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