When I listen to music, I usually listen more for the vocals than for the instruments: this is so because I am completely tone-deaf and melody-deficient. As you can guess, I’m not big for instrumentals. I just keep waiting for the singer, and then feel cheated when there’s nothing said.
More often than not, I find myself liking the music and dreading for the first words — there are many, many bands that are ruined for me because I just can’t stand their vocalist. It’s of no use if they play well and have great lyrics: if I hate the singer, it’s all over. This might be because his or her singing just sounds bad, or is too slow, unclear or monotonous, or then the same for every single song. This is why there are whole genres I dislike: death metal, say, is too much for me because I can’t ever hear the words. Well, unless they’re just rayr-rayr-RAAH, which I seriously doubt. And rap music I don’t like because the vocalizing somehow brushes me the wrong way — I can’t really explain it very well, but it’s an immediate feeling of deep revulsion and outright murder-death-kill.
Then again, I like Bal-Sagoth and Scatman John, so I guess this is partly a question of where I came across this band or that. Liking or disliking music is probably a deep psychological thing. One could say that this style or band or song is generally more technically demanding, or more innovative, but better or worse? Just as well you could ask whether black is a better color than pink.
It’s a question of personal preference. And yes, black is a better color than pink. No question about that.
But where was I? Yes, vocalists, which then leads to lyrics. I can handle almost any words, nonsensical or sensical (that’s not a word, right?), unless they’re too stale: I’ve got zero patience for, for example, the common run of love songs. I can appreciate the sentiment, but hearing essentially the same routines and expressions again and again has made me very tired with the whole song-subject of love. I’m not interested, unless there’s some new variation — for example, Lordi’s Evilove, where the love is quite like that of a wolf for his prey — “Your cries they make no difference / I’ll always love you the same”?
It’s up to the listener whether they look for a meaning or not — I guess most listeners jam instead of hypothesizing, and take the voice of the vocalist as just another instrument. Well, since my capacity for judging the nonvocal instruments is rather limited to the choices of “Me likes”, “Me likes not” and “Pleasemakeitgoaway”, I use the lyrics, and the voice of the vocalist, to differentiate between what’s good or bad to me. And listening to the lyrics quickly leads to wondering what they are about, or what they could be about.
Sometimes some meaning of the lyrics is clear, sometimes none is, and sometimes one is left wondering if there is something deeper inside. The frontman of the Finnish hard rock band Lordi, for example, commented on one of their records in the vein that every piece in it could be understood as a simple horror-story, but that they could be read for a deeper, figurative meaning as well — fine stuff, and it’s for the listener to choose what meaning they take, if any beyond ‘pleasant noise’. Double vision is nice, and even more so if one sight involves cannibals and shotgun divorces. Zero danger of staleness there, he grinned evilly.
And often it’s not possible to listen at a song and say: Okay, that’s their opinion on the subject. Some songs say a thing by parodying the opposing viewpoint, and some use several alternating voices. And of course sometimes there’s no deep meaning there — no more commentary than in a television show, or a horror movie.
These reasons — multiplicity of interpretations, voice-parodies, discussions-in-a-song, mere entertainment, and some more — are why all moral crusaders, eager to ban this music or that as harmful, always find a handle to hang their grubby accusations on. If you want to see Iron Maiden as Satanic, sure, you can read it that way. You could read it as Christian, too, but that doesn’t mean it’s that either. Songs can be like poetry can be — few enough words for the reader to read himself, too. Novels aren’t so good for this — if a work drones on for 300 pages, it either has to get quite explicit on the subject, or lose the reader’s interest. But a poem, or a song with, say, few enough words to fill only one page of the CD booklet — well, it’s short enough to keep elliptical expressions bearable, and wildly divergent interpretations of what’s going on possible.
For example, there’s really no saying what Eagles’ Hotel California is about — it’s probably not a description of a Satanic coven (what’s this common linkage with Satanism and popular music?) — but just an attempt to be obscure. That’s fine with me, as long as we don’t go down to picking random words from the dictionary. If there’s a bit of coherence, there’s a chance of finding a meaning. Not necessarily the meaning the writer intended, indeed even a meaning he’d (or she’d) find ridiculous or horrible, but still something that makes sense for that particular listener.
To give a personal example of this, let us consider the song Journeyman, by Iron Maiden, possibly the greatest and best band ever. It’s a quiet, reflective number from their CD Dance of Death, and it quite clearly meant something to the writer. The booklet credits it to Smith/Harris/Dickinson, without telling who did the music and who the words. Dickinson, on the Death on the Road live DVD (can you tell I’m a fan?) says, between songs, that Journeyman ‘is a song about the whole process of writing and being a musician.’ I can faintly see/hear that original meaning, yes, but somehow the song also conjures up a picture of something that’s very dear and personal to me: namely, the importance of striving for truth and honesty, and the futility of religion. (Talk about weird personal interpretations, huh?) One part of Journeyman goes like this —
And the heartbeat of the day drives the mist away
And winter’s not the only dream around
In your life you may choose desolation
And the shadows you build with your hands
If you turn to the light, that is burning in the night
Then this Journeyman’s day has begun
I know what I want and I say what I want
And no one can take it away.
The meanings I find are, to me, pretty and noncontradictory — cold empirical daylight dispels the mists of confusion, creating the awareness that there really is a choice: either the sterile wintery desolation of deluded religion, with the shadowy gods built by human hands, or then the world as it is, and the comforting light of reason, burning in the night of ignorance and superstition. And with science, of course, the day never ends, the quest is never complete, and the world-approximations are always only better, never perfect. And the final two lines are so very true and beautiful that I’ll just say them again: I know what I want, and I say what I want, and no-one can take it away.
This is quite probably not what any of the writers meant to say, but I guess that when you say anything you run the risk of being misunderstood. That’s bad for communication, but great for art.
The funny thing is that I also see that the same song, if heard by a Christian or some other believer, could equally well seem deeply religious. That’s art, I guess. You gets back what you puts innit, you see. You see you.
(If you don’t know the song, there seems to be a Youtube version of it here.)