After a couple of glasses of wine last night, I made the dreadful mistake of going onto twitter and tweeting while under the influence. There was a well-known song writer on at the same time, who writes wonderful music and lyrics that often leave you to interpret the meanings for yourself. He has the decency to interact with people on twitter and was up for a chat. So I chatted. Oops.
Allusion in song lyrics is all well and good, but I sometimes find myself utterly mystified at the intended meaning, or even any meaning at all. I’m often at a complete loss to explain what it was all about. It’s like an in-joke that I am on the outside of. I don’t mean by this particular song writer, but by song writers in general.
Sometimes it feels like I am being fed florid words that actually have no intended meaning, but like a fool, I am set the task of trying to find meaning in them, by the song writer. That makes me feel abused. The song writer must quietly chuckle to him or herself at my vain intellectual efforts. Maybe that’s a way of feeling intellectually superior to the audience, I don’t know. Or perhaps it’s a cynical way of passing off drivel as commercial product of merit. Perhaps it is a little unkind of me to suggest that, but when commerce is involved, motives are often compromised and tainted. It may also be that the problem is entirely mine and that most people don’t feel that way. Maybe I just hate feeling stupid.
I also happen to believe that song writing is a platform for some sort of significant human communication and that to fail to have something worth saying and to make your meaning clear (or at least discoverable) is a waste of a good opportunity to have a point of view and state it. It simply adds to the meaningless “babble of distraction”, to quote my song writing correspondent. The whole world was listening, hanging on your every word and you chose to say nothing. Seems like a missed opportunity, doesn’t it?
The reactions to this brief twitter exchange were interesting. My song writing correspondent stated a preference for leaving doors open so that people could wander through them. Doors to where? I have the problem of bumping into the door frames. I said that filling a song with vague allusion can be a place to hide, so that song writers can avoid having to state a point of view. I don’t know why some song writers like the avoidance. Perhaps in the hope that some people won’t stop buying their records. Maybe they think it’s impolite to state a position. Another tweeter piped up that it gives the songwriter plausible denial to back away from a truth they may have told. Why would you ever want to deny the truth? I don’t understand abandoning the truth at the very point when it needs a powerful spokesperson.
My song writing fellow tweeter also asserted that sometimes the subconscious dishes up great truth in amongst the abstractions. Well, that’s true and I agree, but it leaves the communication to chance. One of my favourite poets is John Donne, who is renowned for his “conceits”. For those unfamiliar with Donne’s poetry, a conceit is an extended metaphor. It extends over the span of the entire poem, cleverly weaving a second meaning into the text, manipulating images and ideas in a surprising way. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conceit The point is, you can figure the conceit out, like solving a puzzle and the delight you experience when you see the other meaning is wonderful. The meaning is there to unearth. It may be cloaked, but the truth has been told and it remains, like buried treasure, to be discovered by those that have a mind to do so. Unfortunately, I suspect that lyrics, as a literary form, are too compact to permit the full compass of a conceit (chuckling to self – one of Donne’s most famous conceits is the so called “compass conceit” http://lardcave.net/hsc/2eng-donne-valediction-comments.html ).
I love allusion, imagery and metaphors in song lyrics, but I prefer them to be in the service of conveying some meaningful point of view or truth, rather than smothering it in smug poetic devices or else disguising a complete absence of intended meaning, as if written by the wizard of Oz. That’s just my opinion, of course, and an aesthetic judgement.
We concluded our brief discussion by the justly famous and actually quite accomplished song writer saying that there is “an element of bluff in all worthy stuff”. I had to concede. The master lyricist had written the perfect response, complete with natural rhyme and rhythm. There is, indeed, an element of bluff in all worthy stuff.
(…only John Donne might have written “bluffe” and “stuffe”. He also would have woven in an extended narrative on alchemy, dropping images and allusions to alchemical practice into his lines and perhaps likened it to the human condition of being mystified by Magi and their magickes. At least that is what I think he would have done.)
I thank technology for allowing a twitter to exist at all and for it to be populated with such open and amazing people like my friend the song writer here. It was an enjoyable conversation and I now know more about the art of writing lyrics than I did before. I am grateful. I hope he enjoyed the exchange too.