Think about your favorite song. What makes it great? Is it the tune – a particular riff or chord progression that elicits something in you? Is it the lyrics - something poetic, or clever, or insightful, or silly that you’ve never been able to forget since you first heard it? Maybe it’s the production. Or the way the singer sings with a particular emotion or nuance. Maybe intellectually you realize the song’s not all that great, but it takes you back to a time and place that you remember fondly, as so many songs do.
There are many ways to create a great song. What I’m writing about today is the simplest and arguably the laziest of ways, but also one of the most effective. I’m talking of course about vagueness.
Human psychology 101: Most people, whether they’ll admit it or not, think of themselves as the center of their universe. They see other people and events not independently, but in relation to their own selves and lives. I am no different. It’s why I (usually) don’t leave the house dressed as a slob. It’s why I can’t watch a baseball game without bias. It’s why I’m bothering to use semi-proper punctuation and spelling in this blog.
Please, don’t think of this as a bad thing. We spend every hour of every day with ourselves. We should see the world through our own individual filters, albeit not exclusively.
To bring this back to music…
When a song’s lyrics are intentionally vague, it creates a whole handful of blanks for the listener to fill in with experiences from their own lives. Let’s take an example from my teenage years, Smashing Pumpkins’ Bullet With Butterfly Wings:
Despite all my rage / I am still just a rat in a cage
Imagine it’s 1995, just after dinnertime, and 13 year-old Johnny is blasting this song from his 5-disc CD player in his room loud enough for it to echo throughout the house.
When Johnny listens to this lyric (repeated twelve times throughout the song), he thinks, “I’m trapped within my parents’ house and suppressed by their rules. I’m stuck in school five days a week. None of the people who are supposed to be teaching or caring for me understand me, so it’s hopeless. The girl I like won’t talk to me. Most the kids at school are jerks. I have to endure this for another five years. That’s over a third of my life so far. My God, five years is a long time. I’m unhappy, but powerless.”
When Johnny’s mom, downstairs washing the dishes hears the lyric, she thinks, “I’m trapped in a loveless marriage to a man who no longer appreciates me. I cooked him dinner. He wolfed it down without so much as a ‘thank you’ and left me to wash the dishes. We scrimped and saved so we could buy our son a really fancy 5-disc CD player and he still will barely speak to us. And he’s going to ruin his ears. My responsibilities as a mother and a wife won’t allow me to make any drastic changes in my life. And somehow I’m turning 40 next month. My God, 40 years went fast. I’m unhappy, but powerless.”
When Johnny’s pet rat, listening from within his cage hears the lyric, he thinks “Yup, that pretty much sums it up. Even if I did escape - an owl’d probably eat me. Did you know that a pet rat’s average lifespan is 2 to 3 years? My God, 2-3 years is short. My God, 2-3 years is a long time to be in a cage. I’m unhappy, but powerless.”
What’s never actually explicitly stated in the song – or really even alluded to – is what Billy Corgan is so upset about. Did his relationship with a friend or loved one fail? Does he feel like his life lacks meaning? Did he lose his car keys?
This is, of course, one example in an endless sea of vague song lyrics. The jilted lovers have it:
And I’m here to remind you / of the mess you left when you went away
-Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughtta Know”
The ones doing the jilting have it too:
The b*tch went nuts
-Ben Folds’ “B*tch Went Nuts”
The hippies have it:
I wasn’t born to follow
-The Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born to Follow”
So do the yuppies:
I eat too much / I drink to much / I want too much / Too much
-Dave Matthews Band’s “Too Much”
The rockers have it:
You can’t always get what you want / But if you try sometimes you might find /
You get what you need
-The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”
The rappers have it:
Life’s a b*tch and then you die / That’s why we get high /
Cuz you never know when you’re gonna go
-Nas’ “Life’s a B*tch”
Those crying quietly at home have it:
You’ll be loved, you’ll be loved / Like you never have known /
And the memories of me / will seem more like bad dreams /
Just a series of blurs / Like I never occurred / Someday you will be loved
-Death Cab for Cutie’s “Someday You Will be Loved”
Those crying their drink orders in the clubs have it:
I gotta feeling / That tonight’s gonna be a good night
-Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling”
I could go on - and honestly, it’s hard not to. But you get my point. To make a song profound, you can come up with something brilliant – or you can create a framework for the listener’s own insights. After all, what could be more meaningful to you than something you thought of yourself?
My examples are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg - so I’ll leave it to you, bold commenters. What songs have or had a profound impact on you simply by letting you fill in the blanks with your own feelings?
This is the first in a series of music-related posts by David Hornreich (a FOTruck) in anticipation of The Ruckus’ Tell it & Think it & Speak it & Breathe it – a night of plays in which David will be participating in some capacity or another.