Lyrical Transparency & Audience Entitlement
We’ve all been there. We’ve all listened to a song and thought to ourselves “what’s the story behind these lyrics? What does this song mean? What is it truly about?”. Humans are curious beings, after all, it’s only natural for us to wonder about such things. However, as an audience, are people entitled to the answers to these questions? Should artists be telling their listeners the true meaning behind their songs with full transparency?
Realistically, I would argue that it would be down to each individual musician on each individual song, but this would be an incredibly boring and pointless post if I were to leave it at that. As someone who obsessed over lyrical analysis of her favorite bands and artists for many, many years, and now as a musician and lyricist myself, I hold a relatively informed perspective on each side of this debate. There is a split in my opinion because of these two perspectives. Part of me longs to know the thoughts & feelings that led to the creation of some of my favorite songs, to know the different layers of songwriting that the lyricist involved themselves in. Knowing the meaning that the writer had when creating the song can make people feel more connected to the song itself. Though, from a songwriter's perspective, do I always want others to know the vulnerability behind certain lyrics? That, I’m not so sure I do, certainly not in all instances.
Of course, not all songs need an explanation to know what they’re about. Many songwriters don’t rely on metaphor or puzzling linguistics, instead keeping lyrics clear and transparent in their meanings. I see this most commonly in pop music, though it absolutely thrives in other genres too. There’s no shortage of the opposite kind of lyricist either, as many songwriters use personal experience, emotions, and reflection as a source of inspiration for their lyrics, myself included. Some may want to keep those true meanings quiet, masking them behind veils of metaphor and narratives, and personally, I believe this to be more than reasonable. To pour your heart and soul onto paper and to release it for the world to hear it is a frightening enough concept when you really think about it, but to add that extra layer of vulnerability by feeling coerced to discuss potentially distressing events or feelings that led to that song’s production? Many simply do not want to open up that much, especially to a whole community of people who likely do not know them personally. That's cool. Musicians are generally only human, after all.
There is another thing that bothers me when I’m asked personally about the meaning behind my songs. I could spill all, I could tell those who ask every detail behind the choices I made for every verse, every line, every word in any song, but really, what good would that do? When you first hear a song that resonates with you emotionally, there is a reason behind that, one that’s personal to you as the listener. To then be told, “no, that isn’t what this song means”, doesn’t that just diminish that personal connection and risk breaking that emotional resonance that drew you into the song in the first place? Why would anyone want that? I’m a firm believer that music is a highly personal thing, like a little peephole into a person's heart, and because of that, it isn’t often I like to share the reality behind the lyrics I write, especially if I’ve written them in a way that specifically masks the reality behind them. You ask me, “what does this song mean?”, and I ask back, “what does this song mean to you?”, because sure, lyrics don’t come from nowhere, but just because I wrote them from one perspective, it doesn’t mean that my perspective is the only legitimate one. If you find meaning from lyrics that resonate with you, then that is what the song means. For me, anyway, that’s the beauty behind the music, what it’s all really about.
Of course, this doesn’t mean to say that artists shouldn’t talk about the meaning behind their music. As I mentioned before, it should always come down to the individual songwriter on individual songs. I absolutely have songs I’ve written that I’m reticent or even completely unwilling to open up about, and others that I’m more than happy to delve into the meaning behind my word choices, my thoughts, and feelings whilst writing, so long as it doesn’t take away that personal meaning and connection from someone else. This sentiment goes for all art too, not just lyricism. You see a painting of a house, and maybe all you see is a house. But maybe, you see a house that reminds you of your childhood holiday cottage and fills you with a bittersweet nostalgia. Maybe it reminds you of your grandparents' old house, and in turn makes you think about how much you miss your grandma, thus building a personal sentiment to you. Would that glimmer of magic you felt dissipate if you were told that actually, that house was simply where the painter lived during a terrible time in their life, and painting it was the only way they could see it in a positive light? Maybe, and maybe not. Maybe some people’s fires can’t be extinguished easily by such things, but it’s important to remember that some people’s can, and they may depend on that sentimental flame to keep that emotional connection lit.
Personal sentiment in art of any form is a beautiful, magical thing. It deserves to be kept alive, in whatever way it can.