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Lost Messages in Lyrics
by Alex Cosper (03/16/15)

Why are lyrics important to popular music? That's a question that rarely comes up in mainstream music. Obviously, there's no one definitive answer and it varies from artist to artist, but the real question that never gets asked is: if lyrics weren't important, why wouldn't there be more instrumentals that populate the pop scene? The clear answer to that question is that lyrics serve as an advertisement for the artist's vocal identity and so that listeners will remember repeating song titles throughout the song. Without lyrics, fans have a harder time identifying the long.

Why Instrumental Jazz Is So Obscure

If musical popularity were really a reflection of artistic talent, why are jazz and classical at the bottom of the sales rankings for musical genres? Obviously it takes many more years of practice to become a proficient jazz or classical musician than it does to become someone like Justin Bieber, which is not a subjective opinion. It's just a cold hard fact. Anyone who knows how to play an instrument knows how long it takes to sound good. It takes many hours of practice over many months just to become good at singing or playing pop music, which is very basic compared with the complex orchestrations of jazz and classical.

Yet the masses gravitate to simplistic music rather than sophisticated music. This is only generally true and there are always exceptions, but a big reason why pop songs outsell jazz and classical pieces is that pop songs are commercials for themselves while a lot of jazz and classical pieces are instrumentals that make it have to know the song title. If people don't know the song title the product will have a hard time selling. Even if you hear an instrumental that you really like, if no one announces the artist or title the burden is on you to hum the melody to a radio or record store person to find out what it might be. Then again, if you use an app like Shazam, it's possible to find out in seconds if you happen to have your smartphone while you hear the song.

Do Lyrics Help Sell a Song?

It makes sense why most music charts are flooded with lyrical songs rather than instrumentals, as it parallels the fact that lyrical songs consistently outsell instrumentals. That's not at all to say that's just the way music fans are since there have been many huge selling instrumental hits of the past several decades. Yet since the 1980s instrumentals have mostly vanished from the contemporary musical landscape. But that doesn't mean the public hates instrumentals these days. What it really means is record labels and radio stations are too scared to take chances on instrumentals.

Here are some of the biggest instrumental hits in the rock era:

1955 Perez Prado - Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White
1959 Santo & Johnny - Sleep Walk
1960 Percy Faith - Theme from a "Summer Place"
1960 The Ventures - Walk, Don't Run
1964 Henry Mancini - Pink Panther Theme
1968 Paul Mauriat - Love Is Blue
1968 Mason Williams - Classical Gas
1968 Hugh Masekela - Grazing in the Grass
1973 Edgar Winter Group - Frankenstein
1974 Love Unlimited Orchestra - Love's Theme
1976 Walter Murphy & The Big Apple Band - A Fifth of Beethoven
1978 Chuck Mangione - Feels So Good
1979 Frank Mills - Music Box Dancer
1979 Herb Alpert - Rise
1982 Vangelis - Chariots of Fire
1985 Harold Faltermeyer - Axel F

Instrumentals began to drop off the charts in the late 80s as national radio executives and consultants began to discard them in favor of a growing list of rap songs that were more about lyrics than melodies. By the early 90s rave music had become popular at secret warehouse parties, yet hardly any rave singles were big on the charts. An explanation for that paradox was that people didn't necessarily go to raves to hear the music, as raves were meant to be underground social gatherings. Rave music, which included lots of instrumentals, was merely the soundtrack to that environment. Since many rave records have a similar dance beat, it was the beat that became familiar to dancers, which didn't require them to become familiar with individual songs.

So does this mean that songs with lyrics automatically have an edge over instrumentals in terms of have commercial potential? No, but lyrics certainly help fans memorize songs better. Not that everyone sings along with lyrics or bases their purchases on lyrics, it's just that lyrics - whether good or bad or deep or shallow - stay in people's minds better than musical notes when it comes time to making a musical purchase. There are still many people who can memorize melodies and musical productions, but rap's big influence of the 90s did shape a new musical landscape for young people. It's hard to argue that rap became big mostly because of the dance beat and the lyrics were just incidental. If that were true why weren't there a lot of instrumental hip hop hits?

Lyrical Quality

We finally come to the issue that gets to the crossroads of commerce and art involving lyrical quality. An essential question that the music industry has swept under the matt in the downfall of music sales concerns whether or not lyrical quality contributes to commercial success. Could Eminem have become the biggest selling artist of the 21st century if lyrics don't really matter? Is it really just the beat that people are interested in so that they can dance their lives away, or are fans actually interested in what the rapper says in his recordings?

Lyrics, however, can be a double-edged sword. People who dislike rap tend to say it's because of the lyrics, not so much the beat. They tend to criticize the frequent use of profanity and derrogatory characterizations of women. The question, then, about to what degree lyrics influence musical taste, can be shaped around cultural subgroups in society based on ideologies of those subgroups. People who prefer politically correct language will probably be less supportive of music with politically incorrect lyrics. It may also be true that people who have deep political views are not going to like lyrics that celebrate an opposing view, not that pop music is full of such songs anymore.

Understanding the impact of lyrics on audience tastes is an interesting scientist that not many music critics or music industry figures address. The problem is that artists on top of the charts like Taylor Swift do not really give us deep lyrical content to talk about. Her songs are more about her personal experiences, which is fine if you're a fan of her persona. But she has yet to venture out on a controversial topic that matches the ideological debates in society. Her songs tend to be about one on one relationships or in the case of her recent hit "Shake It Off," about her own struggle with fame. Those are someone old and shallow topics in pop music and do not suggest any visionary inspiration.

A Shift in Commercial Priorities

Lyrical quality in pop music began to get overshadowed by dance beats beginning with the disco era in the late 70s. Prior to the disco invasion, which dominated the singles chart and not so much the album chart, strong lyrics were a big part of the rock ethic in songwriting, especially for folk singer-songwriters. Pink Floyd and other rock artists continued to supply meaningful lyrical quality but they were pushed off the pop charts even though their albums still outsold most of the top pop artist albums, suggesting that the pop charts were rigged to favor a certain less popular sound.

Throughout the 80s new wave music and modern rock artists such as U2 injected many fresh lyrical ideas to music. This trend continued with the alternative rock movement of the 90s. But by the early 2000s a short list of big corporations had bought out nearly half the radio stations in America. This fact, combined with the shrinking of six major labels down to three due to mergers, has created a narrow members-only commercial pipeline from labels to stations to fans. With less professionals deciding what music gets national exposure, pop music has shifted from being a reflection of public tastes to corporate executive tastes, which in recent years doesn't seem to consider lyrical quality important.

Lyrics can be a touchy subject for songwriters because many of them don't like to admit that today's pop lyrics are pretty shallow compared with songs like "Imagine" by John Lennon or many other songs from the 60s/70s era when deep lyrics were heavily valued by artists and fans. When the charts are flooded with light weight topics that revolve around the club scene, sexual relationships or just dull storytelling while sales are evaporating, it's hard to say that lyrics don't matter. If lyrics didn't matter then why are they there in the first place? The real answer is: yes, lyrics matter and so does music.

But the gatekeepers who control pop music at labels and stations don't seem to ever address the issue. They are more likely to say: "we're not here to sell art, we're just here to reflect the market." Well, so far in 2014 the market has been disappearing in a very dramatic way, so it may be time for better magic to reverse this disappearing act.

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