Friday, 31 August 2012

Lyrical Thoughts

A while back following the last blog post, I had a request for a bit of lyrical analysis. Lyrics occupy a sort of grey area in popular music. Dai Griffiths, writing in Analyzing Popular Music, makes, I think, the best point: at times, we have no idea what the words of a song are or what they are about (I have loved the Rolling Stones' 'Brown Sugar' since I was about 7; this is not a song about cooking); but, find a good live concert and there are 100,000 people who know every word of a song. Added to this, opponents of popular music have often pointed to the lyrics as reasons for censorship (there shalt be no sex, drugs or rock 'n' roll). Contra this argument, arguably, the musical notes contribute as much (if not more) to a song's meaning insofar as they denote a particular style, which in turn has a host of extra-musical connotations. But then again, what would Dylan's 'A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall' be without the words. I'll tell you what: the chords C, F and G repeated for six minutes. As I said, it is a grey area.

If I may add one more idea to the fire, it seems safe enough to assert that different formal structures lead to varied interpretations and 'meanings' (I use these terms very loosely). There are a few standard formal types in popular music: Verse/Chorus/Bridge or AABA (Queen's 'Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy' and the Beatles 'Yesterday'); Verse/Chorus ('Brown Sugar'); strophic ('A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall'); and through composed, which does not repeat any material ('Bohemian Rhpasody' and, one could argue, 'Thunder Road'). 

Each type is defined by both the music and lyrics, and each allows for a different unfolding of the song's narrative. I cannot remember where I read this recently, but a good explanation is that the Verse-Chorus (or refrain based) form generally presents an emotion in a fairly static way; I guess because there is a repeated section, there is a relatively constant state of a mind. On the other hand, strophic forms can unfold a story, and thus, offer the listener twists and turns along the way. There are, of course, exceptions, but these alternatives are useful benchmarks.

Into this framework, as such, slips today's blog which looks at the lyrical structure of four songs: Bread's 'Diary,' Kenny Rogers 'Coward of the County,' Rod Stewart's 'The Killing of Georgie,' and Taylor Swift's 'Love Story.' The request was to consider these songs in relation to the Verse-Chorus model. 

I will start with Bread's 'Diary' because it more or less sits at one end of the spectrum. A man finds his wife's diary and begins reading all her praises for him. The narrator is puzzled because these sentiments are never "in her eyes." In the second stanza, the narrator confronts his wife about these words, but she doesn't respond; again, the narrator simply believes this is in character and he vows that he will give everything "sweet" to her. 

The narrator's naivety fades in the third stanza when he realises that his wife's words were not written about him; the recurring phrase "wouldn't you know it, she wouldn't show it" takes on slightly different meaning. It wasn't in her character to hide her feelings; she just did not have any for the narrator. 

'Diary' is a great example of a narrative that  develops through the song. The basic premise is fairly typical (man loves woman, woman loves other man), but it is executed well. We are offered enough insight into the narrator's thought processes early on to make a plot twist likely, however, the payoff is delayed. The final couplet, I think, also deepens our understanding of the narrator. He may be a cuckolded fool, but that he only wishes his wife happiness, suggests that he is a devoted and loyal fool. Perhaps, these traits explain why he was unable to see what was coming; perhaps, he didn't want to see what was coming.

'Love Story' and 'Coward of the County' are similar in that both combine an overarching narrative with a refrain section. 'Love Story' follows a Romeo-and-Juliet plot: the girl is in love with her Romeo, but her dad won't let the pair be together. As details of this problem unfold, the narrator interrupts with the chorus, in which she wishes to be the "princess" and be rescued by the "prince" - so we switch from a narrative lyric to a description of an emotion (as happens with choruses).

I don't particularly like 'Love Song.' The country-pop genre, to which Swift and American Idol-wannabes belong, is entirely listenable but dull. Some people praise Swift as being an antidote to the hyper-sexualised nature of Rihanna, Katy Perry, etc., but I hardly think this is a crowning achievement. Nonetheless, there are some nice lyrical touches in this song. The penultimate section retains the verse's musical material, but from a lyrical perspective, acts more as a bridge. At this point, the singer doesn't even though if Romeo is coming back to get her - this is, like Act III in Shakespearean plays, or two-thirds through a film, the classical narrative in action. The drama is heightened, and there is need for lyrical resolution.

This duly happens in the final chorus, as Prince Charming comes swooping in to marry the girl and live happily ever after. Now, what I think is a little clever, is the fact that the final sections conclude the narrative by presenting the action. The musical material, though, is from the preceding choruses, which as suggested above, functioned as portraying an emotion. Here, these two ideas converge into one giant ball of happiness. With the modulation up a key (the music is higher), 'Love Story' is very cliched, but, like, 'Diary,' rather effective.

'Coward of the County' is cut from the same musical cloth as 'Love Story' - modulations up a key each section (like Kenny Rogers' biggest hit 'The Gambler'), conventional harmonic language, and standard Country & Western instrumentation. The story is told from the perspective of a man whose nephew is labelled the 'Coward of the County' because he refuses to fight. The opening stanzas set the scene and introduce important plot details: the boy is in the narrator's care because his father died in prison. 'Coward of the County' contains a chorus section, which seems to blends narrative and emotive aspects. The lyrics are the piece of advice from father to son: don't fight or you may end up (like me) in jail; there is no shame in "turning the other cheek." Because they are from the past and because they convey a single idea, they are essentially static. They recur throughout the song as the chorus, and at each point the message is the same. Yet on the other hand, they are crucial to song's narrative, on first hearing, because they explain why the son is the 'coward': he is simply following his father's advice.

The main piece of the narrative comes in the second section. One day when the narrator is at work, the villainous Gatlin brothers rape his sweetheart Becky. Seeking revenge, the narrator disregards his father's advice and, for wont of a better phrase, beats the shit out of the Gatlins. 

The final chorus closes the narrative. It mirrors the preceding choruses, in terms of vocabulary and line structure, but is told from the narrator's perspective and concludes, "Sometimes you gotta fight when you're a man." This last line is a great twist on its correspondent, "you don't have to fight to be a man."  Where previously fighting was a pre-requisite for masculinity, here fighting is an unfortunate side-effect, as such, of masculinity. The real pre-requisite for being a man, as implied by the narrator, is standing up for his better half. Once again, the chorus presents a static emotion or idea, but by altering the lyrics, it shows a sense of narrative development.

The final song, Rod Stewart's 'The Killing of Georgie' is, for the most part, in straight ballad form. The narrator begins with a brief introduction about "Georgie" - the kindest boy he ever knew, who was also gay. After these first lines, the song proceeds as simply the story of Georgie's life: being disowned by his parents, moving to New York and joining the elite chic scene, going to Broadway one evening, walking home with his partner and being knifed. According to Stewart, the song was based on a true story. 

Apart from the first stanzas, there is little emotional input from the narrator; he's just reporting the facts of the story. An interesting side point is the presence of female backing vocalists, who reference Lou Reed's 'Walk on the Wide Side.' In the latter, it was the "coloured girls" who sang; here, they are the voice of Georgie, who is also marginalised from mainstream society.

The final stanza of Part I of the song offers more insight into the narrative. The narrator recalls Georgie telling him to "live it long and live it fast." Thus, although Georgie is dead and has suffered various pains throughout his life, it seems likely that he took a lot of pleasure from his time in New York when he was freed from the pressures of his upbringing. 

Part II of the song (from about 4'30" onwards) features a shift in musical texture,  tempo and lyrical perspective. The last minute or so is a repeated couplet — "Oh Georgie stay, don't go away // Georgie stay, you take our breath away." This is, basically, a chorus, literally so given that other singers join in. With the repeated lyrics, we get a stronger sense of the narrator's take on the events. That the narrator's thoughts are presented in such blunt form could possibly be viewed as pent up emotions overflowing. For four and a half minutes, he has had to tell a heartbreaking story of his friend and has given away little. Now, his anger, his pain, and his sorrow come to the surface in a concluding tribute to the tale of Georgie.

So there are a few thoughts on a few song lyrics. I think if forced to conclude somehow, I would probably declare a preference for story-based songs for the simple reason that they demand a little attention and patience from the listener. There is something rewarding in discovering 'what happens,' as it were, and these songs are, if not the most exceptional, then certainly good examples of this style. 


  1. Thanks Nick. If only 'A hard rain's a gonna fall' didn't have F in it - I'd have a six minute repertoire.

  2. Haha - can you play the chords A, D, and E? If you can play those chords then Dylan might yet be able to form the cornerstone of your set list.