I’ve always found the word “lyrical” interesting. It refers to both literature and music, according to the OED, it means “expressing the writer’s emotions in an imaginative and beautiful way.”
Isn’t it funny, then, how so many songs can be completely and utterly devoted of any sort of lyricism?
Growing up, I was never a huge consumer of music. I listened to it, of course. It just never really moved me the way it seemed to move other people. I’d often hear people proclaim that they had to have music, that they would just die without it and I didn’t get it. I didn’t feel that way at all. I thought people were exaggerating when they went on about how a song or an artist touched them or meant so much to them.
Music was fine. It was just something that was there. I listened to it and, for the most part, forgot about it when I wasn’t listening. This relative indifference to music continued for an embarrassingly lengthy amount of time. Until after I’d graduated college.
A month after I’d graduated college, I began working a mind numbing job at an insurance company. About two or so years after this, I ended up working in a department that handled translations of medical records and whatever other flotsam and jetsam came across our desks. Since I spent all day staring at computer screens and no longer had to talk to our policyholders, I was somewhat bored. I asked a friend what she did to make it through the day.
She listened to Pandora.When I first hit Pandora, I didn’t know what to listen to. So I decided to start with bands I’d heard of but didn’t really know. That’s how I fell for The Clash. The Clash lead me to other bands of their ilk and time and eventually to other types of music. Eventually, while spending my days translating German, French and Czech documents, I found my way to two artists who are now two my all time favorites: Elvis Costello and Fiona Apple.
Prior to Pandora, I’d had a wee bit of experience with them both. I vaguely remembered hearing Elvis’ “Veronica” as a child, which I believe was due to my teenage MTV loving auntie, as Elvis Costello’s music was not the sort that would have appealed to my parents or grandparents. (My aunt though? She listened to everything. This is why my six year old self knew every single word to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.) Fiona, I’d had a little more experience with since I was around 11ish when her first album came out and I remembered her music video for “Criminal”.
But Pandora had me falling for Elvis and Fiona, and I fell hard.
I remember the first Elvis Costello song I heard via Pandora. It was “Pump it Up”. I listened and I didn’t know what the hell to think. It was catchy but sort of weird to me, but I wanted to hear more. So I kept listening.
(Side note: it was Elvis Costello’s voice – along with Joe Strummer’s – that made me realize that a person’s voice could actually be sexy. Previously, I’d never understood what the hell people were talking about. And then, I heard those guys and it was like OH. I blame Elvis for my having a thing for nerdy, skinny white guys.)
It was sort of like fucking magic and I needed more. So basically, I was like a drug addict and horded every album like they were going out of style or something.
Fiona was slightly different in that I’d actually had an album of hers, When The Pawn…, which I’d purchased when I was 13, listened to it once and promptly packed it away after deciding it was Not For Me.
With Pandora, I decided to give her another try. I’m not sure if it was the benefit of another decade of life, but that second time, I was in love.
I’m still in love with Fiona and Elvis.
I realize that what I enjoy about their music is essentially how incredibly rich and lyrical it is. They’re is such beauty in their work – such emotion and such vividness and I think that’s why they’re two of my faves. The literature lover in me responds so strongly to their work because it is literature.
The images they paint with their words are so very, very clear. It’s easy for me to be completely swept away in their work; I can forget where I am and what I’m doing, just as I can when I’m in the midst of devouring some fantastic novel. The thoughts, the feelings, the events, the people in their songs become more real to me than those of other musicians.
For me, listening to Elvis and Fiona really is like reading.
Elvis is prose and Fiona is poetry.
When I listen to Elvis, I can see a story playing out. There’s something plain about his language that just works. It’s so straightforward, but still so very, very beautiful. There’s no nonsense there; no filler. Fiona’s telling a story as well, but it’s more abstract; more broken. I feel like I’m hearing her heart in my ears.
Tell me you can’t distinctly imagine the scenarios in “The Long Honeymoon” or “Watching the Detectives” and I’ll call you a liar. Say that you can’t feel the pain in “Daredevil” or “To Your Love” and I’m calling you insane.
It’s not just in their words, but also in their voices. It’s how they use them.
Both Fiona and Elvis essentially use their voices as another instrument. They pitch their voices as high as they can and as low as they can to indicate shifts in thought or emotion. They scream, purr, screech, wail, whisper and moan. Their voices can range from questioning to anger to seductive to reasoning to vulnerable to pleading to resignation and they make it seem so simple; so effortless. They can switch on a dime – not just on the same album, but in the same song. A three minute song and their voices have been through six different emotions.
I’ve noticed that this isn’t something that many artists (particularly modern artists). Either they can’t or they choose not to. Of course, they’ll hit the high and low notes when necessary but it sounds as if they basically use their voices in the same manner no matter what’s happening in the song. I don’t feel as if they’re fully using their voices to capture the emotions in the song their singing. They could just be singing anything.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons I never fully connected to music. Literature is my first love and it shaped my childhood and my life. I want the media I consume to remind me of literature. I want to really feel what I’m consuming. I want it to pull emotions or thoughts out of me. I want to have the same feelings as I do when I read.
I want to not be bored.
And I want authenticity.*
Fiona and Elvis sound authentic. Even if the song’s story or point is completely made up, they craft it in such a way that it feels so, so real. It’s so easy to get caught up in what they’re singing because you feel they’ve been caught up in it too.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of listening to either Elvis or Fiona, do it. I promise you won’t regret it.
I don’t want to be cliché and say they’ll change your life, but…
They’ll change your life.
*(This, now that I’m thinking about it, may be why I tend to react so very poorly with high fantasy.)