Whalen: Vocals, lyrics may be most important part in a song

Local musicians say “relatability” shouldn’t be forced when writing.

JaredWhalenPeople listen to music for different reasons. Some relish in a catchy guitar riff while others live for a pounding bass line, and many lose themselves playing air drums like John Bonham.

But something that can set a song apart is the vocals. Lyrics, or poems put to music as some would put it, are varied like anything else.

Good lyrics are what makes you sing along louder than necessary while driving or what gets a chorus stuck in your head for hours at a time.

The power of vocals can be felt whenever a lyric sends chills down your spine, or when a listener is taken aback by a crowd singing – or yelling – along with a vocalist.

In the local music scene, lyrics play an important role. Without sounding too against the corporate music industry, it’s obvious that indie artists have more freedom with what they can say than would a Top 40 artist. Whether it’s to speak out on a sensitive topic or to sing about seemingly nothing, many indie artists use that freedom strongly.

And since Philadelphians are known for speaking their mind, why would their musicians be any different?

Take Rob Blackwell of the pop-punk band Reward. Blackwell, a media studies and production major at Temple, admits that he isn’t writing his lyrics to be profound, just honest.

“Forced ‘relatability’ really annoys me, so it influences me to write very self-centered songs,” Blackwell said. “It makes me want to do everything for myself. I’m not a person going through anything unique, so I feel like pure expression of my situation will be more relatable than just name dropping Jimmy Eat World or something.”

For Blackwell, lyrics are a product of influence.

“I take a lot out of just people expressing themselves,” Blackwell said. “I just look at bands I like and see how much they put into what they’re saying. Someone putting it on the line really gets me excited about how important and special music, grade, you can relate to a specifically lyric writing, is as an art.”

Another lyricist of note is Justin Harrison, former vocalist of the now defunct progressive hardcore band Trophy Wife. Known for lengthy lines of prose painted in wide brush strokes of abstract symbolism, Harrison takes a different approach in his lyric writing.

“Every song is formed differently,” Harrison said. “I often freewrite about things that happen in or around my life for therapeutic purposes. It makes for a great coping mechanism, and most of the time parts of these poems become parts of songs. My dreams also make their way into my poems. They leave me with questions you can hear throughout a lot of my songs. Occasionally a poem may be my response to a question from my dreams.”

When listening to Trophy Wife, it makes sense that some of the lyrics may be dream-inspired. But just because it’s fitting doesn’t mean it goes without scrutiny.

“I think this style intrigues a lot of people,” Harrison said. “I also think this comes off ‘too abstract about specific things’ or ‘not relatable’ to some people. I understand their reasoning for thinking this way. I don’t always know what I’m talking about when I’m just writing things out. It’s just an experiment at how it will sound.”

Whether they come as concrete depictions of the human experience or as intangible metaphors wrapped up in word pictures, lyrics ultimately end up in the ears and minds of listeners. No matter how direct the initial message may be, there is always room for interpretation.

“What makes music special is that once a song is released into the world, it isn’t the artist’s anymore,” Blackwell said. “They have their own stories and meaning attached to it just like everyone who listened to it does. A song about stress in college could help someone get over a breakup. Meaning is totally dependent on the listener.”

Most vocalists I’ve talked to feel this way. While they may have have had an agenda when writing them, they can’t control, nor would they want to, how people interpret their lyrics.

“How people interpret my lyrics doesn’t hold much importance to me,” Harrison said. “I just want them to know how they interpret it themselves.”

In the end, it’s in the hands of the listener. Perhaps that’s why we have such a strong attraction to lyrics. Everyone can relate to them because they can choose their meaning.

So whether the lyrics are angry and frustrated or obnoxiously positive, the listener can apply them however he or she pleases. Luckily for us, Philly has some good music for us to discover and decipher. Get listening.

Jared Whalen can be reached at jared.whalen@temple.edu.

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