Lyrics Swing Low


The art of the song lyric has been crumbling for some time now. I won’t go so far as to say that bad lyrics make people stupider. But they certainly don’t do anything to raise the quality of musical entertainment and existence in general.

For most of the 20th century there was an upward swing in lyrical quality and eloquence. In the classic pop era it was enhanced by the literacy and wit of songwriters like the Gershwins and Cole Porter. Country music took the lexicon of the largely rural and common folks and from the 1950s into the ‘60s and advanced it into some of the cleverest word play ever set to music.

Then Bob Dylan raised the bar by bringing a sense of poetry and literature to the folk song (hence his well-deserved Nobel Prize). It lifted many who followed in his path and wake to up their game. He also helped expand the parameters of the subjects one could write songs about.

The early years of hip-hop also demonstrated smart use of language by many of the genre’s major artists. That style’s raps have also degenerated.

But sometime in the last quarter century or so, the trend began to reverse. I recall how at a job I had at a music management company and indie record label, the receptionist/executive assistant had aspirations to become a dance/pop singer. On her desk she had a Madonna songbook.

I picked it up and started reading the words to her songs. In the musical context, they worked okay. Outside of that, they were drivel.

To heighten the contrast, go to Dylan’s website, where the lyrics for all of his recorded songs are collected. They don’t need the music to be impressive, even if the music heightens how brilliant they are.

These days pop music lyrics are simplistic and sometimes rather base. The subject matter is almost exclusively love, desire and shallow sexual appeal.

Much of today’s country music is dominated by what some call “bro country.” They sing about beer, pick-up trucks, hanging out at the lake, girls (not women) and other simple matters.

Fortunately, the women in country are keeping the level up somewhat. One of the bright spots of the dreary ACM Awards was Miranda Lambert winning Album of the Year for The Weight of These Wings, on which she wrote about her break-up with husband Blake Shelton with some genuinely deep emotionality. I attribute her quality work (and ear for good songs written by others) to having grown up on the superior songwriting of Texas country legends.

As I scan across the FM radio dial through different formats, the plague seems to be everywhere. One might hope that alternative rock and adult alternative might, as the names imply, have a higher level of lyric writing. There are some exceptions. But the literacy and poetry are still in short supply. And the subject matter is almost singularly focused on the personal and romantic.

I don’t expect this to improve. The conditions today work against anyone even remotely nearing Dylan’s talent emerging and having any kind of impact. Guess we’ll be stuck with largely shallow music from now through doomsday.

CD: Pure Comedy by Father John Misty – Perverse as it may seem to some, I’m a critic who enjoys being proven wrong about musical artists. I happened to see part of a live show by him when I went to hear the opening act and was perplexed by how he packed a couple of thousand people into the venue. Then he appeared on Saturday Night Live and many people of Facebook I know and respect found him dreadful. But a few others whose tastes I trust said they liked his music. My fellow music journalist and Facebook friend Rob Tannenbaum wrote a New York Times article on him prior to the release of this latest album that intrigued me. I learned how he chose his pretentiously off-putting stage name for exactly that reason, which appealed to another aspect of my perversity. That all added up to get me to listen to Pure Comedy and I’m glad they did. In contrast to my complaint above, he’s a skillful and at times playful lyricist. He sings quite nicely, and the arrangements are enticing. He may never be quite my cup of tea, but this is a darn good album that both impressed me and brought joy.

TV Series: Chicago Justice – Law & Order creator Dick Wolf adds a fourth show to his Chicago lineup of Fire, PD and Med. It differs some from the L&O template by concentrating on the district attorney’s investigators – Chicago PD vet Jon Seda and Joelle Carter, who starred in Justified – and being a bit edgier. No one does crime shows better than Wolf, and this further expansion of his new Windy City world is a satisfying gem.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2017

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