It’s only words, but words are all we have to take your heart away

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion -

IT’S A truth not uni­ver­sally ac­knowl­edged. Most peo­ple will tell you, quot­ing some spu­ri­ous study, that by far and away the most searched-for term on the in­ter­net is “sex”, fol­lowed by all the end­less vari­a­tions and per­mu­ta­tions thereof. But what all these end-of-year “most searched for” polls (ag­gre­gated from a num­ber of pop­u­lar search en­gines) ac­tu­ally show is that – and it’s a big sur­prise – “lyrics” is the most pop­u­lar search.

You’d think only anoraks and de­mented teenage fan­boys would be search­ing for the ex­act words to any given song, but ap­par­ently ev­ery­one is at it, in mas­sive num­bers. No one can quite un­der­stand why, but there are pos­si­ble rea­sons aplenty.

The dom­i­nance of the MP3 file (which, un­like vinyl and CDs, doesn’t con­tain the lyrics) means that, even with Auto-Tune smooth­ing the vo­cals out, a whole new gen­er­a­tion is clue­less about what is ac­tu­ally be­ing sung. There’s the fact that newer artists such as Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga have ob­ses­sive “I need to know ev­ery sin­gle thing about this per­son” fan bases. There is the “I want to sing along and up­load a funny video of me do­ing so on YouTube” bri­gade. There’s also sim­ply more mu­sic ev­ery­where, from video games to ad­ver­tise­ments to so­cial net­work­ing sites to mo­bile phone apps.

Per­haps most im­por­tantly is the rise of shows such as The X Fac­tor, Glee and Amer­i­can Idol, which have in­tro­duced mil­lions of new fans to the power of songs.

It’s not your whey-faced in­die types are por­ing over Belle and Se­bas­tian lyrics. Of the 300 mil­lion vis­i­tors a month to in­ter­net lyric sites, most are clus­ter­ing around a small group of con­tem­po­rary artists: Bieber, Gaga, Eminem, Tay­lor Swift, Shakira. It’s no co­in­ci­dence that fans of these artists com­monly dis­play an em­pa­thy and con­nec­tion with the mu­sic over and above what you nor­mally see in the rock mu­sic world.

There’s a salu­tary les­son (some­where) in the fact that, of all the so­cial, po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic, spir­i­tual etc in­for­ma­tion now at our im­me­di­ate dis­posal, one of the most searched-for items of 2010 was the lyrics to Bieber’s Baby. And quite a rev­e­la­tion it is too: “I was like, baby, baby, baby, oh/Like baby, baby, baby, no/Like baby, baby, baby, oh/ I thought you’d al­ways be mine, mine.” (It’s the dra­matic and un­ex­pected rep­e­ti­tion of “mine” at the end that does it for me. ) Not that far off was the search for the lyrics to Gaga’s Ale­jan­dro: “Ale­jan­dro/Ale­jan­dro/Ale-Ale­Jan­dro/Ale-Ale-Jan­dro (x2)”.

There was at least some­thing of sub­stance in an­other huge search: the words to Swift’s Dear John. The song was not a mas­sive hit, but mil­lions were pre­sum­ably drawn to find out the lyrics be­cause it was about Swift’s ex-boyfriend, the mu­si­cian John Mayer: “Dear John, I see it all now that you’re gone/ Don’t you think I was too young to be messed with/The girl in the dress cried the whole way home/ I should’ve known.” Which reads like Jane Austen com­pared to the other two above.

Leav­ing aside in­di­vid­ual songs, per­haps the most searched-for artist (lyrics-wise) was Eminem, as in­deed he has been for the past num­ber of years. Be­cause of a new al­bum and his break­out hit with Ri­hanna ( Love the Way You Lie), Eminem searches have ex­ploded in the past three months. And de­spite all the front and the con­tro­versy, he re­mains one of the best lyri­cists at work to­day. It wasn’t for noth­ing that Sea­mus Heaney once lauded Eminem’s “sub­ver­sive at­ti­tude and ver­bal en­ergy” and noted that “he has sent a volt­age around a gen­er­a­tion”.

Still, Mar­shall Mathers not­with­stand­ing, there’s a ter­ri­ble irony in the fact that “lyrics” has be­come the most searched-for term at a time when the craft of song­writ­ing is at an all-time low. It seems like the whole r’n’b genre is in­ca­pable of com­ing up with a mem­o­rable lyric, while hip-hop can veer from sub­lime (rare) to pa­thetic and ridicu­lous (com­mon).

Is there any­thing at all from the past five years – even from the rock-in­die spec­trum – that has the im­pact and stay­ing power of an Eton Ri­fles or Up the Junc­tion? I’m think­ing, like, baby-baby-oh, baby-baby-no there isn’t.

Baby love: Bieber breaks the lyrics

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