In case you were wondering: yes, people do listen to lyrics. I’ve mentioned on this blog many times that if you take a look at “Worst-Songs-Ever” types of lists (all unscientific, of course, but still…), you’ll find that songs are considered bad, corny, or otherwise unsatisfactory based mostly on the quality of the lyric.
There has been a lot of discussion as to whether or not Bob Dylan deserves a Nobel for his song lyrics. Our likes and dislikes of music will always be nothing more than an opinion, so we’ll hear people cheer, and we’ll hear people boo. And I say long live the freedom to decide for yourself.
But beyond that discussion, Thursday’s announcement that Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature should serve as a reminder to us that the quality of your lyric is every bit as important as you thought it might be.
But let us be careful criticizing a song lyric which might “only” use dozens or perhaps hundreds of words. In those very few words, a songwriter needs to present a coherent train of thought that contributes to a complete musical journey, one that leaves the listener satisfied. And you only get 3 minutes or so to get it right.
Brevity is hard to deal with in the arts, and particularly so in songwriting. You must use your musical abilities with the kind of efficiency that wins an audience over quickly, and says what needs to be said poignantly but casually.
Why Dylan gets the award, while others were overlooked, it’s hard to say, but I suspect that it’s the influence that Dylan had in his early days, as well as his ability to make powerful statements about important things in a way that common, everyday folk wanted to hear. Not that Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and others I’ve heard touted didn’t do that, but as I say, this is where we get to cheer or boo, and that’s always fair.
So if you’re a songwriter who struggles with lyrics, Dylan’s award serves as a reminder: it’s worth the struggle. It can take years to polish your technique with regard to your use of words, but there is nothing like influencing the way someone thinks by virtue of one short powerful phrase that took you days, weeks or months to get right.
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