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Why You Sometimes Like Songs With Bad Lyrics

In a song, everything is sound. So, before we even perceive the content of lyrics – the literal meaning and the emotions attached to that meaning – we get a feeling from the sound of the words. Those words may say something that’s coherent and substantial. But they also may not – and that might not matter to you if enjoy the song enough.

On a fully orchestrated recording – something with more than just a guitar or piano, say – unless we’re listening very closely or the vocal is very loud, lyrics tend to penetrate our consciousness gradually.

At first we might only get them as sounds – and if they sound good, we’re happy not knowing what they mean… for a while at least.

Or we might only catch certain words here and there in the song… and if they’re evocative to us in an interesting way, we connect the dots and make up our own story of what the song’s ‘about’.

Then there’s the situation when, after listening with pleasure for a period of time, you read or listen closely to the lyrics of a song you love and realize that they’re idiotic! Or worse. (This can feel like the song-listening equivalent of waking up hungover next to someone who looked pretty good the night before, but in the cold light of day…)

It’s not that bad though, because in songs, words are music. We’ll always perceive them at least partially as sound, without literal content. That’s natural, I think.

It’s also worth remembering this when writing. I’m not encouraging bad lyrics or lazy writing. But as easy (and undesirable) as it is to write cliche-ridden or incoherent lyrics, it’s also easy to get so hung up on the ‘meaning’ of the words on paper that one forgets that the sound is part of the meaning.

Even if that part can’t be explained, it still exists and it’s part of the whole experience of a song. All great lyricists’ work seems to me to contain this respect and feeling for the power of the pure sound of words.

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25 responses to “Why You Sometimes Like Songs With Bad Lyrics”

  • brian dash

    I like what I take to be your implicit message here: that canny songwriters will take all these kinds of hearers into account, leading casual listeners into focusing on and caring about each deeper level. Hopefully, your actual lyrics should be worth spending the time to discover.

  • So I don’t have to feel guilty for liking “Cake By The Ocean”!

  • I am reminded of “sittin’ in LA LA waitin’ for my ya ya to come”!

  • Christopher Gansky

    My nomination for most idiotic lyric in an otherwise respectable song: The band – America. The song – Horse With No Name. The lyric – The heat was hot.

    Still a big hit.

    1. I still love the evocative nature of “Horse With No Name!”
      Always take me back to the sonic space it creates and I have tired of hearing it, believe it or not:)

  • Two words:
    American Pie!

  • Tony~ “The sound is part of the meaning” – very very astute comment.
    So – I think when lyrics get bad is when it sounds like the singer is proud of wailing out a cliche. Now, I didn’t say that cliches are bad. I’m saying that inherent in the performance should be the sound of humility or at least the sound of participating in a collective consciousness rather than the sound of “dig this! It’s ME singing the same words you’ve heard a million times before.”

  • Charity James

    Rhianna’s “Work.” Perfect example. Lyrics aren’t comprehensible ~ but the SOUND of the words is enough. It’s all FEEL. And they do throw in a catchy lyric now and again which pricks up your ears. Good analysis, Tony!

  • Bill

    Depends ‘ on what you mean by “bad” lyrics. I don’t think song lyrics has to be logical to be good. Many of REM’s best songs are incomprehensible. Townes Van Zandt once stated that one of his goal was to “write songs so perfect that no one understands them. Not even me.” Art is different from other types of writing.

  • Hey Tony
    This is great .. looking forward to the class!!

  • OR we sometimes like songs with lyrics that don’t make sense or seem trivial but they’re so memorable and pleasant to the ear. Paul Simon, John Lennon and Steely Dan have all recorded songs with lyrics that benefit from euphony, the writing of words that sound good. I’ve never done this and would love to try it. Sometimes, I feel, as a lyricist, the pressure of having to make sense, having to be understood in real time by the first time listener, even having to come up with a piece of wisdom to make my lyric work. How about simply sounding good? Sounds like fun!

  • Joyce Rogers

    Words are fun to play around with; their sounds and meanings. Such diversity available.

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