Do Lyrics Need to Mean Anything?

For years music lovers who followed Elton John’s career wondered about the meaning of the lyrics in the song “Daniel”.  They argued back and forth;  some thought it was about the Vietnam War, others that it simply had to do with a relationship between two brothers, and another group thought it was about homosexuality.

I was very intrigued to see an interview with Bernie Taupin, the lyricist behind the song, years later when he was asked “So what is ‘Daniel’ really about?”  Bernie’s answer surprised me, and then again, it didn’t.

He shrugged his shoulders and casually said “I don’t know.”  And that was about it.

This issue came up again recently when I was teaching a Radiohead song called ‘Karma Police’ to one of my guitar students.  We sat there afterward and tried to analyze the lyrics.  At the risk of copyright infringement, I’m going to show the lyrics here.  Let’s just say it’s about the ‘art’, guys!

Karma police, arrest this man,
He talks in maths
He buzzes like a fridge,
He’s like a de-tuned radio
Karma police, arrest this girl,
Her Hitler hairdo is making me feel ill
And we have crashed her party


This is what you get, this is what you get
This is what you get, when you mess with us

Karma police, I’ve given all I can,
It’s not enough
I’ve given all I can,
But were still on the payroll

This is what you get, this is what you get
This is what you get, when you mess with us


And for a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself
And for a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself
For a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself

Okay.  I love this song, but not for the lyrics.  I love the chord progression and melody.  I hate the radio noise at the end of the song, but that’s for another article!

If you understand the word ‘karma’, in Buddhism it means ‘what goes around, comes around’.  That’s an over-simplification as any real Buddhist will tell you, but for our purposes let’s stick to that meaning.  So the line ‘This is what you get’ in the chorus, makes sense;  this is what you get when you behave that way, etc.  Even the title ‘Karma Police’ makes sense to me in this context.

At the end of the song we have a completely different section, an ‘extro’ or ‘outro’ or ‘tag’ depending on what you like to call it.  The chord progression changes and they repeat the line ‘And for a minute there, I lost myself’.  In Buddhism again, the ‘self’ doesn’t exist, so even this line makes sense within the context of karma.

However, the rest of the lyric seems to have absolutely no connection to anything.  What do they mean ‘her Hitler hair-do is making me feel ill and we have crashed her party’?  What does that have to do with anything?  ‘He talks in maths, he buzzes like a fridge’…what does that mean?

Now I am not a prude or snob, and I already told you that I love the song.  But sometimes I think bands and artists take liberties with their lyrics, especially those who write in the rock (alternative, if you will) and pop styles.  They assume that people don’t really care about lyrics.  I think they are right, to some extent.  How many songs have you fallen in love with but had no idea what much of it meant?

So what does this mean?  Should we be as flippant with our own lyrics?  Those of us who write in these genres tend to have the same attitudes…that the lyrics don’t really matter.  I think you should care more about what you are saying in your lyrics, in spite of what Bernie Taupin or anyone else thinks.  By all means, when you are first writing, as I’ve said many times, don’t edit yourself or you’ll put out your little creative flame pretty quickly.  But when you are at the re-writing stage (and there should ALWAYS be a re-writing stage!), look at what you’re saying.  Does it make sense in any way whatsoever?  Does it relate to the theme or the title of your song?  Is there a thread that goes through the whole lyric and pulls it together?

Maybe you don’t care, but you should.

On another note (little pun there!), there’s a famous story about the Beatle’s song ‘Hey Jude’.  It was written for John Lennon’s son Julian by Paul McCartney, and one of the lines is ‘the movement you need is on your shoulder’.  Paul was agonizing over that line, but when he went to John about it, John said something to the effect “Don’t worry about it, I know what it means.”  And so the line was left as is.

It’s true that we need to make our lyrics universal enough so that a listener can have some room for interpretation.  But there is a difference, a big one, between ‘universal’ meaning and ‘no’ meaning.  Think about it for awhile, and for pete’s sake, don’t get lazy!

IJ

[update Feb.09/09…during an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes last night, Coldplay’s songwriter Chris Martin was asked what the meaning of “Yellow” was…guess what he answered??  “I don’t know.”]

4 comments

  1. The lyrics about the man and woman, they are painting a picture. It’s the drone of your manager (buzzes, detuned radio), and the tacky hair of a strict manager (hitler-hairdo). It’s basically about f***ing middle-management, at least that’s what Thom Yorke said on the subject. As for the outro, that might be about loosing your cool while being pissed off at the boss or something, watch the video on youtube it might make some sense.

    Anyways, just wanted to clear it up, and also, personally for me when I try to write songs, other people’s interpretation of my song is not my priority. I think about it, but what’s important is putting the emotion down on paper, and expressing it the way I experienced it. Then again this is just my philosophy, but to me it’s the message and the way it’s painted, but not necessarily the fact that the message gets out to everyone else. They can decode the cryptic messages if they want to or if it isn’t obvious.

  2. Thanks for your comment…you are obviously a fan so you’ve checked into the song or at least paid attention to its meaning. Which is important…fans do listen and they do “interpret” and care about song meanings. In fact, if you Google it, there are dozens of sites that have to do with nothing but the meaning of lyrics. It’s also a fact that the search term of lyric meanings is in the top ten of ALL Google searches, period.

    Which brings me to the point of my article. People listen, and so as a songwriter it IS in fact important to think about what you’re saying.

    Unless of course, you don’t care 🙂

    IJ

  3. IJ, what radioheadFan above has said is true. But I want to point something else out: You are taking prosaic liberties with poetry. You expect the lyrics of a song to be immediately intellectually interpretable. That is NOT what music and lyric poetry are about. In fact it would be MORE irresponsible for a songwriter to “the think about what [he or she] is saying” than to simply let the lyrics imply and evoke feelings, images, and yes, even ideas. Song is not science, poetry is not physics. They do not have to be exacting and prosaic. That is another field. The field of poetry and music is to let the imagination wander. Edgar Watson Howe said, “A poem is no place for an idea.” Likewise, a song… IMHO

  4. I’m talking lyrics, not poetry of course…you appear to think of them as the same thing, I do not! There are very few cases where songwriters have successfully bridged the two.

    I expect lyrics to be cohesive…I don’t have to know exactly what they mean. Lyrics should give room for the listener to implant his or her own experiences/emotions…that’s what universality is about. And the genre also makes a difference. Country lyrics are more straight up and conversational, rock or alternative lyrics have room to be more mysterious. And of course there has to be an “idea”…otherwise it would simply sound like a mish-mash of meaninglessness.

    IMHO, of course 🙂

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