March 14, 2008

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Slate illustration that accompanies the article.

On Tuesdsay, William Weir, identified by Slate as "a writer living in New Haven," had a piece published in the online news magazine entitled "Words Words Words: Are excessive lyrics ruining pop music?" The article is a mess. It begins as a lament of the dwindling number of instrumental compositions that make the pop charts. This is reasonable enough, and well supported by the figures Weir provides: "From 1960 to 1974, 128 instrumentals reached the Top 20, while only 30 did from 1975 to 1990. And since? Five." However, by the second paragraph focus shifts from the lack of instrumental hits to the growing verbosity of those songs that do make the top of the charts:
While wordless pop has disappeared from commercial radio, pop music has become ever more long-winded. The year-end top 10 songs from 1960 to 1969 have an average word count of 176. For the 1970s, the figure jumps to 244. In 2007, the average climbed to 436. The top 10 for the week of Feb. 2, 2008, features six songs over the 500-word mark. Chris Brown and T-Pain use 742 words in their "Kiss Kiss."
Thus, according to Weir, the reason instrumentals have fallen out of favor is because pop hits now feature more words than ever. What? There are two arguments here that have been conflated into one: first, instrumental music is not as popular as it once was, and second, pop hits now have more words than ever. But correlation is not causation, as any writer living in New Haven should certainly be aware.

Regarding the decline in popularity of instrumental tracks, Weir makes a few good points:
I understand the appeal of the human voice, and I certainly can't begrudge anyone's joy at singing along in the car (unless I'm in it). But why such shabby treatment for the instrumental? Marketability. A band is practically faceless with no crooning front man. ... Here's another problem for the instrumental: Fancy a new song, but don't know the name? You can Google the chorus. But with no words to work with, you're reduced to humming the guitar part to friends and record-store clerks, hoping they'll recognize it. They won't. Music journalists also share some responsibility. Words are writers' friends—they're easier to critique than a musical phrase the reader can't hear (although hyperlinks change this a bit). Take Black Sabbath's "Iron Man": I can go on for quite a while about the title character's tragic circumstances, but it's the riff that raises the song to pioneering doom classic. For all of the riff's majestic awesomeness, though, I'm at a loss to describe it.
However, this is about all he gets. They're reasonable arguments, sure: MTV was certainly more interesting with a singer to focus on; in these days of music saturation, it is a lot easier to find (and most importantly, buy) a song if you can search for some words (just look at Google Trends for last night and this morning: searches for songs featured on last nights Don't Forget the Lyrics are near the top of the list); and I hate hacky, lyric-centric music criticism just about as much as Weir seems to. Unfortunately, Weir decides to spend the bulk of his time decrying the fact that song lyrics have a lot more words than they used to.
[The] Great American Songbook is a bible of pithiness. "Blue Moon," "Over the Rainbow," and "Embraceable You" all make their cases in fewer than 100 words. Will Smith, Kenny Chesney, Bon Jovi, and Beyoncé all have songs called "Summertime" yielding word counts three to five times as high as Gershwin's tune of the same name. They all have a similar message: "The livin' is easy." But with only 92 words, Gershwin says it best by letting the melody become part of the story.
And then: "In Smith's "Summertime," he recalls hanging out in Philly parks, in Mercedes-Benzes, and at a place called "The Plateau," where everybody goes. All I picture are the Fresh Prince's summers. They sound fun, but I want my own." Does Weir not understand hip-hop?? I would imagine that rap, given the verbal necessity of the genre, is largely the reason for a lot of the numbers Weir provides on the steadily rising word total of pop songs. This is as bad, or worse, than Stereogum's infamous "hip-hop hates melody" comment. Here the claim would seem to be that hip-hop loves words. And that's bad because... it makes for impersonal music? Lost in Weir's analysis is the idea that the rising word total of pop songs could actually be a credit to the music's creators and listeners and a sign of increased sophistication, as they're now not only capable of writing and understanding, but are also desiring more complexity than we get in the lyrics to "Blue Moon".

Inevitably, Weir lays the majority of the blame for the rising lyrical word count on Bob Dylan. His conclusion:
Finally, there's Bob Dylan, the man perhaps most responsible for the word/music power imbalance. With the releases of "Wipe Out" and Lonnie Mack's "Memphis" in 1963, things looked bright for the rock instrumental. Then came The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and his 564-word "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall." That year, the New York Times likened his songs to "speeches delivered to guitar chording" and called him "an inspired poet." Two years later, the Times reported that everyone was copying him.
In Always Magic in the Air, Ken Emerson notes how threatened -- really, doomed -- the Brill Building and 1650 Broadway songwriters were by Dylan's growing popularity. However, most of those songwriters and lyricists saw the power in what Dylan was doing. They recognized it as something new and exciting, many of them were fans and admirers themselves. It would be foolish to think, though, that their admiration for Dylan's music led them to discredit their own short and sweet pop songs. As each has had its own era of pop chart dominance, each also has plenty of musical and cultural value of its own. It's a shame that Weir doesn't see it that way.


Al said...

ALSO: Only a writer could be this preoccupied with word count, y/y?

Anonymous said...

Bring on the Ventures!!

parallelliott said...

who listens to the radio?