Monday, July 28, 2008

It’s only words

A friend and I were comparing how many tunes we had on our iPods the other day and we got to asking why. Of course there are decades of music we now have easy access to, but he gave the idea of volume a twist. He reckoned we need more memory today because songs have so many more words in them. Simple, intuitive and true. According to Harper’s Index, the average word count of a song during the sixties and seventies was 176 words. Last year it exploded to 436 words. Do we really have so much more to say? I know for my presentations I work with 120 words per minute as a rough guide. On that basis, the earlier songs would take roughly one and a half minutes and the new ones nearly four. Now that feels about right, but what fascinates me is that if we are as time starved as we claim, why are we attracted to songs that are longer and have so many more words? Here are a few thoughts.

• Rap rules pop music, and rap uses words as much as musical patterning as persuasion. Rappers are not trying to convince us. They want to overwhelm logical objections and arguments with waves of words, sound, music. Maybe some of the old jazz classics were long too because they used words in the same way.

• Musicians have much more control. They make their own recordings (often in their own studios), write their own songs and sometimes even control their own distribution. Trent Reznor of NIN and Radiohead come to mind. Can you imagine a producer or song writer trying to tell these guys to cut back on the lyrics!

• Digitalisation. If you’re not limited by the two sides of an album or tape, why stop?

• The attractions of storytelling. Poet song writers like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan have always let songs take the time they need, but for a lot of sixties material it was a matter of saying the same thing a few times and getting off the stage. The new generations of singers and song writers are happy to stay in the spotlight and create complex characters and stories.

One rule still applies across the decades though. If a song can’t make an emotional connection, it doesn’t matter how long it is. To say “I love you” takes only three words, however you sing it.