July 16, 2012


The premise of Sano Motoharu's NHK interview series, The Songwriters, is that lyricists are the true bards of the modern age. Orson Scott Card recently echoed this sentiment:

[It's] a shame that we do not give our schoolchildren any understanding of the craft of poetry outside a narrow range that misses most of what makes the art so powerful. Fortunately, popular music has stepped in to fill the gap left by the literature professors and the brainwashed schoolteachers who got A's in their classes. Most songwriters, you see, still learn a bit about rhyme, and a few of them aim for and reach the sublime.

Card is describing what's known as "physics envy," a desire among professors of the humanities to make themselves the high priests of an esoteric religion that can only be accessed by the privileged few (who, thanks to this intellectual rent-seeking, can get tenure and demand high prices for their services).

The lyricist, by contrast, can certainly be clever, he can be deep, but he has to get to the point and make sense in about three minutes. This is harder to do than it sounds, the same way that writing "simple" prose is more difficult than being long-winded, especially if you don't have to strain to hear what the singer is saying.

Country music, for example. A while back, while channel surfing over to the Country Network (on a local digital side channel), I caught Thompson Square's "Glass," written by Ross Copperman and Jon Nite (Card cites Mary Chapin Carpenter). Here's the refrain:

We may shine, we may shatter
We may be picking up the pieces here on after
We are fragile, we are human
We are shaped by the light we let through us
But we break fast
Because we are glass

There's nothing complicated about this metaphor, the antecedents or the references. Nothing is draped in self-important gauze. Yes, sometimes the words really don't matter and that's fine too. Art can be abstract, realistic, profound, sublime, and just plain pretty without "meaning" anything. The cigar is a cigar.

But if the words are supposed to matter, then the meaning has to be transparent. Like glass, "shaped by the light passing through us."

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