Understanding Lyrics: Determining Tone

by criticalhit009

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 tone.
    • What is the tone or attitude of the lyrics toward the subject matter?
    • Is the speaker objective, subjective, ironic, bitter, etc?

Tone is can be one of the those tricky things to determine. It is not obviously apparent when one looks at a poem or lyrics, but rather needs to be sussed out by analyzing how the overall piece functions. Let us look at Scott Walker’s cover of “Funeral Tango“.

This piece is sung from the perspective of someone envisioning their funeral, and bitterly scorning the artifice surrounding such an event. Walker’s singing adds a wonderful sarcastic bite to the lyrics, from a perspective that claims martyrdom in a world of fakery.

Oh I see all of you
All of my phony friends
Who can’t wait for it ends
Who can’t wait till it’s through
Oh I see all of you
You’ve been laughing all these years
Now all that you have left
Are a few crocodile tears

The speaker of the lyrics are bitter and subjective, as we see these imagined events from his perspective. The tone questions the speaker’s assertions, as the speaker has no tangible proof of the “phony” nature of those around him. The lyrics do more to reveal the speaker’s ego and his sense of self inflation than the artifice of the world. While the tangible details the speaker asserts do ring true (“The old women are there/ Too old to give a damn/ They’ve brought along the kids/ Who don’t know who I am”), and the speaker does bring up some valid points on the artifice of ritual, the speaker’s snide remarks instead illustrate all to well the subjective claims of the speaker. The speaker’s tone is critical, snobbish, and ultimately subjective.

As illustrated by this piece, we see how the role of the speaker is inextricably linked to the tone of the piece itself, as the speaker is our entry point into the subject matter. Because of the snobbery involved in the tone emerging from the speaker, the audience receives the text not as authoritative proclamation, but rather the egoistic ramblings of a Holden Caufield type. Tone is vital as it is the lens in which we interpret the piece. If “Funeral Tango” was written as an objective observation of a funeral from some ethereal speaker, the claims of phoniness and artifice would act as legitimate grievances against society instead of the humorous egoism of a man. Tone can often feel innate and ungraspable in a piece, as its formed from the assemble of all the lyrical elements rather than a discreet unit in of itself. But hopefully this exercise will help elucidate how to articulate tone within lyrical works.