The powerful obscurity of song lyrics

Have you ever noticed the emotional power of song lyrics that don’t quite make sense if you just read the words?

A certain level of crypticness seems to actually make some songs more emotionally effective, in a way that would never be true for prose. There is much obscurity in the lyrics of many amazingly powerful songs, like Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit”, Cat Power’s “Lived in Bars”, Tom Waits’ “Time”, or almost any song from Dylan’s golden period. And then of course there’s “Stairway to Heaven”.

For many of the songs we love, a simple recitation of the words might elicit a confused shrug. Yet in combination with that particular music, the result can be overwhelmingly moving. So what exactly is going on here?

Perhaps the very obscurity of these lyrics, when combined with the emotional sense-making of the music, acts as a trigger for our own mind to add the missing pieces. By keeping explicit meaning hidden, the songwriter creates a kind of grandly protean canvas upon which each of us can project our own inner emotional landscape.

Of course, that’s just one theory.

One Response to “The powerful obscurity of song lyrics”

  1. PhilH says:

    No, I think that’s pretty much it. Songs are about emotions; the specifics of why you have that emotion are many and varied, and the more of them you put in, the more limited the appeal of the song as people can’t relate.

    I’m sure there are a lot of more specific songs out there, but by virtue of this selection effect, they are not the ones that become popular and ‘classic’.

    It’s also why sometimes an English middle class guy like me can end up rapping along to something by a young American gang member, or someone who espouses pimping. Catchy tune + emotion or mood I can identify with, like anger or macho pride.

    I think a novel goes in the opposite direction but has the same effect; we learn the story of the character in the book, and imagine ourselves in the story; instead of requiring the book to voice our emotions, we require the characters to embody our experience, our reactions. This is what I found so engaging about Crime & Punishment; the central character felt like me, in so many ways.

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