Going on 15 years ago, when I was finishing up my first original-music CD project, I had to write lyrics for the last tune on the album. Now, inasmuch as I was trying to be a “Christian man” at that time, committed to the ethics despite having jettisoned the supernaturalism, there was usually a message of love or hope or renewal in my songs. It was often quite sincere and sometimes quite contrived. Okay, fine.
But the lyrics that came along for that last song were different. Instead of being spiritual in nature, they derived from my other main self-tagging adjectives, the ones contending (not always cordially) with my baffled spirituality: libertarian and skeptic. And this got me to thinking about the dearth of sensible, sensitive, well-thought-out lyrics in contemporary music. Not a whole lot out there, frankly, neither then nor now, that’s very positive about liberty and individuality. It often seems there’s nothing positive at all, in any genre.
Well, okay, you have your country ditties and your lounge crooners. And, sure, you’ve got your gospel artists reminding everyone Who God Is and What Great Things He’s Doing in their lives, but I was thinking of the secular music segment, and the mainstream one at that. What are the messages that we, as a society, get from that cacophonous buffet? We have heard, and heard all about, the rap and the hip-hop and the twerking and the rest of it. But even among the mundane radio-daze tunes, where are the un-PC, or skeptical, or individualist, or non-conformist, or libertarian, lyrics?
Bubblegum for the Ears
No one needs any more evidence of the sorry state of modern songwriting than the playlist at any major-market radio station; tune in to the AM or FM powerhouses in your neck of the woods, whether rap or dance or techno or alternative or rock or who-knows-what, and you’ll get pretty much the same batch of tunes as folks do on L.A.’s undiversified outlets. And we don’t need to spend more than a few bullet points summing up the current state of affairs in pop music lyric writing. You have your
- cop-killing misogynists of the gangsta rap school, where violence is banal and women are whores;
- three generations of tra-la-la Lolitas (Madonna, Britney, Miley) winking and slinking to coyly and crudely sing their featherweight fables of sunny seduction and guiltless sensuality;
- angry troubadours and troubadourettes across a number of musicologically primitive genres;
- the discombobulated heirs of such musico-moralizers as Tracy Chapman, Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl, and Melissa, correcting the benighted members of our Sick Society with profound pronouncements within their weighty warbles; and
- those self-consciously Wizened Souls, like Sting and Paul Simon and these U2 characters, who find it incomprehensible that anyone young or hip or aware or intelligent would have any opinion outside the shallow orbit of Ellen or Rachel.
Did I leave anyone out? Of course.
I left out a lot, but I served up enough to make a meal. You know where I’m going with this, and you have enough examples of platitudinous high-school poetry, both in the above paragraphs and in your own memory, to sustain the following generalization: most pop music lyrics that touch on issues philosophical, or political, or spiritual, will rarely mention freedom except in the sorta-Southern-Rock semi-military style that patriotic football fans go for. We’re not just talking Bob Dylan here, you know? Yes, I’m sure you do.
And because you do, you will doubtless wait breathlessly for Part 2 (and there will be a Part 3, as well, so as not to weigh you down too much each time).