Thursday, July 8, 2010

Day 08 — A song that you know all the words to

This one annoys me on a couple of levels. First, I am not a very lyrics-oriented music listener, in no small part because of a longstanding mental defect that leaves me incapable of parsing song lyrics, and also because I am a terrible singer. This day 08 topic dredges up all the pain and heartache of that. Oh, the heartache.

Second, what is the meaning of "know all the words to"? I can think of at least four distinct strains of "knowing the lyrics" of a song.

(1) You can recite the lyrics completely from memory without mentally playing the song. There was a point in my life when I knew "Synchronicity II" by The Police in this way, having committed it to memory for reasons I no longer recall, but I don't think it's true any longer. Something something Scottish lake? Something something shiny little boxes? Something something dead end street? Something something many miles away? Whatever.

(2) If the singer were to fall sick or die, you could step in and perform the song so long as the band played a recognizable version of the music. Or, to put it differently, you could karaoke the song, word for word, without needing to look at the reader board. You might choose to because you're dangerously drunk, but you don't need to.

(3) You can sing along well enough, but maybe you have a few words wrong here and there, and/or maybe you need to hear that first instant of the syllable before knowing what the next lyric is. I know the words of thousands of songs in this respect -- every song on every one of Neko Case's solo albums (live and studio), all the songs on Van Halen's 1984 (and plenty of other VH songs), every Rush song on every studio album between, say, 2112 and Power Windows, every R.E.M. song on every studio album from Murmur through New Adventures in Hi-Fi, every song on every studio album by Pavement, U2, Portishead, and Sonic Youth; scads of songs by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Pixies, Arcade Fire, Massive Attack, Johnny Cash, The Shins, PJ Harvey, Iron Maiden, The Bird and the Bee, Violent Femmes, The Clash, The Doors, The Eagles, DeVotchka, The Smiths, Leonard Cohen, Broadcast, Cat Power, Fleetwood Mac, Sheryl Crow, 10,000 Maniacs, Yo La Tengo, Nirvana, Eminem, Public Enemy, and ... the list goes on and on and on. Many particular songs in these performers' catalogs belong in category 2, but why split hairs?

(4) The songs whose lyrics you know in the third sense without really knowing in any cognitive sense -- knowing them in the way a parrot could know them. Scores of Stereolab and Monade songs are in French, and while I can more or less competently sing along with them, I have not, in many cases, bothered to translate them, or if I have, I have not retained the meaning. Some songs fall in this category despite being in English -- some of the more indecipherable stylings of R.E.M., for example.

This is my final answer: I know all the words -- in the third sense, and formerly in the second -- to Stereolab's "L'Enfer des Formes", one of my all-time favorites songs ever, both musically and lyrically, but especially lyrically.

This is part of the 30-Day Music Meme.

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