I have a long running argument with several people that love music but ignore song lyrics. Their thinking tends to be that they listen to music for the music, any poetry is incidental. I reply that by paying no attention to lyrics they are missing out on a huge facet of the experience, like watching a ballet without any music. True, not every great song has great lyrics. But finding out that a song you already love has an interesting story woven throughout adds a new layer of excitement to it. It allows a fresh discovery. I imagine this is one reason I am able to listen to some bands without tiring of them for months—because after getting to like the melody there is another whole layer to discover.
All art is simply communication—more stylized, beautiful, and complex but communication nonetheless. If one ignores the lyrics, that is like saying that you are interested only in the pleasure the sounds produce in your ears and not the idea the artist is using that music to impart. Thus, listening to music and ignoring the lyrics is a bit like kissing without affection. Most artists don’t sit down and just string together a melody. They usually have some idea of what the song is going to be about, at least a vague concept—love, politics, revenge. Just listening to an instrumental song, this is the most you can generally get out of it, an abstract feeling. Most artists have a more specific concept: “I’m going to write about how this person made me feel when they rejected me” or “I’m going to write a song about right now, lazing about on a Sunday afternoon.” All artists set out to express something, music is just their chosen medium. If they have taken the time to put words to the song, they’re giving you a message about what that song is about. As the music rises and falls, the lyrics correspond to that swell in emotion. You can speculate as to why the music crescendos and wanders as it does but if the artist has taken the time to write you a roadmap in the form of the lyrics, why not take a look at it?
How can one listen to “Both Hands” and not be drawn into the story about the woman on the third floor that listens to she and her partner’s “swansong”? Just the line, “I am writing graffitti on your body I am drawing the story of how hard we tried,” gives so much power and meaning to the song I am incredulous to imagine that you listen to the melody and aren’t moved by it.
Or the way Buffalo Springfield plings the guitar on the lines “Paranoia strikes deep/ Into your life it will creep…” That song is indelibly linked not just to the turbulant sixties but specifically to the clashes between cops and protestors. That song never had meaning for me until I listened to the lyrics. Now I can understand why it was a rallying call for a generation. The same goes with “Subterranean Homesick Blues”.
All this I’m talking about I experienced again today with TV on the Radio. I’ve been absorbing their sound for more than two years now and I never gave much thought to the lyrics. Electronic bands tend to be weak on songwriting anyway. But I happened upon a fantastic live acoustic version (which you can enjoy here) wherein the lyrics are more clear and I was able to appreciate them for the first time.
First I listened to “Young Liars.” The wordplay is intriguing and makes me want to listen to the song over and over to grasp how the interplay of these lyrics ties to the larger work. It starts off: “My mast ain’t so sturdy, my head is at half. I’m searching the clouds for the storm,” putting a dark sailing image in my head. This is followed by a huntress, her “bullets bearing the name of each tigress who’s left to a tooth. Save the skins for a pelt and the rest for a belt.” Later he says, “my heart’s still a marble in an empty jelly jar.” That’s a fantastic metaphor—it captures how he is feeling physically, intellectually and emotionally. He goes on to say that his nervousness will become prescience and “I’m Making maps out of your dreams.” The song ends with “Young liars, (Oh I said) Thank you for taking my hands/And burying them deep in the world’s wet womb/Where no one can heed their commands.” TV on the Radio has a sound that is dark and ominous, the music has already given us that abstraction. But more specifically the lyrics suggest the writer’s fear of the future and what he is capable of. And he does this using images (the ship in the storm, the ruthless huntress, the heart-jelly jar metaphor) that create a picture in the listener’s mind. The lyrics, though still vague, take the song from a pleasant abstraction and transform it into a dark journey. It adds such a visual layer to the song that a music video is the only way to supplement it (and videos never seem to be the artist’s vision, but the director’s, so it wouldn’t be the same at all). Reading the lyrics, how do you not visualize them? I picture the huntress on a B-52 bomber, loading a revolver, her legs crossed, a stack of rifles at her side, dressed in the 1940’s splendor of the Safari. And all this, visually, is just a metaphor for how he is feeling. You may visualize it differently, but undoubtably the image as you experience it brings something new to the song.
Now that I had discovered their lyrics, I was excited to move on to “Dry Drunk Emporer”. I was in for a surprise. I had no idea that TV on the Radio even wrote vaguely political songs but this one is clearly about our commander in chief.
The lyrics, in full:
dieing under hot desert sun,
watch your colours run.
did you believe the lie they told you,
that christ would lead the way
and in a matter of days
hand us victory?
did you buy the bull they sold you,
that the bullets and the bombs
and all the strong arms
would bring home security?
all eyes upon
dry drunk emperor
gold cross cross jock skull and bones
standing naked for a while!
get him gone, get him gone, get him gone!!
and bring all the thieves to trial.
end their promise
end their dream
watch it turn to steam
rising to the nose of some cross legged god
gog of magog
end times sort of thing.
oh unmentionable disgrace
shield the childrens faces
as all the monied apes
display unimaginably poor taste
in a scramble for mastery.
atta’ boy get em with your gun
till mr. mega ton
tells us when we’ve won
what we’re gonna leave undone.
all eyes upon
dry drunk emperor
gold cross jock skull and bones
naked for a while.
get him gone, get him gone, get him gone!!!
and bring all his thieves to trial.
what if all the fathers and the sons
went marching with their guns
drawn on washington.
that would seal the deal,
show if it was real,
this supposed freedom.
what if all the bleeding hearts
took it on themselves
to make a brand new start.
organs pumpin on their sleeves,
paint murals on the white house
feed the leaders L.S.D
grab your fife and drum,
grab yor gold baton
and let’s meet on the lawn,
shut down this hypocrisy.
Wow. That’s a statement as bold as any rage against the machine like “Killing In the Name Of.” Here all along the phrase “Dry Drunk Emperor” was meaningless to me. I was liking the sound of the words strung together and nothing more. But it is so concise and apt. Bush is a “dry drunk” and those two words express so much—a history of irresponsibility, weakness and mistakes, the fact that he is dry implies that he is stifled, unhappy and looking for some other outlet, like war. “Emperor” is a better choice than president (which he isn’t) or even king—as the latter is related to kingdom while an emperor leads an empire, something liberals do associate with our government. More importantly, “emperor” reminds us of “the Emperor Wears No Clothes” which he alludes to with “he’s been standing naked for a while!”
“Dry Drunk Emperor” is more than a pretty song, it is a call to action. Like the Buffalo Springfield song, the lyrics mark it to this moment in history that so many of us feel connected to. Prior to knowing the words, I enjoyed the song but did not identify with it. Now that the lyrics have provided a key to understanding what TV on the Radio sought to express I feel a personal connection to the song and thus the band itself. This is so much more meaningful. It can only add to my experience of the music. And to all those music-lovers that like the pretty songs, and they like to sing along, but they don’t know what it means—well I say you’re only hearing half the music.