Understanding Lyrics: The Role of the Speaker(s)
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.
Identifying the speaker.
- Who is speaking? To whom?
- What is the speaker’s attitude?
- What kind of person has the lyricist created?
A good example for analysis comes from my new favorite Broadway musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, about the troubled life of our American’s 7th president, all set to emo rock. I discovered the fantastic soundtrack a few years ago during my first blogging project, and have been a fan of the show ever since. This particular song, “Crisis Averted”, deals with the Jackson’s reception as a populist president, and serves as a good text for looking at the role of the speaker.
He’s taking a stand (yea taking a stand)
And the best part is
Everything he says is right
My name is Andrew Jackson, And
I’m here to speak with you about
the future of this incredible country.
These are complicated times.
And today we’re going to need to
make some complicated decisions.
But we’re going to make those
decisions together. I’m promising
you transparency, accountability,
and open collaboration between
you and me.
‘Cause I’m the people’s president
and i’m here to be your friend, to be
your advocate, to be your voice.
It’s morning again in America-
And I’m your president.
I’m your president.
I’m your president.
I really think
That this will work
We’ll live forever
At least for one more night
My luck will hold this time
It always has before
So I think
I think that this might work
I’m going alone
(yea going alone)
And the best part is
Everything I say is right
I mean, I think it’s a real tragedy
That Jackson moved all the Indians
from here in Florida.
Me too. A real tragedy.
And that’s why we hesitated to
Move here. Absolutely. I mean, we
Didn’t want it to seem like we were
Endorsing that kind of behavior.
No. Of course not. But, then
We were like…it is nice it
Um, (nods her head solemnly)
Yea, It is. (She looks at him,
Slightly miffed, then black out) so,
It’s like, it’s great that he did that.
But we definitely condone it.
Did you really think
That this would work?
You won’t live forever
You’re luck won’t hold this time
It won’t be like before
Who is speaking?
“Crisis Averted” has numerous speakers interchanging between each other, with multiple voices are singing or talking with different viewpoints. There are three basic viewpoints at work: first, the enthusiastic American citizens; second, the optimistic Andrew Jackson; and third, the backing band’s pessimistic viewpoint. The band has a flexible role in this musical, acting like a Greek chorus of sorts. Meanwhile, the citizens reflect their own changing opinions on Jackson himself. At first, they were eager for their voice to be heard from the populist president working directly with the people (hence the citizens repeating Jackson’s mantra to signify their support for him and populism.) However, as other citizens reveal quite humorously, the people’s opinions changed as times got hard. The citizens in this song encompass the the entire spectrum of citizens’ approval of Jackson.
Because this is a theatrical production, the distinction between playing a role and the actual performer is much clearer. This line can be and is often blurred in popular music. Whether it’s important to make such a distinction varies, and will likely make for a good discussion for another day.
Another thing that can be difficult to identify is to whom the speaker is addressing in song. Sometimes it may be reflexive, a character’s self musing and speaking to himself/herself. Or the lyric’s may be directed to someone else; a lover, a friend, or (perhaps more frequently) the audience.
In “Crisis Averted”, most of these speakers also seem to be addressing different people. The citizens seems to be addressing the audience and asserting their views, whereas the band’s portrayal of Jackson’s opinion is precisely that: Jackson’s personal thoughts about his plans. However, the band’s final stanza appears to address Jackson (and perhaps the American public as well.) Again, with multiple speakers, we also appear to have multiple receivers.
What is the speaker’s attitude?
To determine the speaker’s attitude, a number of things must be reckoned with. First, diction (the word choice used) shapes it. For example, a person doesn’t walk into a room, they storm in. A coat isn’t old, it’s tattered. Word choice can make a world of difference, because all words invoke a specific effect. When the band member sings “You’re Fucked”, it implies a lot more than mere mistakes, it also illustrates the singer’s contempt and anger for the situation. Another factor influencing attitude is how the song is sung, which can increase the emotional effect created in the lyrics. In the case of the final stanza, there’s a tenaciousness and abrasiveness to the performance that adds to the speaker’s confrontational attitude. In short, what and how a speaker contributes illustrates their attitude towards what they are saying.
What kind of person has the lyricist created?
Finally, trying to determine what kind of person the lyricist has created depends on looking at all of these factors. Some helpful questions to be asked: What kind of personality does this speaker have? How does the speaker interact with others? What characterizes this speaker? What do we know about this speaker, both objectively (character traits) and subjectively (emotions, feelings, attitude, etc.)? Is the speaker ironic? Pessimistic? Optimistic? Eager? Happy? Cynical? Wise? Clever? Sophisticated? Resilient? Daring? Radical? This is just a fraction of the ways in how you could describe a character.
For “Crisis Averted”, the lyricist (and composer) Michael Friedman created numerous speakers which could be described. At first the citizens seem eager and slightly naive, while other citizens illustrate their reluctance to accept the reject of Native Americans, yet are willing to indirectly support it our of their sheer desire for comfort. Meanwhile, the band’s different speakers also vary in character, perhaps most potently in the last stanza, a declaration of outright rejection and dismissal. Here the speaker seems to illustrate some wisdom, as he’s able to predict the dangers of what’s to come.
Choosing to look at “Crisis Averted” has its pros and cons. While examining a plethora of voices was insightful, the rules of performativity are clearly set within the setting of a musical, so the blurred line between the performer and the character portrayed in music is remarkably distinctive. But in popular music, that is not often the case. Regardless, “Crisis Averted” is a fruitful text to explore the interplay of voices and performance in music, illustrating the importance of perspective in relation to interpretation of lyrics.