Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Lyrical Tale

“I want to rewind every time
'Cause the words have so much meaning
They were there when nobody cared
Always knew what I was feeling”
-Sugar Ray

I’ve always loved song lyrics. From an early age I was fascinated with the way words and music can be combined to affect your emotions and thoughts.

During my teenage years, lyrics were of particularly importance. My friends and I kept so-called “poem books”, which were spiral-bound notebooks consisting primarily of song lyrics, along with fairly cheesy poems published in Teen magazine (“I do believe that God above created you for me to love. He picked you out from all the rest because He knew I’d love you best…”)

I fear that the whole song lyric experience is lost on today’s teenagers. And it’s sad.

Let’s go back to the early eighties. You hear a song on the radio in the car on the way home from school that catches your ear. You feel compelled to learn and record the lyrics for posterity. The first thing to do is to obtain a copy of the song on….yes, you guessed it….cassette tape. No ITunes to download the song to your MP3 player, no internet to look up the lyrics, and who has the money to run out and buy a full length record album that may or may not include the lyrics printed on the sleeve based on a single song you’ve heard only once?

So you pull out your cassette recorder, find a blank tape, and set the machine up with the microphone as close as possible to the speaker of your clock radio. Cassette recorder ready? Check. Clock radio on high volume? Check. Now you just need the radio station to play the song. You could just wait. If a song is popular enough, it will eventually be played on the radio again. But…there is another option: call the radio station.

Remember, this is the early eighties. There is no speed dial. The only phone in the house is attached to a cord that doesn’t quite reach your bedroom even when it is fully extended. So you resign yourself to spending several hours dialing (yes dialing on an actual rotary dial phone) the radio station phone number. You get a busy signal. You dial again. You ignore the blister on your finger. You ignore your parents who are insisting that they are expecting a phone call. And if you’re lucky, at last, after 100 or so tries, you get through to the local station. And if you’re really lucky, the DJ agrees to play your song.

Now that you’ve captured the recording, the real work begins. Some song lyrics are pretty straightforward. But take a song by someone like, say, REM or The Cure, and add in your somewhat interference-prone recording technique, and deciphering the lyrics becomes a puzzle akin to trying to distinguish David Cassidy and Scott Baio in 1980 while wearing dark sunglasses in a dimly lit room (which also might be enjoyable, but in a totally different way).

We spend countless hours playing and replaying portions of the song while writing out the lyrics by hand, one tedious line at a time. These papers are often a scribble of scratched out words, question marks, and possible alternatives to inaudible lyrics written in the margins. Finally, after many discussions and debates, the final lyrics are transposed carefully onto clean notebook paper.

The next day at school someone mentions the great new song they heard on the radio. You casually throw out the fact that you possess the lyrics to said song. If you really like the person (or want them to like you), you then might offer to make a copy of the lyrics for them (this involves a new sheet of notebook paper and your best handwriting – no computers, printers, or copy machines). They are eternally grateful. You are now at the beginning of a chain of copied lyrics that eventually make their way into poem books across the school. With lyrics come social power.

Contrast this memory with today. This morning I heard a song I liked on the radio. I came into work and within minutes of "Googling", I not only had the full set of lyrics to the song ready to print, I also knew the album name, the history of the band, when and where they are in concert next, and how to instantly download the song as a ringtone for my cell phone.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the internet. I love the convenience of being able to instantly answer nearly any question that comes up in daily life. I love the ability to find 365,472 recipes for rhubarb.

But I miss sitting on my bedroom floor with my best friend playing a song over and over again while debating whether “I miss the rains” or “I felt the rains” down in Africa makes more sense (neither was correct, as it turns out). I miss giggling hysterically over various possible misinterpretations (it’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you, there’s nothing that a hundred men on Mars could ever do…”). I miss the feeling of accomplishment when the final copy was complete. And I feel sorry for today’s kids who might never have that experience.

When Mahatma Gandhi said “There is more to life than increasing its speed”, I’m sure he was referring to life as a whole: hastiness vs. depth of experience, efficiency vs. stopping to smell the roses.

But I think these words of wisdom are just as aptly illustrated by a teenager, scribbling song lyrics in a spiral notebook, laughing with her best friend.