April 9, 2014

All My Little Words

A glimpse of my own writing process
I know it's a day late, and I apologize... but this week's Twisted Mix Tape is a doozy.

Really, an enormous challenge.

You see, the prompt is lyrics.

My Skewed ViewI'm a writer (as you've probably noticed).  And, if you've been reading along and listening along for my own Twisted Mix Tape contributions for the last... months or so... you'll have noticed that lyrics are kind of a big deal to me. I pick them apart. I look at their poetry, at their meaning, their symbolism and their innuendo.

You might not know this, but before I ever started writing this blog, or short stories, or books, or anything else, I was a poet. I still am a poet. And I wrote songs. I appreciate how difficult it is to tread the line between insipid and pithy, and the challenges of putting those words to music.

So- lyrics. How to choose? How to narrow it down to something even borderline acceptable?

You take two whole days staring at your computer, humming in the car, singing to your children, and generally thinking about the songs that speak to you, and why.

A lot of these songs are self referential when it comes to writing, and the process of writing. Because lyrics are written. And a lot of them are melancholy or bleak, because I've always found that there is more that sticks with you when grief or anger or loneliness is exposed than when you find another way to express joy. But even so, it's all worth a listen.

It's all more than worth listening to.

It's all worth savoring and memorizing and scribbling in the margin of notebooks.

Let's start with the act of writing, as poetry itself. No, let's just start with one line. "I've got a grand piano to prop up my mortal remains." Sometimes it's the lyrics that make the song. It doesn't matter what beautiful instrumentation or arrangements are behind them. Like so many on this list, picking just one song to represent the amazing oeuvre of songwriting was nearly impossible.

One of the greatest songwriters of all time. Picking just one Bob Dylan song feels like insanity. But I tried. Feel free to start a debate in about which song I ought to have chosen, and please include links. I'd love to have an extra mixtape made by all of you in the comments.

Ani is getting the second spot, because her words have always spoken to me so strongly. It's a strange thing, being a thirteen year old girl. I wasn't fortunate enough to have flawless skin. I was short and busty, big haired, heavy browed, somewhat broad shouldered. I didn't look like a willowly, blond haired, tan skinned Gwen Stefani clone. I didn't look like the girls in the magazines, or on TV. And while part of me understood all the while that it didn't make me ugly, it did make me... not pretty. This is the song that opened the doors to Ani for me. For a few years of my adolescence, "I am not a kitten stuck in a tree somewhere," was my mantra.

Any list of brilliant lyrical songs would be incomplete without Leonard Cohen. His earlier works weren't so much folk songs as they were beat poems to rival Kerouac or Ginsberg, set to music. He's not just a songwriter, he's a Canadian poet laureate.

The 20th century was filled with incredible song writers, who told stories and made jokes. I thought for a long time about putting a Cole Porter song in here, but in a lot of ways Cole Porter was limited. There's a great beauty in the longing in his lyrics to say something more- but he was constrained by the times he lived in. Stephen Trask wrote this number, and if you've never seen Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I can't recommend it highly enough. I don't know what the rest of Stephen Trask's work sounds like, but I'm happy to judge him by one score along. And that by this song.

Bjork is so much more than a writer. She's an inventor, and an artist, and an innovator. But yes, she's also a poet. I love the way she puts words together, and sets them to music without any kind of care about styles and norms. It's a beautiful thing to hear.

I wanted to put in a Beatles song here. I really did. But no matter what I started with, I always came back to this. I love Sir Paul, but John Lennon was the better writer. And this might be his lyrical masterpiece. (Okay, it's a six or seven way tie.)

You know somebody is a genius of a lyricist when you absolutely can't choose. I actually had to pass over "I Am A Rock." I finally settled on American Tune. "I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered, I don’t have a friend who feels at ease, I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered or driven to its knees"

Songs with lyrics that stay with me, that change me, war protest songs are at the top of the list. But no song has moved me personally so much as this one. It's painful. But it's honesty is moving and jarring and hard. And that's important. That's what good lyrics, great songs, should do.

Another one that stays with you. One of the greatest and saddest and most poignant songs of all time. I include this version, not because it's Billie Holiday singing and she wrote the thing and deserves your everlasting respect and admiration for doing so, but because of this performance. Pole dancing really is evolving into an art, and with a song that is so thoroughly art as "Strange Fruit" for her number... well... it haunted me all over again.

Now that we've covered pain and suffering, let's move to love. And the pain and suffering it entails. If you haven't listened to the Magnetic Fields triple album "69 Love Songs," you're only punishing yourself.

I leave you, at the end of this painfully incomplete and insubstantial list, with Etta James' magnum opus.


  1. It always takes me so long to comment on your posts because your choices are so thoughtful and really show me a little bit inside of your soul and that's important and worth taking the time.
    My point is, it was better that you were late because I was done with everyone else's by the time you joined.
    Your taste in music is so diverse and I have always noticed that for you it is the lyrics that grab you.
    I know I listen to a lot of music people would call candy pop of the 70's but even still, the lyrics are what I love there too.
    However Billie Holiday, the classics, they are actually in rotation almost everyday for a little while in my house. So much they are like air.
    Everyone should spend time listening to "real" music (sorry for the snobbery) because it is like poetry, it builds the brain and expands the mind.
    Thank you for always being the intellectual of the group. I appreciate every one of your posts so much.

  2. Last night I heard an amazing story about Dan Wilson on NPR, and this morning, upon reading this post, I knew I had to be sure that you heard it -- It's an amazing portrait of a great songwriter and how he views the songwriting process: http://www.npr.org/2014/04/15/303391670/perennial-co-writer-returns-with-an-album-of-his-own

    There's a transcript, but I really recommend listening to hear him talking and the music clips.

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