Agony Shorthand

Saturday, June 28, 2003
A NEW CAN OF WORMS....Tim Ellison's feedback on the Warlocks/drug lyrics post below is worth cut-n-pasting front and center:

"Jay--Not only do I feel that drugs, at this point, are a tired subject matter for rock and roll songs, it seems so fucking stupid that it ruins it for me. I haven't heard this band, but can't conceive of why I should take an interest in them. Droning minimalist psychedelic grunge/punk, or whatever, is fine, but, it HAS TO be expressive of something relevant or something that you can relate to; otherwise, the music has no value for you. I don't think that I feel this way about the drugs issue just because I've become older either. As you say, drugs as subject matter is tired--not just tired for me personally, but a lame cliche.

This all point to a larger problem for rock and roll. Rock and roll necessitates a certain type of subject matter; you can't just put any lyrics to it for it to work. Is there something relevant to be SAID in rock and roll songs anymore? I don't see why there can't be, but most bands that really want to do something musically interesting with rock and roll today rely on stock aesthetics, whether it's "brain-fried Kraut inspired" music, garage punk, the post-punk revival, or what have you. If they rely on stock aesthetics, though, then they also have to rely on the stock subject matter that goes with them. Often, this is too much of a cliche. (Note also that some of the best young experimental groups--Black Dice, Wolf Eyes, and Lightning Bolt--are instrumental groups.)

I really wish that rock and roll would evolve out of the postmodernist thing and that people would start writing interesting lyrics again. As Iggy Pop said in I Want More, whatever happened to a bunch of guys just wanting to make some honest music for their peer group?"

It's a pretty worthwhile debate to have, since I part company a wee bit. My ranking of rock and roll lyrics' importance to the song itself has long been quite low. I remember some very pitched battles with my cousin in my late teen years -- my position was essentially summarized as "lyrics don't matter", and his came down to "they do so". That said, when a lyric is especially atrocious -- be it mawkish, cliched (as Tim said, "relying on stock subject matter"), childish or, like the Warlocks' drug references, indicative of a real poseur-like need to impress and/or shock -- there's nothing more fun than mocking it publicly. And yes, I think a really dumb lyric can in fact ruin a song -- we can all probably name dozens of those.

What I don't get is the canonization of the rock music lyric. Rock musicians don't tend to be the sharpest tools in the shed, and most wisely tack lyrics onto their music as an afterthought. Those who feel they have something they need to say are usually the ones most deserving of a good thrashing when the results are posted on the gatefold sleeve. The notion of rock musicians as poets can probably be blamed on Dylan and his admirers and on the general young culture of the 60s -- where Mom and Dad had their literary heroes (who were all old & boring & shit) and now the kids had ours. One guy and his progeny wrote some very clever and topical words and that was it: rock poetry. (I'll save my rant on "rock art" for another day). Now most of us don't buy into that, and all we look for really is someone who can put two sentences together without embarrassing us. Really, that's all I feel needs to be achieved. Don't embarrass me (or yourself). If someone can somehow raise the bar a little higher than that by virtue of an interesting lyric, great, but the overall sonic payoff is infinitesimal to my ears compared to a new guitar tuning, the addition of another instrument, a crazy riff, etc. Any thoughts?