The Secret Life of Song Lyrics – Tension

A lot of people were upset, scandalized and outraged by the selection of Bob Dylan as the Nobel laureate for literature this year. I was also one of them. But for a different reason. I wasn’t really bothered that a song lyricist had won. I was perturbed that this particular lyricist, not necessarily in my top ten of song lyricists, had won.

I absolutely and resolutely refuse the distinction between entertainment and art. There is good writing and bad writing as well as boring writing and interesting writing and those are the distinctions I care about.

(Actually I have a special place in my heart for bad writing that’s interesting but that’s a whooole nother subject).

Those who want a distinction between art and entertainment should probably reject Mozart’s die Zauberflöte (Magic Flute) as it was created for hoi polloi (the role of Papageno was written for a non-singer and is the easiest big opera role in the world to sing, which is why a number singers whose first big impression is in that role don’t end up having impressive careers).

Back to the topic one lyricist I like waaaay more than Dylan is Natalie Merchant, especially her work up to the early 90s. My favorite lyrics are those early on when she was channeling her inner poet. After she and the group she fronted, 10,000 Maniacs became famous they became more…. accessible though often still interesting.

Her lyrics work best with music, there’s no denying that. But at her best the lyrics hold up on their own as poetry.

Take the following (nb, this is not necessarily the definitive version, the group recorded the song more than once and different people interpret different line breaks and words in their own ways, this is my version.

Tension

Frail hinges pivot on a case’s door.
Commemorative,
Souvenirs from places,
Containers change with each occasion.

A cellophane wrapped case
Displaying paper. Certificate.
To credit years of service.
A tool of Central Enterprises.

The early hope for permanence
The words, the rings, consistency.
And Social Security,
The miracle’s high tragedy.

A thought mistaken for a memory,
Dress lengths, assassinations.
Fractured family ties,
And christenings.

A local Post will list your friends
In order of disappearance.
Lawn scattered tins feed birds
The portion baked for absent guests.

And the mass edition icon God
Sent comfort for your salvation.
But who grants absolution
For sins that never were committed?

Tension makes a tangle of
Each thought becomes inconvenient
Sound that never penetrates.
The servile edges break and feint.

A thought mistaken for a memory,
Clear the dust from smiles in boxes.
Pass the patterned wall,
Recall their voices.

A thought mistaken for a memory
Dress lengths, assassinations.
Fractured family ties,
And Christenings.

A Christening.
All the fractured family ties
And Christenings.

The lyrics are, for me, about the unreliability of memory and the sense of loss that almost inevitably accompanies thinking about the past. What’s ingenious is the way text mimics the verbal left brain’s attempts at processing messy right brain unreliable memories and other random thoughts.

This is achieved by some nonlinear structures as well as joining phrases together.

In the section

Commemorative,
Souvenirs from places,
Containers change with each occasion.

The phrase ‘souvenirs from places’ is inserted into the middle of ‘commemorative containers change with each occasion”.

Similarly

“Tension makes a tangle of
Each thought becomes inconvenient”

Two sentences are linked so that the second begins with the ending of the first

“Tension makes a tangle of each thought

Each thought becomes inconvenient”

The repeated phrase

“A thought mistaken for a memory
Dress lengths, assassinations.
Fractured family ties,
And Christenings.”

presents three contrasts.

A thought – a memory (thinking about the past creates its own narrative which can override and obliterate earlier, presumably more accurate real memories)

Dress lengths – assassinations (trivial and important markers of time, which is trivial and which is important is up to the reader)

Fractured family ties – a Christening (families fall apart and continue, fondly remembered events take place in a context of deteriorating relationships, there’s a bittersweet pang of remembering times that maybe weren’t that wonderful when they were happening.

“Clear the dust from smiles in boxes.
Pass the patterned wall,
Recall their voices.”

The mementos meant to capture and preserve the present for the future lose relevance, while something as trivial as a wallpaper design can trigger a flood of real memories.

Of course the lyrics are dated and probably calculated to appeal to me (either a late boomer with typical boomer self-absorption or an early generation Xer with their free floating feelings of neglect and alienation) but it works.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s