Words and Meaning

Lyrics and titles are music’s greatest enemy and its greatest friend. They are what stand in the way of polyvalent, textured interpretation. With them, this song is ‘about’ that, that piece concerns this. An interpretation attentive only to the musical register, or that is at least attentive to the sonic-lexical entity that emerges when words are applied to sonics, seems impossible.

And yet perhaps this is so only because of the role lyrics and titles have come to assume in musical culture.

Conversely, lyrics and titles (like biography and psychologised circumstance, our own or otherwise) often guide our interpretation in exciting ways, serving to eroticise the music within suggestive aesthetic frameworks. Can one imagine ‘Wuthering Heights’, for example, without the perfume of the novel? Our interpretations and our enjoyment in these cases seems to rest on a Spivakian ‘strategic essentialism’; we know that songs aren’t strictly ‘about’ their words or pieces ‘about’ their titles, but we persist in uniting the words at the level of meaning with the music. Even if we disavow this approach consciously, we are still embedded in it actually.

Another danger here is perceived (or presumed) co-indexical correlations between musical mood and lyrical content. For example, we can look at the case of a song like ‘Wouldn’t it be nice’, where all sorts of biographical and psychological levels interact with that of the musical in our interpretation: it’s very enticing to draw parallels between e.g. the straining line of the music, the breaking voice avoiding the falsetto register for once, the fragile mental state of its creator/singer, and the subjunctive tenor of the lyrics…but that’s a trick, a self-fulfilling analytical tactic…one can always find these parallels. What help is it to flatten lyrics to music, and music to lyrics???

We should, perhaps, if at all possible, indiscern the place of the denotative in musical experience.


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