And words take on prominance precisely at the moment you transition from “that’s a good song” to “that’s a favorite song, one I need to listen to over and over.”
Two caveats are in order here:
(1) Sometimes sound sticks without words. After all, I listen to Sonny Rollins over and over, and he’s not the only jazz artist I listen to. R.E.M.’s big invention was a sound, not songs, and their first three records (Chronic Town, Murmur, and Reckoning) are favorites of my regardless of the incomprehensibility of the words. It would be useful to theorize when sounds overwhelms words, but this short piece is not the place for me to try.
(2) “Words” doesn’t mean the lyrics as written out on the paper, that is, doesn’t mean “poetry”. Rather, words includes sung hooks and all manner of vocal personality and approach. Otis Redding can make lousy or trivial lyrics profound. Lisa Walker’s (Wussy) lyrics, or the words on The Hot Rock and The Woods (Sleater’-Kinney) can be too dense and full of personal references to parse all the way through. In each case the words are central to the impact of the songs, because the purpose of lyrics isn’t originality or perfect comprehensibility but affect, shading, mood, sensibility. None of this is to say words are never poetry — sometimes they are. Indeed, sometimes they are good prose (cf. Against Me’s New Wave). It is simply to say that an emphasis on words, which is definitely part of my critical practice, doesn’t mean that words always impact the same way.
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