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The Dichotomy of Song Lyrics



I love music. Many different types: classical, operatic, film scores, rock & roll, R&B, pop, electronic, etc. etc. For the purposes of this blog post, I'm going to focus on pop music. You know, music + lyrics. Songs. So many of them out there, so many of them satisfying, for so many reasons. Pop songs can take us into a plethora of emotionally-sensitive territories. Today, I want to discuss a favorite aspect of pop songs: the contradictory lyric.

It can be said that pop songs are often straightforward, and even simple. This is partly their allure. You can learn a song easily enough, then sing-along to it with verve. Lyrics will (quite often) be about love, or liking someone, or be about peace and harmony or, if your Elvis, about folks living in the ghetto. At any rate, the lyrics are pretty uncomplicated in the story that they tell. Sometimes, however, they tend to contradict themselves, or allow you to witness a growth (of sorts) of the character the singer is portraying. I find such lyrics to be intoxicating.

Consider the song Say It Right by Nelly Furtado. It's a love song (as most pop music typically is), but the singer comes across as conflicted. Here are the lyrics in question:
Oh you don't mean nothing at all to me
No you don't mean nothing at all to me
But you got what it takes to set me free
Oh you could mean everything to me

The first two parts of the verse sound cold and distancing. Then, the last two lines switch it up, to where it's almost begging the person being sung to to fall for the singer. It's one of those lyrics that made me stop and re-listen, to make sure I'd heard it correctly.

Next we have the 'growth' lyrics, wherein we witness the singer change their tune (so to speak). In the case of Lana Del Rey's song National Anthem (my favorite track of 2012), we see the following verse, before the maturation begins:

He says to "be cool" but
I don't know how yet
Wind in my hair
Hand on the back of my neck
I said, "Can we party later on?"
He said, "Yes, yes, yes"

Here we have a rather sheepish version of the singer, lacking confidence. A guy tells her to "be cool," but she admits, in rather fragile fashion, to not knowing how to "be cool." She then goes on to plan her evening according to his response. But look at a verse later in the song...
He said to "be cool" but
I'm already coolest
I said to, “Get real,"
“Don't you know who you're dealing with?
Um, do you think you'll buy me lots of diamonds?”
Within the space of a minute or two (and a few lines of chorus and verse), the singer is much more confident. Now, when the guy tells her to "be cool," she notes that she's "already coolest," tells him to "get real," and then asks him to buy her stuff. I love it when songs change the singer's persona like this.

Of course, we sometimes have music where the lyrics intentionally attempt to showcase a dichotomy of emotions and/or situations. Take All Over the World by the Pet Shop Boys as an example. In it, they basically call-out the contradictory and illusory nature of the emotions present in liking someone, witnessed here:

It's sincere at its objective
Superficial and true
Easy and predictable
Exciting and new
Just say 'I want you'

So, yes, these are the types of song lyrics that fascinate me the most. Straightforward lyrics are a dime-a-dozen. But it's when the lyrics reflect the often conflicted nature of how we feel about one another, and ourselves, that I become the most enthralled. It is, after all, the way we tend to live our lives -- not in black & white, but in those confounding shades of grey.




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