Are excessive lyrics ruining pop music?

Pop, jazz, and classical.
March 11 2008 3:54 PM

Words Words Words

Are excessive lyrics ruining pop music?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Fifty years ago, Link Wray's "Rumble," a snarling instrumental, was banned by radio stations because programmers worried that the song's grinding distortion would incite teenage audiences to West Side Story- esque delinquency. Perhaps an overreaction, but at least this censorship showed a respect for the power of wordless music. Try getting your wordless tune on the radio today. From 1960 to 1974, 128 instrumentals reached the Top 20, while only 30 did from 1975 to 1990. And since? Five. These standouts are likely remembered only by smooth-jazz aficionados and soundtrack collectors: "Lily Was Here" by David A. Stewart and Candy Dulfer; Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen's remake of the Mission: Impossible theme; "Southampton" from Titanic; and Kenny G's "Forever in Love" and "Auld Lang Syne."

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." While music can express what words cannot, music rarely gets a chance in contemporary pop, and certainly not in "Kiss Kiss." Except for the first two seconds, vocals fill the song's every moment. Entirely absent are instrumental phrasings that allow a song (and singers) to breathe. Guys, take a break.

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In contrast, 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. Done   well, the song sounds like a hazy, slow summer day. 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. Gershwin's lyrical economy makes room for our own dog-day memories. Instrumentals are even easier to personalize. With no lyrics to dictate my emotional response, Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" conforms to my mood. When it's playing on my stereo, just driving around assumes a cinematic brio.

In the contemporary radio landscape, instrumental blockbusters like Duane Eddy's "Peter Gunn" simply don't happen anymore. Considering the cultural impact they've had, that's a shame. The ubiquity of "Green Onions" by Booker T. & the M.G.'s (used in at least 15 movies and countless beer commercials) makes us forget just how good this swaggering and slightly dangerous-sounding piece is. Long before there were video games, the Tornados' "Telstar" sounded like one in 1962. The song, with noises supposedly from the first communication satellite (launched months prior), has the spirit of a world giddy about space exploration. Edgar Winter's jam "Frankenstein" (and his early version of a keytar) and the laid-back sounds of fluegelhornist  Chuck Mangione are gold mines for students of the 1970s. "Axel F" from the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack and "Miami Vice Theme" (our most recent No. 1 instrumental) tell us much of what we need to know about the 1980s. Herbie Hancock gave hip-hop its watershed instrumental in 1983 with "Rockit"—the first time many people heard record scratching.

Science offers some clues, if not a smoking gun, in the music vs. lyrics debate. Neuroscientists believe that the brain uses a different system to store and process music than it does words. Not much research has been done on which affects us more, but an American University study published in the Psychology of Music in 2006 gives a slight edge to melody. When listening to happy or calm songs, subjects found that lyrics dulled the tunes' emotional kick. Words, however, enhanced emotional responses to angry and sad songs. When researchers mismatched the melodies and lyrics—sad words with happy music, etc.—melodies held more sway with participants' moods than lyrics. Possible real-world application (my theory): Of all the phenomenal singers who have tackled the "Star-Spangled Banner," Jimi Hendrix's tortured, celebratory, and wordless version remains the most emotionally layered.

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. People still credit the Surfaris' "Wipe Out" to the Ventures, the Beach Boys, or, bizarrely, Morton Downey Jr.  And it's not as if good instrumental music isn't still getting produced. Singerless combos emerged in big numbers in the 1990s, and instrumental buffs have their pick of genres:  electronica,   sprawling post-rock, cello metal. But even the danceable and hooky pop of  Ratatat runs into the same wall: No singer means no airplay. The experimental but profoundly catchy Battles didn't break out until the group added vocals on 2007's Mirrored.

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. 

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.

William Weir is a writer living in New Haven.