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Is there no language?

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

I respectfully disagree with Andy Partridge of XTC, who crooned on “Black Sea” (1980),

There is no language in our lungs / To tell the world what's in our hearts

No, no, no, no, no, I say. Not so, not so. When emotions become too great for words, they can burst forth in song.

The subject of this category of blog entry, The Words, in TVSBTVLN will be language and song—specifically, song lyrics. My intention is occasionally to deconstruct some of the great songs of our era with the goal of examining how the words function to express the emotions and ideas of the work.

Song lyrics are a special kind of communication: crafted and patterned language, the meaning of which is interwoven with music, almost as if two forms of poetry were being read simultaneously so that the “harmony” created by the interplay creates a new meaning.

While it may be artificial (and maybe a bit unfair to the artist) to examine these elements separately once they have been intentionally fused, is that going to stop us? No! Because a good lyric should also “speak” to the listener when encountered by itself. Truly, it is when the words are taken separately that they reveal the workings of language they contain.

Therefore, while here in entries labeled The Words I will always consider the music, as well, in the end, it’s about…the words.

I have always been a listener to lyrics, fascinated by how language and music work together to evoke emotions and inspire ideas. Unlike many people, I simply cannot ignore the words—which is why I have trouble getting any focused work done while the radio is on.

Moreover, while I enjoy a good “yeah, yeah, yeah” or “love, love, love” song, I have ever been inspired by those writers who try to go further, to tell original and poignant stories, make statements on the human condition, bounce their ideas off the issues of the day, create complex personas with problems different from those of the artist, capture the Zeitgeist and build something more than a single eruption of affection, lust or self-pity. This latter focus is good enough for many songs, but not for us, here.

Although the idea for writing a series about lyrics had been bouncing around my list of projects for several years, it was ultimately ignited in mid-2021 after I watched YouTube episodes of Rick Beato’s vlog Everything Music, specifically his series called “What Makes This Song Great?”* In particular, I viewed his diagnoses of songs I already know and love, like XTC’s “Mayor of Simpleton” and The Police hit “Every Little Thin’ She Does is Magic” [spelling mine]. While he and his guests do a fascinating and thorough job of looking at and playing note-by-note the musical structures, bass line, melody, rhythm and other production elements of these and other songs, I have not seen them examine the words in any way. This stuck in my proverbial craw. The words should not be taken for granted. They are part of what makes a song great.

And thus these here words are written.

I am hopeful that others, language geeks like me, cruel taskmasters who like to deconstruct pieces of art until the works cry out for mercy, or just people open to new ways of thinking, will enjoy listening to my thoughts and then expanding on them or maybe arguing about them—respectfully, cordially—in the comments.

That said, this project will take a very particular angle in looking at song lyrics, and it will not be an insult if some listeners say, “This is like an English teacher picking apart a text.” Because that’s what it is. I am an English teacher, or at least I have been (15 years’ worth), and I am close-reading songs here much as I would in a secondary or low-level college course. However, I will do so with joy. Unlike some teachers, I will filter my views through my experience as a songwriter and as an aficionado of great songwriting.

I hope The Words strikes the right chord, pun absolutely intended, with some pool of readers or listeners. I would consider it a success if the series eventually gains episodes (and readers) well into the single digits.

Wherever it goes, with me luck!

-Adam Steinberg

18 August – 11 October, 2021

* I highly recommend Beato’s program, even if you know very little about music theory. His incredible depth of technical knowledge about how music works, filtered through his authentic joy at the musical invention of others and illustrated through his masterful musicianship, makes for an inspiring series that can lead to a much sharpened appreciation for some of our great songs. However, he does not look at lyrics at all, and frankly also misses most opportunities to talk about how the music itself has a particular emotional effect, rather than just being cool or inventive. Why does this musical pattern offer a sense of dissatisfaction while this other riff communicates a feeling of triumph? These are rarely Beato's concerns, though they certainly were the songwriters'.


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