Silent Songs by Peter Yin
It seems like the majority of people these days take music for granted. As time goes by, it seems like more and more we listen to music for the wrong reasons, and consequently, it seems as if music has changed to accommodate our listening habits. Some of us may listen to a song because we get pumped up by the beat, or maybe the singer has an incredible voice that just draws us in. The things for which we seemingly aren’t listening to music, however, are the lyrics, and the meaning behind them. We may be able to sing along to a song, but do we actually think about what the artist is trying to say with his or her words? Sadly, the answer to this question is too often “No.” We as a society for the most part fail to appreciate music for what it is: art. And just like any piece of art, music serves the purpose of conveying a message. The problem is that music no longer has anything significant to say. The days of Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground are gone, when the purpose of music was to connect to listeners with topical issues that they could learn and relate to. During these times, artists would compose music that addressed things of actual importance, things that mattered. Poets like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Simon and Garfunkel wouldn’t sing about subjects like teenage heartbreak or partying. Instead, they sung about relevant social issues; back then, music would move people. Music today just doesn’t have this affect. I believe that this can be accredited to how people are no longer trying to look deeply into the song and find this message. Songs like “I Knew You Were Trouble,” with 416,000 sales within its first week, or “Get Lucky,” with millions of copies sold in its first two weeks of release, are examples of music that have succeeded despite lacking truly meaningful statements. In the end, these songs are just empty words painted on a canvas of lurid superficiality. Take the chorus of Taylor Swift’s song “22:” “I don’t’ know about you but I’m feeling 22. Everything will be alright if you keep me next to you. You don’t know about me but I’ll bet you want to.” What significant messages do these words carry? How do these lyrics move and inspire people? How do they better society? And the answer is simple: they don’t. These words mean exactly what they appear to; there is no depth. Ultimately, these songs are proof that music nowadays is treated as something that people can have a good time listening to, and while there is nothing wrong with this, it squanders the innate artistic potential that music possesses.
I myself am guilty of slighting the lyrics of musicians. For almost as long as I can remember, I simply took pleasure in being able to recite the lyrics of a song while completely ignoring what these artists were trying to say through their music. Yes, I was ironically “hearing without listening,” as Simon and Garfunkel so poignantly sing. It wasn’t until I heard Rodriguez for the first time that I realized my mistake. When a documentary called “Searching for Sugar Man” was released a little over a year ago, it received a lot of publicity on account of its fascinating story- the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a legend who never was. When I found out about this artist and learned of his plight, I decided to look into his music. The moment that “Cause” started playing was the moment that my perception of music changed forever. His song about residing in the inner city and living a life of poverty had a major effect on me; listening to what this individual experienced through his lyrics and hearing his truly human stories led to the blossoming of a new respect for music. And what ultimately helped me experience this moment of enlightenment was understanding the story of Rodriguez. Being aware of the times and circumstances in which he was living made his music and its message so much more effective. At the end of “Cause,” Rodriguez sings, “I see my people trying to drown the sun in weekends of whiskey sours; ‘Cause how many times can you wake up in this comic book and plant flowers?” Rodriguez’s interpretation of reality and the cold facts of life resonates with people all around the world, and ultimately touches those who hear it. Those who have heard his music can agree that Rodriguez’s trials in Detroit show clearly in his incredibly moving and captivating music, and can further agree that his music was criminally unnoticed and underappreciated when it was first released. It is a mystery why Rodriguez did not meet with instant success when he began singing, as those who knew Rodriguez back in the late 60s have asserted that the only other artist they knew who was writing lyrics as powerful as his was Bob Dylan. But the story of Rodriguez is a story for another time. For those of you who are interested, I highly recommend that you look him up. Or better yet, go and watch the Academy Award winning documentary and see his life unfold before your eyes. Either way you will learn about one of the most fascinating characters in music history.
The point, however, is that Rodriguez and his music are examples of a time when this art form actually meant something. People should make an effort to look at music for what it is and understand that it serves a purpose much more important than giving people something to dance or sing along to. The rhythm and beat are important, yes. But in an age where sounds are more often electronically synthesized than produced by good old fashioned instruments, the lyrics are the last barriers separating artistry from inanity. We all need to listen to the lyrics and make an effort to understand them. The artist’s words are the most important part of a song, and thus deserve a listener’s attention. If people start to actually listen to the lyrics, then we might hopefully return to a period where music is actually good, where music truly speaks once again. But until that day, songs will remain empty, and we will be stuck listening to the sounds of silence.