Wednesday, August 08, 2007


My previous praise for the chorus-lyrics of Titus Turner's / Little Willie John's "All Around the World" has sparked a heated debate among our resident music-o-lyricologists concerning the relative lameness of the "Mona Lisa was a man" line, with Herr Matt asserting that it marred the song as a whole. Herr Garth responded:
"I guess I'm trying to say: lyrics is lyrics, music is music. sometimes they go together perfectly, sometimes they don't even have to. Often, the greatest music is the corniest, lamest lyrics sung by the most unique, inimitable geniuses."
You know what I think? I think it's time for a Venn Diagram:*

The easy part is the middle: good music, good lyrics, no problem? The trickier part is where it's just one or just the other. Do we have additional examples of great songs with lousy lyrics or great lyrics with lousy songs? This requires further study.**

* When is it not time for a Venn Diagram?

** And for what it's worth, the "Mona Lisa..." line doesn't bother me. True, it's no "grits..." or "groceries...", but not all lines in a great song need to shine equally. Sometimes the lyrics sit back and let the music do the work. That line has a great melodic hook. (Or maybe I just have high corn-tolerance.)


  1. Anonymous1:41 PM

    Maybe this is just me, but I think we'll have a tough time finding clear cases of the non-overlap parts of your diagram. Good music lends charm and life to otherwise dumb lyrics, bad music drains interest out of otherwise clever lyrics.

    For example, where would we place
    "ooga ooga ooga ooga"

    on the chart?

  2. Anonymous1:43 PM

    on a more recent listen, make that make that "kuba kuba kuba kuba"

  3. Ah yes, nonsense lyrics are a good test case. Well for starters, I should say that I adore that song (and our cover of it has closed out many Bruisers shows). So I'll sum it up as:

    - great song

    - trivial lyrics

    I find it hard to imagine a great song with overtly bad lyrics (lyrics that make you wince), but I can thing of plenty of great songs with inconsequential lyrics. (Or at least the meaning is inconsequential. I think the words still need to sound right.) Though of course, I'm a music-centrist.

    What would the other extreme be? Leonard Cohen? His emphasis is clearly on the words. Could his music be described as inconsequential? (Cohen-heads, please don't freak out. It's just a question. Of course, if a Cohen-head did freak out, I suppose it would be quietly, with lots of remorse and distant irony.)

  4. Anonymous6:09 PM

    I was thinking of Leonard Cohen, too. Still, doesn't it seem like the setting and accompaniment for 'Suzanne' is just the right thing for his lyrics? And by being 'just right', it winds up sounding good.

  5. Perhaps "inconsequential" isn't a suitable description for his music, but I'd go with "minimal".

  6. Anonymous8:42 AM

    How about this: sometimes, music serves the text; other times, text serves the music. In either the dominant or subordinate position, both music and text can do their job well. L. Cohen's music is good in so far as it serves his lyrics well; Huey Smith's nonsense lyrics are good in so far as they serve his music well.

    Some people might say, though, that one or the other sort of subordination as such is better. I'm not sure about that.

  7. Anonymous12:45 PM

    Can't music and lyrics live free from domination, in an equal partnership?

    While I agree with Matt that novelty lyrics can mar otherwise good songs, I wonder about quality novelty songs. Are they bad music with bad lyrics? How then could "Tape of Love" be so perfect and delightful?

  8. wow this is some deep water.
    the venn diagram really ups the ante on this conversation.
    one of my all time fave (and consistent) rotten lyrics/bitchin music combos is led zeppelin:

    example: the immigrant song.

    honestly, without the riffs, the drums, and robert plant's caterwaul, what do you have?

    what's weird is this: the more bitchin the music, the more we forgive the rottenness of the lyrics. I would like to see examples of the reverse (the more brilliant the lyrics, the more the bad music is forgiven). I think, more often than not, we forgive musical shortcomings as "authentic," or "soulful." not to mention the fact that there's really no accounting for taste--anything really great always has its vehement detractors.

    which brings me to chime in with zena. it's not so much a question of what dominates as how effectively the imperfections can charm the listener. white stripes are the best current example, rightly so.

    as an afterthought, it seems to me that listeners are much more inclined to forgive than to dismiss. that is, we're hoping for the best. it says something about what music is actually for.

  9. all time favorite lame lyrics:
    black sabbath - the wizard