Recently, I did a book talk at a local senior center. Their book club had read Living by Ear, and they’d invited me to visit.
Now, since both of my books feature characters who love music—particularly music by artists known for their poetic lyrics (Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, David Bowie, etc.)—I fully expected music to be part of the discussion. Usually when I meet with book groups, people like to talk about the musical artists and bands that have influenced their lives. But no matter what style of music they enjoy—be it rock, pop, country, R&B, or standards—the discussion usually focuses on lyrics, and the messages in the songs.
At this recent meeting, however, one woman raised her hand and stated that she believes the era of popular lyric-driven music has ended, at least for the Millennial generation. She pointed out that much of the music that teenagers and college-age people listen to today is focused primarily on rhythm, beat, and repetition of words or phrases, rather than traditional lyrics.
People in the room began to nod. “Yes,” said another woman. “My granddaughter said she doesn’t care about the words to the songs on the radio. She just wants something to dance to.”
“It’s sad,” said someone else. “Music used to have meaning.” The nodding increased.
Then the woman who’d made the original statement raised her hand again. “And there’s a good reason for this,” she said. “The world is so complicated and frightening these days that kids need a strong rhythm to calm them. It’s like being in a rocking chair. The beat comforts them.”
I considered that. Sure, past generations have had to deal with wars, global disease, famine, tragedy, and crisis. But none of it was in their faces the way it is today. When I was growing up, adults worried about children seeing the Vietnam War on TV, but our kids can see far more graphic violence right on their cell phones. They also get news of world events immediately because it shows up in the newsfeed on their phones; there’s no distance for them, no perspective at all. And although many of us know people who’ve been killed or seriously damaged in wars like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, it wasn’t until 9/11 that most Americans worried about terrorism on our own soil.
Could that be why my teenage daughter—an intelligent girl—is such a huge pop fan? Every time we get in the car together, she’ll immediately switch the radio from my station (I’m partial to Sirius XMU) to one of the pop stations. Of course, we argue about music all the time—good naturedly—and she freely admits that the lyrics of most pop songs are silly, unintelligible, highly sexual, or all three. But she doesn’t care. (Not up on the current pop scene? Check out “Bang Bang,” which is at number four on American Top 40 this week.)
“Wow,” I said to the woman at the senior center. “I’ve never thought about it that way.” Do Millennials listen to crap because they need it for comfort? Are they so worried about ISIS, Ebola, terrorist attacks, and all the other scary things in the news that they require a driving beat to calm them down? Is the pop music I criticize so often, in fact, a mechanism for staying sane?
Another woman raised her hand. “I don’t think we’re giving our young people enough credit,” she said. “We sound like a bunch of old ladies.” She went on to point out how her parents and grandparents slammed the music of her youth (the Beatles and Rolling Stones), which is now considered classic and genius. She also noted that although she doesn’t necessarily enjoy the rap music her grandson listens to, she knows he listens to it for the words and messages. “I don’t like some of the messages in rap,” she admitted, “but I don’t think it’s fair to say kids don’t care about words any more.”
At that moment, Ed Sheeran popped into my mind. I consider Ed to be pretty brilliant, and he manages to get played a lot on pop radio, despite the fact that he’s a true singer-songwriter. And come to think of it, my daughter always sings along with him. So maybe there is hope for popular music with inspired lyrics. And maybe—just maybe—the party music craze will run its course and the pendulum will swing back the other way.
What do you think? Are lyrics dead in the world of pop music, or will singer-songwriters begin to gain ground again? Can Ed Sheeran lead a revolution, or will he remain an anomaly on the American Top 40? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
You know I’m a music junky, Mary, so really appreciated this post. I do think that a lot of pop music is so manufactured that lyrics are not supposed to count. I caught something on Boston’s WXRV (the River) the other day that was so mind-numbingly repetitive I thought the song had gone on for 10 minutes vs. the 3 it really was. I think fewer pop singers are willing to take risk with their lyrics to actually SAY something. But maybe that’s why we have indie and alt groups that can cross over…really fascinating topic for sure! Great read!
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Thanks for the comment, Sheila! And I agree that some of the pop songs really do seem to go on forever! As for pop singers not taking risks, I agree with that as well. I think the tendency to “stay safe” is happening across the boards with music (and also other art) these days. It’s so easy for people to flame musicians on social media–and really cause damage to their careers–that it’s probably easier to just write vanilla songs. I also blame the industry for promoting singers and bands they want to promote–often ones they know will “listen” and “obey,” rather than ones who are exceptionally gifted. But I was really fascinated by the woman’s assertion that the current young generation simply can’t handle meaningful lyrics, because life is so frightening for them. And yes, I’m very thankful for indie and alternative bands!
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Great post Mary. I think in general music is evolving and different genre’s are meshing together. In that we are losing a lot of individuality of certain types of music, as for lyrics, I think they will always be important no matter what you listen to.
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Thanks, Dena!I really hope you’re right about lyrics always being important. Melody and beat are critical, of course, but without lyrics that matter, music would be pretty dull, IMO.
I’ve heard that the only way musicians and singers can make serious money these days (with the internet and pirating, etc.) is by touring so they focus more on the showy aspects of their songs and less on the lyrics. I can’t understand a lot of the lyrics in modern day pop songs so I can’t judge whether they are good or bad. Anyway, interesting post, as usual!
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Thanks Jan, and that makes sense. Pirating is doing a job on record sales for sure, so I can understand why the show might be more important than the words.
Poetry is thriving. Not a universal sentiment, but true. It’s thriving in rap, mostly. That is the poetry of the last 20 years, written and then spoken/sung. Not all is good. Most isn’t. But then again, only the best of any era survives, and there have always been weak or useless songs/poems. Bards, troubadours, songwriters, poets: only the tip of the iceberg survives time. So, when you consider the lyrics of the 50s, only the best survive. 60s? same, and 70s and 80s too. “Sugar pie, honey pie,” anyone? “Build me up, buttercup”?
So let’s not despair of the “youth of today.” Let’s not write off poetry/lyrics we don’t relate to (if we don’t.) Sure, overtly sexual lyrics aren’t subtle, some songs are offensive, some are stupid, but those won’t be the songs that stand the test of time. Listen closely, and you will know which songs will be on the “golden oldies” station of the next generation!
Thanks for the interesting post.
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Thanks for the comment, Claudia! I definitely agree about rap being poetry, and that poetry is thriving in the rap world, as it is in the indie world.
It’s the pop world that puzzles me, because I really do think it’s changed in a very odd way. I’ve listened to the 50s on 5 station recently, and also the 60s on 6, the 70s on 7, the 80s on 8, and the 90s on 9, and I honestly believe that pop songs in all of those eras had somewhat decent lyrics. Sure, some of the songs are dumb and boring, but I can imagine the songwriters sitting around with notebooks, trying out different words and phrases, searching for the right combinations. But most of the songs I hear on the pop stations now are extremely shallow.
It’s funny that you mention “Build Me Up, Buttercup” because there was a woman who lived in my college dorm (in the mid-80s) who found some sort of salvation–I kid you not–in that song. Every time she got really depressed (or possibly drunk–I didn’t know her very well), she’d put it on as loudly as her stereo would go and scream the words, “Why do you build me up, Buttercup, just to let me down? You mess me around, and then worst of all, you never call, baby, when you say you will. But I love you still. I need you, more than anything, darling. You know that I have from the start. So build me up, Buttercup. Don’t break my heart.” And then, she’d sing every verse, and then the chorus again. I’d never really paid attention to that song before, but when you listen to it like that, it actually is pretty poetic, and I guess it helped her.
Back in those days, there was also dance music, of course, which had fewer words, but that was dance music, and it was played in discos and nightclubs. It wasn’t pop. And I guess that’s the part that interests me. I think of pop music as music that people can sing along with, but that’s almost impossible with most of the pop I hear these days.
Perhaps it has always been the nature of pop songs to dumb down the lyrics. Consider this line from 1964: “Do wah diddy diddy, dum diddy do.” Novelty songs have been with us for a long time and hopefully pop culture does not define us. I know plenty of millennials who listen to sophisticated music, who have revived Johnny Cash (because of his lyrics), who write their own tunes or listen to non-pop and non-hiphop musicians. Great insights from your group presentation and interesting blog post!
Thank you, Charli! Yes, let’s hope we’re not defined by pop culture. I guess I’m just dismayed by how shallow pop music is at the moment. Novelty songs are one thing, but when every song you hear sounds like a novelty song–and an unoriginal one at that–it starts to get depressing. But yes, I do believe a lot of high school and college-age people are circumventing pop and digging deeper to find good music. There’s certainly great stuff out there.
I think different people derive different pleasures from popular music. For some it’s about the beat, and for others about the words. I actually don’t mind music made for dancing, but it is annoying when a compelling, funky rhythm supplies the backbeat to lyrics that are awful or offensive.
Funny that both you and Claudia should mention “Build Me Up, Buttercup.” I, too, have special associations with that song – it’s even the focus of a segment in my memoir. Amazing what we collectively remember!
Thanks, Lori! Totally agree about people deriving different pleasures from pop. I guess maybe the question that continues to puzzle me is whether people in general are becoming more beat focused and less intent on lyrics. I also like dance music when it’s played in nightclubs and discos. But it seems to me that there are fewer and fewer songs on pop radio for people to sing along with, and fewer inspired lyrics.
Your memoir looks really amazing and I’m putting it on my to-read list right now. I’ve got giant a pile of books–both paperback and e-books–that I want to get through before buying any more reading material, but I hope to read your memoir after the first of the year. Looking forward to the “Buttercup” segment. Best of luck with all!
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