Understanding Lyrics: Determining Purpose
This post is part of a series on how to do close readings of lyrics. For the full list of analytical tools for lyrics, see my introductory post. To help flesh out the previously posted list on close readings of lyrics, I shall go through each item listed and give some examples to help illustrate some real-world examples of the concepts being talked about. Those familiar with analyzing poetry will find much familiar in this list, as this post will be a basic overview examining the purpose of a song’s lyrics. Songs cannot be examined by their lyrics alone, but they serve as an important piece of the work to evaluate. This series seeks to help shape the conversation in lyrical analysis to broaden the rhetorical discourse on song lyrics.
Determine the central purpose of the lyrics
- To tell a story (narrative)
- To reveal character (dramatic)
- to impart a vivid impression, mood, or emotion (lyric/lyrical)
- To teach or convey an idea or attitude (didactic)
Going through the list, a narrative purpose in a song is perhaps the easiest to determine: some kind of plot of progression of events indicates a narrative, a constructed story. A clear example for a narrative story would be “Big Iron” by Marty Robbins, a basic story of how an outlaw was brought to justice in the old west. It is storytelling at its most principled and structured, with clear plot progression, protagonist, and antagonist. For a more contemporary example or narrative lyricism, Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” also has detailed storytelling in its description of a high-school relationship. The example isn’t clear cut however, as the song also has elements of the lyrical and dramatic through its portrayal of a shy girl longing for a boy. The emotions of Swift’s character are very important to the story, perhaps even central to the piece. In this case, Swift’s song makes the purposeful distinction of the lyrics more difficult to distinguish. This illustrates a larger point that there is often a combination of these elements presented in a work, whether it be dramatic, narrative, or otherwise. Narrowing down what the primary purpose of the work however, if reasonably asserted, is helpful in further figuring out the meaning of the text.
The next purpose mentioned is that of the dramatic, with lyrics focused on fleshing out character. A character driven song can be more difficult to discern, as most current pop songs don’t seem to work within this territory. For an example, “Girlfriend in a Coma” by The Smiths reveals a lot about a man torn in whether he should or should not visit his girlfriend on account of what he could do to her. Is he neurotic? What’s his past with her? Why is she in the hospital anyway (a result of his actions?) The lyrics are vague to prompt our own analysis, but it does seem he is emotionally invested with his girlfriend (whether it be in a healthy way or not is up to your discretion.) It’s this vague, captivating presence of the character that makes the song so fascinating, and helps illustrates the imparting of character.
For the next purpose examined, the terminology of ‘lyrical’ could lead to some confusion in this ongoing discussion, not only due to the repetitive wordplay of ‘lyrical lyrics.’ The conveyed meanings of emotion, mood, and tone are far more subjective than measuring out a plot, and add a kind of intangibility adds another layer of subjectivity to the discussion. Most art is typically imbued with emotion of some kind, so it requires some investigation to determine whether a lyrical impression is the primary focus of a work. As seen in the Swift example above, there is a bit of a presence of longing seen in the lyrics. In contrast, “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”, another song by The Smiths, focuses much more on the presence of melancholy. The lyrics create and support this mood through the speaker’s loneliness and lack of fulfillment. It would be accurate to say this song’s primary purpose is to impart mood, whereas Swift’s song is more narrative and character-based.
Finally, a didactic purpose seeks to impart a specific message it wants to convey. Green Day’s “American Idiot” clearly functions as a wake up call to how the media controls the American populace, and is directly clear in its didactic purpose. Whereas Green Day is explicit in its rage, “Superfast Jellyfish” by Gorillaz isn’t as clear-cut. A buoyant beat might distract less attentive listeners from the subtle commentary on consumerism and its consequences in the song. In both cases, the songs function to relay some kind of message, but whereas Green Day directs, Gorillaz obfuscates. Both approaches also illustrate the spectrum of representation available and present in artistic works, varying from explicit didacticism, to obtuse renderings.
Any or all of these elements can be present in a song’s lyrics, but typically a song some primary purpose(s) in how it conveys meaning. Being able to ferret out a song’s intended purpose(s) helps shape the conversation about the song’s elements, namely, how the entire composition of the lyrics (and the music, and the performance, etc.) help support ( or contradicts) the purpose of the work. How does the imagery of “the sea is radioactive” in “Superfast Jellyfish” help illustrate the song’s commentary on consumerism? How does the musings of the character in “heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” support the underlying feeling of melancholy and hopelessness? These are some specific questions that can be asked with a song’s purpose in mind, helping shape and focus the conversation.
To summarize in a different way, in order to figure out how a song works, it helps to know what the song is trying to do. Figuring out a song’s purpose is a major step towars that goal. The process to figuring out what a song is trying to do can no be solely done through lyrical analysis, as the music and performance of the work deeply shapes the textual meaning of a work. But a lyrical analysis typically serves an an important part of the puzzle, and determining purpose is an important step in arguing for an interpretation of a song.