Every song has a story to tell. Whilst that story might not be particularly profound or philosophical in any way, the lyrics of a song can tell its listeners about the experiences of its songwriter, or the circumstances of its creation – for example, the emotional rollercoaster behind the story of Adele’s 2011 hit, Someone Like You. But should artists feel obliged to explain the stories behind their songs? Alex Tyndall provides her thoughts.
Even though songwriters have been interviewed for decades about the nature of their lyrics, it seems that in recent years there has been an enormous influx in this type of content, with websites such as Genius providing a platform for artists to explain the nuances of their work. On Genius’ YouTube channel, many of these interviews contain phrases such as “Official Lyrics and Meaning” in their titles.
In some cases, song-writers would rather not have anything to do with their piece once it has been released to the world
But what does this say about the nature of listening to and deriving meaning from songs? Is there only one true interpretation – that being whatever the artist initially intended? After all, the song-writer was responsible for the creation of the lyrics. Does that not mean that they have total authority over the ‘true’ interpretation? Well, not necessarily. And, in some cases, songwriters would rather not have anything to do with their piece once it has been released to the world.
Recently, whilst being interviewed by Sean Evans on the podcast Hot Ones, New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde announced that she no longer wishes to explain her lyrics to people. This news might come as a shock to many, as the music community eagerly awaits the release of Lorde’s new album ‘Solar Power’.
The self-proclaimed “lyric nut” told Evans, “When a big release comes out, one of the first things I will do is go on Genius […] but as I get older, I find myself saying ‘no, actually, I’m not going to explain that song’”, describing her lyrics as “precious” to her. “It’s not that deep all the time”, she later remarked, when discussing how her fans would often annotate her songs on Genius with their personal analysis of her lyrics.
Many artists may write songs with specific meanings laced into the words, such as political songs like Give Peace A Chance by the Plastic Ono Band – lyrics that they then wish to explain further to ensure that their message gets across to a wider audience. This is perfectly understandable but the perceived obligation to always have an answer or justification for a song is strange.
If we do not expect artists to explain their paintings, then why is the same expected of singer-songwriters?
Listening to music can be an experience that is either shared widely with others, or one that is intensely personal. The beauty of music is how it resonates with people differently, in the same way that a painting might. Music is, inherently, an artform, hence why singer-songwriters are called artists. If we do not expect artists to explain their paintings, then why is the same expected of singer-songwriters? The act of listening and interpreting music is highly subjective; many different meanings can be derived from a piece depending on its ambiguity, or the different experiences that people encounter and endure throughout their lives before stumbling upon a certain song.
The concept of ‘Death of the Author’, developed by French literary critic Roland Barthes, and used primarily in conjunction with literature, might also apply here. When music is put out into the world, there is the chance for it to be separated from its original artist, and the context surrounding its creation. In this instance, the song can be applied to any scenario or interpretation as the listener sees fit, even changing meaning over time depending on how the listener changes and grows as a person.
Experiencing a song can be a somewhat ethereal, out-of-body experience, driven more by pure, instinctive feelings
And, sometimes, lyrics don’t really mean anything at all. Not all songs are written as a chronological story. Like poetry, many songs might not make much sense – not to the artist, or to the people listening. Instead, experiencing a song can be a somewhat ethereal, out-of-body experience, driven more by pure, instinctive feelings rather than an appreciation of the lyrics. Subconscious associations form and manifest inside one’s mind, and we become infatuated with the music, even if, when asked, we would not even be able to begin to describe what it all means.
Lorde’s lyrics clearly come from the heart. To demand an explanation would be akin to an invasion of privacy. It is a songwriter’s choice to put their music out into the world: it is our choice to listen. We are not entitled to anything further. Whilst we provide an audience for those we listen to, musicians are not obligated to keep producing, or to bend to the wills and whims of their listeners. It is not necessary to understand or analyse the meaning of a song in order to appreciate it as a piece of art. We should trust our intuition – if we like a song, we like it. Why should we have to explain or justify that?
In-article video courtesy of First We Feast via youtube.com. No changes made to this video.
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