Lyrics are a crucial part of any traditional song – or so it would seem. While the case has been made that at this point in musical history we don’t need lyrics to have a meaningful piece of music, I think that the opposite is more often true, and in fact now more than ever we need lyrics to help communicate a message. Beyond that – from the perspective of your own band you need to have interesting lyrics in order to help differentiate yourself from the pack. If you can develop a few tasteful turns of phrase it may very well be your ticket to making music your full time job and perhaps even getting massive cultural recognition.
Now initially one might argue “Why do I care what my lyrics are look at guys like Justin Bieber, or hell even Billy Joel, their lyrics barely ever make sense and they’re massive stars!” Which is true. A lot of very successful musicians and composers have been able to make a living just through being able to use powerful hooks and solid songwriting to create catchy tunes. Lyrics definitely are not the be all and end all of any given musicians career. Why even the Beatles barely make sense half the time, and only then when you understand their wealth of inside jokes and the sheer amount of LSD that Paul McCartney took in the 60’s. It would seem that my point is moot… right?
Here’s where I beg to differ – as an independent artist you need to do whatever it takes to set yourself apart if you want to make it. What does it cost you, other than time and energy to write good lyrics? That time and energy will be more than bought back in the long run because with a little luck the depth of your lyrics and the inspiration you are able to conjure up will be able to create superfans, people who religiously spread the word of your work. If you want to organically grow your fanbase being able to reach out and have a clear message people will be much more likely to connect with your music.
A great example of this from recent musical history can be found in the band Death. While they are indeed an enduring musical force, part of why they continue to have so much success, 18 years after their last record and 14 years after the band mastermind, Chuck Schuldiner, died, is because of the strength of the lyrics. I know a lot of people who just connect to Death on a musical level, this seems especially prevalent for folks who are into the bands first two records, the seminal Scream Bloody Gore and Leprosy, and don’t get me wrong, it’s a totally valid way to appreciate the music. However it seems to me that those who are truly passionate about the band have fallen deeply in love with them because of the lyrics. It has led to a rabid following for the band which has since evolved into a highly successful tribute tour that’s been going around the world for nearly half a decade now and shows no signs of letting up.
I’m not saying you need to be totally revolutionary in your lyrics, or even that creative and over the top, but here’s the thing: People like feeling intelligent. If they can find in your words something to connect too, something that lifts them up and makes them feel greater then they will be more likely to fall in love with what you do. You don’t need to blatantly say “You’re smart and beautiful” but instead think about how entire genres do it and do it subtly. Once you start to pick apart how genres sell themselves then you can realize better how to market your own work.
You might argue “Well I’m punk rock, I don’t deal with any of that bullshit” but see, you just bought into how a genre sells itself. Look, I identify as a punk, I’m friends with dudes named Scabies and Pretty Boy, I’ve had knives pulled on me in punk houses, I’ve run from the cops a bunch of times. I get it, punk is awesome. Yet the entire point of the genre is “We don’t think like other people, we’re smarter, and we see the way things are and aren’t afraid to call people out” Now this is totally valid, but it’s also saying that you’re intelligent, or at least not as indoctrinated as others. It gives you something to connect to and allows you to wade through many of the lies that dominate corporate America. This is the very thing that draws people to punk – it’s not just the simplicity of the music but also the message conveyed in the lyrics. If punk rock didn’t have this visceral ideology I can guarantee you it would be nowhere near as popular today.
This is a trend that can be found even in genres that I wouldn’t necessarily bill as “ideological”. For example, radio pop is based around selling the idea of being young and beautiful. There is a sense that as long as you listen to radio pop you are a member of a privileged community who are still young enough to party and relax without having to worry too much about the world. Which again, is a totally valid selling point. Sure, there is a higher likelihood of having nonsense lyrics in this genre, but the songs that do have somewhat coherent lyrics seem to be more or less focused around these ideas.
The fact of the matter is, as a musician you are selling some sort of message or lifestyle with your work. It’s pretty much impossible to escape that as long as your music has lyrics (Although arguably music without lyrics can also have a message, just look at John Cage’s 4:33 or anything Schostakovich did.) The point being – this means that your lyrics matter because it shows the kind of message you want to portray to your audience. If you can find something unique and powerful to show them then you will be able to inspire devotion unlike any of your peers. This devotion is then fairly easy to turn into progressively larger successes.
There is a reason that most of the music we have from history tends to be religious. It was music with a message and music that gave people a reason to live. I mean, yes, the church funded a lot of music, but at the same time folks like the Medicis were sponsoring artists too. You see this even in the context of 20th century music. Most ‘classic rock’ acts who remain vibrant and respected today largely see their success because they were releasing music that was deep and needed to be picked apart. Why else do you think Roger Waters would be able to go around the world a score of times playing the same record that every fan of classic rock has heard a half dozen times by the time they’re a teenager? Another great example of this is Bob Dylan, his songs have become classics, not really because of their musical qualities but because of how, even in their simplicity they have been able to channel meaningful lyrics that have catapulted Dylan into being essentially the William Blake of our time.
What I’m trying to say is that if you want to get your music heard as a independent artist you’re going to need to exploit every possible angle to show your dedication and arouse the interest of your potential fanbase. By having a message you are opening yourself up to a variety of new publications too, just look at how Miley Cyrus has been able to exploit #Freethenipple to grow her own fame. I’m not trying to say that you need to become an utter corporate rock whore (To borrow Kurt Cobain’s phraseology) I’m just saying that you need to consider how your lyrics can positively affect your image and decide if you want that to be a significant part of your art. Or don’t and just rely on the strength of your music to get people buying your merch and spinning your tunes, after all, what the hell do I know?