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Why lyrics matter

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Lyrics matter. I shouldn’t even have to say this. But I’ve had this chip on my shoulder for a while. It gets heavier every time I get a promo without lyrics – which is 99% of the time now. It gets heavier every time I hear someone say, “Lyrics don’t matter in metal”. This chip has become very heavy. It’s time to cast it off, at least for today.

First, lyrics aren’t everything. They aren’t even the majority of what’s important in music. They’re just part of the total package. I hate record reviews that begin with something like, “‘You’re all I ever had / You’re no better than bad’, sings Indie Rock Singer on Indie Rock Album“. The popular press actually places undue importance on lyrics, probably because the music it covers is often musically uninteresting. Also, few music critics actually know the nuts and bolts of music and can grapple with it on that level. So they focus instead on something they can understand: words. The problem is, most lyricists are not poets. Their lyrics are usually (a) meant to work in a musical context, and (b) bad. Latching onto lyrics in isolation is short-sighted and incomplete.

But lyrics matter. They do so in two ways.

The first is aesthetic completeness. Just like you shouldn’t watch a foreign film without subtitles, you shouldn’t listen to music with words without knowing what they are. Of course, this is crucial for critics – one should not pass judgment on something without perceiving it in its entirety. But since everyone’s a critic now, and reading music critics is a great way not to enjoy music, this priority is just as important for listeners. If a band presents extra-musical information along with its music, like artwork and lyrics, those things inextricably become part of the package. I know Kill ‘Em All not as a pile of MP3s, but as sounds branded with a powerful album cover and lyrics of which the printed font is seared into my consciousness. Anything less, and I can’t claim to understand Kill ‘Em All.

In metal, I often hear these counter-arguments: “the vocals are just another instrument or texture” or “the music is really what’s important”. Well, vocals are always another instrument and texture. Lyrics, when presented in a rhythmic and sometimes melodic manner, are part of the music. If you’re a metal band with a singer, you can’t say that the guy you drag along on tour and put in the center of the stage doesn’t matter. He’s the center of attention – so what comes out of his mouth is important. It’s not enough just to sound good. Let’s say that you go on a date, and the other person is dressed to the nines. That may seem attractive until you find out that the mind isn’t as sharp as the looks. You shouldn’t date dumb people, and you shouldn’t listen to dumb bands.

Dumb lyrics often get a free pass because of the underlying music. Ideally, both parts are good. Hip-hop faces this problem often. The radio is riddled with “great beats, awful MC” (hello, Fabolous). And, to be honest, I can put up with that more than “awful beats, great MC” (hello, Nas). But the pleasures of “great beats, awful MC” are temporary. What lasts longest and means the most is “great beats, great MC”. This applies to all music with vocals. The best things in life are great total packages – and the best things in life should be the only things we seek.

The second way in which lyrics matter is political, strange as that may sound. We live in an age of overload of both information and disinformation. We are told more things than ever, and they mean less than ever. When we watch TV adverts, and some rapid-fire voice machine-guns out a legal disclaimer at the end, we hear the letter but not the spirit of laws that are meant to protect consumers. Every time we see a news story, other stories could have been presented. Omission is an editorial and political act. It happens every second. Interests big and small use omission to keep people from knowing everything – and knowledge is power.

So we should not volunteer to be ignorant in music, which, if you’re reading this, is probably important to you. Music feeds the soul. It saves lives. It is a source of power. It should be the last place where people don’t have the full picture. Listening to music without knowing the lyrics is like eating food without knowing its ingredients. It’s irresponsible. If music is important to you, take the time to embrace it fully. Know what that guy screaming at you is saying. In real life, you would damn well make sure to know.

— Cosmo Lee

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