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Monday, September 22, 2003
I was listening to the Jaxx's "Plug Me In" on the train this morning and was reminded of a post I read about it somewhere that said, basically, nice tune, but oh, the delicious irony of a pop star like JC going on about "ever lived without the photographs and money." Now, am I the only one who couldn't give a rat's ass--and who thinks that maybe the song wouldn't be any better with really smart (or, uh, not-so-"ironic") lyrics? The tune and the arrangement is just so damn good that it's hard to see how getting Leonard Cohen in there would have improved things at all. (Though don't get me wrong: I would love to see a Cohen / Jaxx collab.)
One of the main knocks at rock-crit is that it's way too concerned with lyrics, and indeed, I don't think that most critics would deny that they primarily focus on lyrics in their reviews. But for me as a critic (and by "critic" I mean "guy who posts to a blog"), one of the reasons I like pop music is because the lyrics don't matter and I can really focus on the music, which I think often is, as should be clear by now, really quite good. Pop is nice because we've all agreed that the lyrics just don't matter, that they're all dumb, but that it's kind of OK. Do I get excited about Beyonce because, wahoo, it's one more song about relationships? Naw. It's the sounds, and maybe the Jay-Z stuff. There are certainly good lyrics in pop songs, but I think a lot of these are good because of context, not strict content, and this, of course, plays into both the temporality and inclusiveness angles of pop's appeal.
Me and my dad have disagreed with this at times--he's very much in agreement with the 60's narrative of lyrics-not-mattering-until-Dylan/Beatles. This was something I agreed with it, once upon a time (said time also being a time when I thought synths were lame), because it seems like a smart thing to say, but then I went back and listened to some of that pop stuff that the Beatles supposedly obliterated, and it was quite good; indeed, it even came back in a highly relevant way with punk. I dunno--if you want good writing, you can always go to Infinite Jest or Harper's or Space Ghost Coast to Coast. With so many outlets out there for good writing, I think it's OK for one or two to emphasize other art forms, even in their meldings.
I certainly do think there are some songs, even some pop songs, with just abjectly horrible lyrics, and these bug me. But that's not really the argument being made about "Plug It In" here; we're not even arguing that they're unintelligent lyrics, although you'd have a hard time getting me to say that they were up to Faulkner or anything. They're just, you know, ironic, but not intended to be; they are, I guess, dishonest. This is just more the-singer-is-the-song, pop stars can never conceive of not being pop stars nonsense, and no need for me to bore everyone to tears by ranting again. But the omissions are telling: writing lyrics, after all, is sort of what JC does, and there's no denying that there's a consummate professionalism to them. They're well-formed and well suited to the music, unlike, say, Limp Bizket. And I think that matters. If someone has the talent to sing a melody really well and do that star thing, I don't need them to be Chaucer, too, in order to enjoy them or to think they're pretty great. Maybe this has something to do with me being a lyrics-scribe myself and knowing how often lyrics come from me verbalizing whatever springs to mind at the time, or maybe it has something to do with me knowing where the popsters are coming from with their particular themes and being pretty bored with it already, but yeah, I'm happy to see them scuttled off to one side, at least in this arena.
On the other hand, I do kinda wish that indie folks with good lyrics writing skills would venture into the pop arena, but I guess that's more wishing for genre-mixing within a genre than wishing for the wholesale change of another genre. At any rate, I'm more concerned with it in broad terms, and I do think it's slightly silly to be concerned with it in any given song.