Some of my favorite hard rock songs have terrible lyrics, it’s true. Especially the songs in last weeks post.
When I listen to these songs, it is not for the words, but for the sound. The lyrics just blend into the background as the timbre, annunciation and rhythmic inflection of the voice simply become part of the overall picture. It almost becomes instrumental music.
One can listen to different music for different reasons. For example, lets look at some music from a completely different genre than hard rock: the music of James Brown. As a regular listener of the JB box set "Star Time," and several other albums, I consider his work to be some of the best popular music of the 20th Century. Millions of other listeners, fans and critics alike, seem to agree.
Yet it would be easy to point a finger at James Brown's music and critique it for lack of melodies. Unlike other soul singers of the day such as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, his music doesn't lend itself to good covers and instrumental arrangements. There is little content for melodic vocal study or for an improviser to quote, embellish and explore as a thematic interpretation.
Does that make it bad? Of course not. James' music has something else, something so strong it makes up for it: rhythm. The rhythm is so great in fact, that too much melodic movement would get in the way. It is, at its core, music for the purpose of bobbing heads, tapping feet, full on dancing or otherwise feeding off the groove of the rhythm.
Just as the strength of James Brown's music does not lie in its melodic content, the strength of these great hard rock songs does not lie in their lyrical content. Both styles have their own unique qualities that are separate from other genres of pop music. James makes you want to dance while AC/DC, Scorpions and Kiss make you want to play air guitar. James inspires headbobbing, these bands inspire headbanging.
If you were to ask most listeners and fans what they like best about hard rock, a short list of these qualities might include the following: memorable guitar riffs, sing-along choruses, driving movement of the bass and drums, high energy and a sense of power. Lyrical content wouldn't even make the list. Like the great music of James Brown, hard rock is subject to certain limitations, and that doesn't make it bad. It can even be argued that the limitations even become part of their strength. Hard rock is not music to be listened to for depth of words, but for power of sound.
As a young boy, it was this power which drew me in and got me into music in the first place. Despite my later appreciation of depth, lyrical and otherwise, this powerful sound of hard rock will always hold a special place in my heart. Like many others out there, I started as a youthful hard rock fan and then in the blink of an eye, unwittingly found myself transformed into an adult with good taste and high artistic standards.
Today, I can't help but look at these lyrics without pangs of embarrassment and snickers. But my outer sophisticated adult co-exists with a kid inside. This kid still hears these songs at nightclubs and parties, sometimes unable to resist the urge to pump a fist in the air, play air guitar, sing at the top of his lungs and, to quote one of the biggest offenders of bad lyrics: shout it out loud.