When I was thirteen years old, I became obsessed with words. It was when I decided I wanted to be a writer, after reading SE Hinton’s The Outsiders (which I’m sure I’ll post about here at some point). I read tons of books from the local library – all the Hintons, Lois Lowry, Judy Blume, Paul Zindel – and wrote in a journal multiple times a day, though admittedly it was mostly about which member of Duran Duran was the cutest. (I still have the journals. So cringe-worthy.) But the point was I was writing. I was expressing myself. I was exploring what it means to use words in new and exciting ways, to communicate how I was feeling with pen and paper (because I am old and grew up prior to the ubiquity of personal computers and the advent of smartphones).
This age of discovery coincided with the other great love of my young life: music. Thanks to my family, an appreciation for all genres and styles had been instilled in me practically since birth. My older sister’s obsession with the Beatles rubbed off on me simply by being around her. My two older brothers filled in the hard rock and heavy metal. And my dad, a sort of music polymath with a record collection in the tens of thousands, schooled me on everything else, from classical to classic rock ‘n’ roll to big band to opera. He’d even listen to the modern stuff from time to time.
Being a teenage girl, of course my own tastes trended toward pop music. I’d grown up listening to Top 40 radio stations like WPLJ and Z100 out of New York. My record collection was made up of all the obligatory pop icons, from Duran Duran to Cyndi Lauper to The Go-Go’s to Madonna and as many 12” remixes of one-hit wonders as I could find in the local record shop.
In my later teen years, I transitioned to more “alternative” music and tuned in to the legendary WLIR out of Long Island; my record collection became a CD collection populated by REM, Erasure, Tears for Fears, Depeche Mode, and Morrissey and the Smiths. (Though, keeping true to my roots, my first CD purchase was Wham!’s Make It Big.)
Regardless, no matter what I was listening to, it always came down to one thing for me: the lyrics. A good beat is nice, but for me nothing was as important as what the singer was saying to me, as the words he or she was using to express whatever the song was about. Okay, “Like a Virgin” didn’t hold much weight with me; I’m not sure I even understood what it meant when it came out. Pop music did still appeal to me just because it was catchy and the people performing it were so darn good looking. But more and more, I sought out those songs with lyrics that made me feel something, even if I couldn’t exactly describe what that feeling was. Because isn’t that the beauty of music? When done right, it can evoke emotions we sometimes don’t even have names for.
And, of course, I wrote about it. I wrote down the lyrics of entire songs on loose-leaf notebook paper and taped them up on the wall next to my bed so I could gaze at them while I listened and refer to them for inspiration for my own writing; aside from the journals, I was a nascent teenage novelist, though everything I wrote was pretty much an Outsiders knock-off. I transcribed snippets of lyrics into my journal, sometimes doing what amounted to close readings, teasing out possible interpretations, the more complex the better. (My treatise on the Police’s “King of Pain” comes to mind. Just like Sting, it took itself a little too seriously.)
The older I get, the more I appreciate a good lyric, one that sticks in my head the way the jungle yell of “Tarzan Boy” used to when I was thirteen years old. (And now it’s stuck again, probably for you too. You’re welcome.) Once I find one, I will listen to that song to the point of complete overkill, putting it on endless repeat, waiting each time for that moment when the lyric comes through and my emotions surge:
Thom Yorke of Radiohead singing, “I can’t help but feeling…I could blow through the ceiling…if I just turn and run” in “Fake Plastic Trees.”
Green Day’s “21 Guns”: “Lay down your arms, give up the fight.”
Glen Phillips—well, I could fill a book with his lyrics, but I’ll go with “all that you love will be taken someday, by the angel of death or the servants of change” from “Grief and Praise.”
David Bowie in “Ashes to Ashes”: “I never done good things, I never done bad things, I never did anything out of the blue.”
I can even wring meaning out of my beloved pop music:
“I have no secrets from you, I have nothing left to hide”–George Michael, “Something to Save”
Duran Duran’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”, aka my life anthem: “Always trying to control me, who do you think you are?”
I could go on and on and on.
Of course these words probably mean nothing to anyone but me—another genius perk of music, that we can all interpret it and appreciate it in whatever way we want. It’s individual; it’s personal. The most meaningful line to me might be the tritest to you and vice versa. And that’s okay. I will respect your assertions about whatever artist speaks to you personally if you can deal with the fact that I sometimes find boy bands deceptively profound.