Open Phones: Do Lyrics Matter?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Lyrics to Hard Day's Night (marybon/flickr)

Florida Senator Marco Rubio released a Spotify playlist of some of his favorite songs, including music from Tupac and the song "Pumped Up Kicks" -- about a school shooting. This got us thinking: How much do the lyrics matter when it comes to the music you love? Do you listen to the lyrics right away, or does it take a while? Is it possible to love a song and never really know the lyrics? Let us know! Call 212-433-9692 or post here. Soundcheck's John Schaefer helps field your calls.

Comments [33]

Marc from Bayonne

I loved "Pumped Up Kicks, and was surprised when the lyrics finally caught up to me. Another song whose meaning snuck on me was Titanium. It went from seeming about being a song about inner strength, to spousal abuse to the horror of seeing the video and realizing that it was about a frightened child being hunted down for (sci fi aside) being different. It reached the point where the vocal imagery was so powerful it became almost too hard to listen to.

Feb. 14 2013 06:30 AM
lari frank from Forest Hills, NY

Grew up during the 60s and was heavily into American folk music-still am. I can't think of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Dylan...this music without the lyrics? good music but whatever would be the point. And it still moves me and is still quite relevant.
American standards and show music are inseparable from their lyrics. People who love musicals can often sing an entire score.
If the lyrics don't matter its probably an instrumental. Just can't separate them

Feb. 12 2013 11:08 PM
GNR from NYC

I was a teenager and totally in love with Guns and Roses and then it came...One in A Million. That song is so disgusting, it turned me off the band. To this day, I'm repulsed that anyone would pen such hateful lyrics. I tore down their poster and gave their tapes away. Became a total Smiths-head thereafter, which just made me feel utterly depressed, so in 20/20 hindsight, maybe I should've gone softer on GNR.
Still, One in a Million is one of those 'what were they thinking' songs.

Feb. 12 2013 07:41 PM


Yes, pretty sad. Welcome to the left side of the irrational gun debate.

Feb. 12 2013 04:26 PM
Benita from Upper West Side

Back in the '70's, when I realized that my inner city students were bored by poetry, I brought in (and asked them to bring in) song lyrics that moved them in some way. Together we parsed lots of Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Lennon & McCartney et al. I'm not certain when lyrics became unimportant to popular music (not talking about opera, where it's never been about lyrics), but that certainly cannot be a good thing. Personally, I am uplifted by beautifully crafted lyrics. (See Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, E.Y. Harburg, Frank Loesser, et al. My heroes.)

Feb. 12 2013 02:54 PM

NO! NO! NO! NO! I have never been so horrified by anything I've heard on WNYC -- to say that children blithely singing along to lyrics about shooting people DOESN'T MATTER?!?!?!? Of COURSE it matters! The "hook" of the catchy tune and the fact that by singing along we repeat the words over and over INCREASES the absorption of the words!!! Exactly because it is SUBconscious...
No one song lyrics will likely change a person's thinking... but to EVER think that listening and singing along to lyrics that desensitize us to the acceptability of killing, misogyny, bigotry... etc -- especially in the young, when opinions are forming -- are exactly what come to define what we mean by contemporary culture: what we collectively think.
I grew up in the late '60s: the sexual revolution... I absolutely know that I internalized the message that a great deal of my "worth" was my "sexy-ality." And I absolutely know just about every boyfriend I had as a young woman heard "baby don't get hooked on me, 'cause I'll just love you and leave you..." and "if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with..."
It's the COLLECTIVE impact of these subconsciously absorbed lyrics that DEEPLY affect our thinking.

Feb. 12 2013 12:59 PM
Adam from River Edge from River Edge

I don't think anyone ever listened to the lyrics and fell in love with a song, but I know people have listened to the melody or rhythm and did so.

When I was in college I had a class with poet/writer/activist Amiri Baraka. One of the things that he said was that if it has a good beat, and you can dance to it, you will. His example was - to a funky beat, now - I'm dumb, I'm stupid, etc. Not far from George Clinton's claim to free your a-- and your mind will follow.

Ever listen to Honky Tonk Woman?

Feb. 12 2013 12:02 PM
John A

About age 35 was when I started looking to lyrics for meaning. But, Yeah, not before then. Music just a source of various rhythmic energies in those days.

Feb. 12 2013 12:01 PM

(PS -- With Pandora I often don't even know who the ARTISTS or even GENRE are let alone the songs or lyrics!)

Feb. 12 2013 12:00 PM
ellen from hackensack

I know you guys are talking about music -- but there's another point worth making about how Rubio is being asked to represent things that he's not... He's been tapped by the Republicans to represent them on the issue of immigration reform -- but he's Cuban-American, and his family came to the US with all sorts of special favors under the Cuban Adjustment Act... he's playing a lot of roles to try to broaden the 'appeal' of the Republican Party to Latinos, to youth... to Tupac fans?

Feb. 12 2013 11:59 AM
Suzanna from Brooklyn

I think that "Pumped Up Kicks" and "We Are Young"are more interesting because of the disconnect in the fun, catchy sound of the music and the nature of the lyrics. This is more a representation of how society has internalized issues such as violence.

Feb. 12 2013 11:58 AM

Lyrics are very important to me. I can listen to a mindless song with a good beat and that's fine. But when you mix a beautiful melody with beautiful lyrics, you have art.
ex. U2's one
Van Morrison's Sweet Thing

Feb. 12 2013 11:58 AM
howard from New Jersey

frank sinatra would not be frank sinatra without the lyrics. perhaps the american songbook is lyric oriented more than the music. not so much anymore.

Feb. 12 2013 11:58 AM

GREAT segment idea. My workout go-tos include Gang Starr, The Roots, The Pharcyde, Tribe Called Quest, etc. .. so much to love but I often don't notice the lyrics.

EXCEPTIONS -- the N Word or shooting of guns automatically trashed.


Feb. 12 2013 11:58 AM
Colleen from Brooklyn

I still vividly remember years ago when, to my amusement, pop boy band O-Town's 'Liquid Dreams', a song technically about nocturnal emissions, was a huge hit ...and I honestly think that most people weren't paying attention to the lyrics, they just liked the catchy tune.

Feb. 12 2013 11:57 AM

Politicians can safely listen to the Cocteau Twins. Their lyrics are nonsensical, made-up words.

Feb. 12 2013 11:56 AM
Enrique from Elizabeth N.J.

Lyrics do matter. But sometimes the music is so intense and well composed, that it will take your mind away from any verbal expression.

And sometimes both elements are so complementary, that the piece is just a complete marvelous experience.

Take one the most romantic songs ever written:

"Meet the Frownies" by Twin Sister.
Perfect for Thursday.

Feb. 12 2013 11:56 AM
Nez from New York

I teach music appreciation at community college and I have found that among my students, lyrics are extremely important. I am sitting here, right now, trying to grade essays where my students talk in detail about how they relate to the lyrics. Of course in Rap, there really isn't much to it beyond the words. Most of them can't tell me anything substansive about the actual music. Hopefully that will change by the end of the semester.

Feb. 12 2013 11:56 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

MTV, censored the "pumped up kicks" song, which I thought was silly.

Why doesn't music get the same artistic license, the way other types of art get?

Whether it's Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" or Ice T's "cop killer" - songs are narratives from the point of view of a character, not necessarily the artist.

Feb. 12 2013 11:55 AM
Wendy W from Central NJ

Bruce Springsteen has talked about people who love his music and hate his politics.

Feb. 12 2013 11:55 AM
Drew from Greenwich Village

Not only do I rarely pay attention to lyrics - generally speaking I don't know the names of songs, even for my favorite bands

Feb. 12 2013 11:54 AM
Tom from Williamsburg

Just listen to The Red Hot Chili Peppers. It's mumbo jumbo, but great songs.

Feb. 12 2013 11:54 AM

When my 14-year old son told me the lyrics it really opened a series of discussions for us . . . I had liked the song, but did not know the lyrics.

This discussion also reminds me of Suzanne Vega's, My Name is Luca . .. always liked the tune, but didn't know until many years later that is was about child abuse.

Feb. 12 2013 11:54 AM

Lyrics have always mattered to me. When vocals are present, they become central to the composition and, thus, the words are important. Bad lyrics make any song bad. For example, Jessie's Girl.

Feb. 12 2013 11:54 AM

I Don't Like Mondays -- that was one of the first of this type that did it for me. Great music... until you hear the lyrics.

Feb. 12 2013 11:53 AM
Mel in Harlem

Personally I am horrified by the implied glorification of domestic violence in the Fun lyrics in their hit "We are young." It is such a bummer since the song is so catchy.

Feb. 12 2013 11:52 AM
foodaggro from Brooklyn

I've always paid most attention to the overall feel, and the instrumental parts, of the song. However, lyrics are more important in some songs than others. I enjoy catchy lyrics over singer/songwriter lyrics - for instance, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" didn't make a whole lot of sense but you know all of the words (or at least your own version).

Feb. 12 2013 11:49 AM

catchy tune

Feb. 12 2013 11:49 AM
fuva from harlemworld

Lyrics do matter. More so in hip-hop. In other genres, they matter less (unless they are particularly horrible or offensive). Because it is MUSIC. Otherwise, read a poetry book.

Feb. 12 2013 11:49 AM
David from NYC

Without Bob Dylan I think the words to songs would
have little to no meaning or purpose.
Dylan and Woody and others in the folk movement changed everything.

Feb. 12 2013 11:48 AM

We is this a “disconnect?”
Rubio listens to violent music and he supports violent toys/hobbies/games

Feb. 12 2013 11:48 AM
Babe from NYC

Remember when in 2000 Rudy Giuliani made a big deal of H.Clinton dancing to Cap. Jack by Billy Joel and said she was implicitly supporting drug use...and Clinton laughed him off.
Look it up it's on Wikipedia.

Feb. 12 2013 11:16 AM

Do lyrics matter???
Indie rock-Yes
Folk Music-Yes
Lady Gaga and her ilk - Hell no!

Feb. 12 2013 11:08 AM

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