Do Lyrics Have to Mean Something?


Red Rock Canyon, NV, March 2009

To Twitter, then, and an enjoyably pointed set of conversations yesterday sparked by Chantelle Fiddy's observation that the line that forms the infamous terrace-chant finale of The Killers' All These Things That I've Done - "I've got soul but I'm not a soldier" - appears to be devoid of that essential quality of words: meaning.

Somewhat to my surprise, being no particular fan of Brandon Flowers and his band, I ended up casting myself as his cornerman - even, at one point, defending the line as poetry, much to my own surprise. Along the way, Ned Raggett chipped in, reminding me of a conversation he and I had had the thick end of a decade ago about how, to some people - Ned included - lyrics sit in the music as a sonic element, so their sound is the only thing that matters. There's that quote that I've seen attributed to various composers, but seems to have been the work of Walter Pater, that "all art aspires to the condition of music", which I've always taken to mean that everyone creative wants their work to be intuitively felt rather than intellectually processed, so I can see Ned's point - maybe lyrics are a distraction from that. 

To me, though, it don't mean a thing if it... don't mean a thing. And what Alex MacPherson sees/hears as Flowers' laziness; what, for Michael Hann, pushes the line from being merely vacuous to actively offensive; and what Joe Muggs hears as cold ambition and calculated chantalong construction in the line, I find myself recognising, but very easily ignoring. It has a meaning for me, and whether it's accidental or something I'm projecting on it can't alter that.

So, yes: lyrics do have to mean something. For me, anyway. But that meaning can be just as real and the implications of it just as satisfying if it results solely from my interaction with the song, rather than me being led to its sense by the writer's acuity. I think that's what I think, anyway.  

Road from Corn Creek Desert Wildlife Reserve, NV, March 2009


I don't think lyrics necessarily have to mean anything. Generally they just have to fit in well with the song, and sound OK. But they can lose points for being particularly stupid or annoying, and I count these Killers lyrics as quite annoying. They seem to imply that a person with a soul would normally be a soldier, but this person, having a soul, for some reason isn't a soldier. Which really makes no sense at all. It struck me as very odd the first time I heard it, and I've never liked it since.

posted by: Martin M: 3 Oct, 2009 11:49:10

Ouch! Mr Flowers would surely be spinning in his grave, if he was dead.

Funny thing is, while I can completely see your point, I never heard the line in that way. It didn't seem like it was using a logical "if... then" construct so much as being more a kind of, "even though this is the case, it doesn't necessarily mean that this other thing follows". Perhaps, now you've pointed that out, it'll start to annoy me...



posted by: Angus: 3 Oct, 2009 12:10:11

I was having an argument with Steve Severin about this very point a couple of months ago. He (as main Banshees lyric writer) says yes. I say, mostly they're a distraction (and there's nothing wrong with that) and mostly then don't mean anything whatsoever. When I sing live, improvising, I usually prefer not to use words.

But there again, Steve doesn't use words when he does live soundtracks for film - it's too much of a distraction.

Fuck it. Dude, do you want to do my PhD for me? You're way better placed.

posted by: Jerry: 7 Oct, 2009 01:59:05

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