I decided to write my semester presentation on the way that certain songs have underlying meanings behind their lyrics. This is a trend that I have seen in a lot of songs of various genres but Rock sort of takes the cake on the ones that have gained popularity over the last several years. This type of music really intrigues me because I think back to how the song was written and some of the intended affects that were desired by the artist. It really shows creativity that goes into writing each song and makes you appreciate the tedious process that artists go through composing their music. Interpretations of songs can be broken down into three basic variations: lyrics that are meant to be understood straight up how they appear, lyrics that have euphemisms or underlying allusions to things and lyrics that are open to interpretation and have no concise meaning. The idea of understanding lyrics completely has fascinated me since I pretty much started listening to music. It of course started with rap, trying to understand the often fast pace word play of most lyricists. But grew to Rock and Roll and Pop songs as my taste of music expanded. Apps like AZLyrics and MetroLyrics were frequent on my web history as I was always curious as to what artists were saying. Today, the website Genius features lyrics from all varieties of genres and includes annotations to what the lyrics mean. There are even verified annotations where artists themselves post what they meant to clear up any speculations and establish a set explanation. This concept of fully understanding the meaning behinds songs can be a science in itself because of the vast amount of artists there are with their own unique writing style. I decided to analyze three of my personal favorite songs that I know have a history of people debating the lyrics over. I chose three songs that fall under each of the previously mentioned categories of lyrical understanding to demonstrate what I mean and why I chose them.
The first song I chose was Pumped Up Kicks by Foster the People which fell into my categorization of songs where the lyrics were understood directly. The song was released in 2011 by the Los Angeles indie-rock band as their debut single. The song was met by immediate criticism because the lyrics alluded to a young kid who has his hands on a gun and might be looking to go after some other children. The lyrics to the first verse are the introduction to what was later revealed as a whole story about the mind of a troubled psychotic kid.
“Robert’s got a quick hand
He’ll look around the room, he won’t tell you his plan
He’s got a rolled cigarette, hanging out his mouth he’s a cowboy kid
Yeah found a six shooter gun
In his dad’s closet hidden oh in a box of fun things, I don’t even know what
But he’s coming for you, yeah he’s coming for you”
The song then enters its chorus where it proceeds to repeat: “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks, You’d better run, better run, out run my gun”. ‘Pumped up kicks’ refers to a sneaker made by Reebok in the 90’s that were quite popular among teens and were also pretty expensive. Although the song are dark we know the story behind the lyrics because the writer, Mark Foster, did multiple interviews where he explained his thought process. Mark says: “‘Pumped Up Kicks’ is about a kid that basically is losing his mind and is plotting revenge. He’s an outcast. I feel like the youth in our culture are becoming more and more isolated. It’s kind of an epidemic. Instead of writing about victims and some tragedy, I wanted to get into the killer’s mind, like Truman Capote did in In Cold Blood. I love to write about characters. That’s my style. I really like to get inside the heads of other people and try to walk in their shoes.”(Spinner UK). Any doubts of what the song could have been about or possibilities of who it could be about are erased because the composer explained the meaning of his lyrics. The melodic component of the song adds to the way the lyrics are interpreted by us, the listener. Notice how the pitch of the chorus and even the bridges are different from normal pop songs. The vocals are a little muffled and give a unique sound to the way everything sounds. This writing style is what most artists seem to go with because they have a clear cut idea of what their song is going to be about. The overall style of writing is how most musical compositions have also been throughout history. Composers have usually favored keeping clear and concise lyrics for the purpose of the audience understanding and enjoying their piece to the fullest degree.
Chocolate by The 1975
The next song I chose to analyze is Chocolate by The 1975 and it falls under the category of lyrics that are somewhat hidden or allude to a different meaning. The song by another indi-rock group and features a similar upbeat style that the previous song shared. I first encountered the song on Guitar Hero a while back and was fascinated by the ‘grooviness’ of the beat and the unique sound of the main vocal. I played and listened to the song a few times before I mustered up the curiosity to look up what the lyrics were. Before I could really look up what the whole song was about I put it on one day with my friend and he turns to me and says that the whole song is about smoking marijuana. I looked back at him with a puzzling look. He then told me to re-listen to the song but every time the singer says chocolate replace it with any euphemism for weed. Lets take a look below:
“Now we run run away from the boys in the blue,
and my car smells like chocolate”
And later again:
“Oh my hair smells like chocolate
Hey now you say you’re gunna’ quit it but you’re never gunna’ quit it”
Overall I think its hilarious that song lyrics can be funny in this way by portraying a certain meaning while also holding this secret that no one can know of. Looking back at the lyrics after, it seemed kind of obvious what he was talking about but just knowing that the whole song is about that but called chocolate is a funny thought. Although there isn’t an interview anywhere where the writers of the song confirm the meaning behind the allusion, some argue that it is just a generalization about drugs and the lifestyle behind them. Chocolate can be a reference to how addictive certain drugs can be and how hard it can be quitting that lifestyle. Either way, I love the song and how the fast pace of the meter puts the listener in a jolly mood. The writing style of certain composers that wrote in different languages can be compared to this structure of lyrics. Plays that were written in different dialects and tones were often misinterpreted by translators or had their meanings skewed.
Finally, the last song I chose to analyze was Stairway To Heaven by Led Zeppelin. This song is the center of a lot of controversy over what exactly the lyrics are about. The song is arguably the greatest rock songs of all time but was never among the top charts on billboards because it was never released as a single. The song, like other rock classics like “Hotel California” by The Eagles, have multiple theories of what their meanings are about, some that are viable and others that have much deeper and darker fictitious origins. The song features a slow metric composition with a melody that almost sounds mystic in nature. Each progression of the song increases the tempo as more instruments are incorporated. Many lyrics can be analyzed to understand what the Stairway to Heaven is and many of them are just vague enough to understand without the help of the crazy fan theories. Keep in mind, there were rumors about the song having a backwards subliminal message alluding to satanic worship which made these lyrics seem even darker than they already were.
“There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven”
There’s a feeling I get
When I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving
In my thoughts I have seen
Rings of smoke through the trees
And the voices of those who standing looking
These lyrics are not only vague but with the background of knowing their might be some underlying meaning behind makes them a little more deep. Who is the lady that is being mentioned? What is this metaphorical stairway to heaven? Death and the afterlife is something that is predominately discussed when analyzing the meaning behind this song but I believe there is something deeper that was purposely left for us to interpret on our own. Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin stated that “Depending on what day it is, I still interpret the song a different way – and I wrote the lyrics.” He also added that the woman in the beginning is “a woman getting everything she wanted without giving anything back.”(Plant). These are examples of how artists often compose music that they are even unclear about. The improvisation of lyrics and meanings to flow with songs is a concept that is revisited many times in music culture. Often times artists leave the interpreting aspect to the listeners because it gives a fresh and unique opinion on the comprehension of certain lyrics. This particular case is interesting because the song has been around since the 70’s and has given us time to think up countless theories on what it can be about which is something that is truly fascinating. I included the live performance of the song because it is truly the only way to witness Robert Plant’s talent and the way he performs the song in an almost story telling way. The guitar solo is absolutely amazing and was probably one of the coolest things to witness live.
Upon analyzing these three songs and the writing process that the artists may have gone through it is evident how important musical composition is. It is the lyrics themselves that seem to flow so effortlessly with most artists’ melodies and musical style so it was interesting to be able to analyze the thought provoking lyrics behind them. Musical composition is a skillful talent and to be able to manipulate stories through simple tonic progression and tempo control is truly fascinating. Music will always continue to fascinate me because artists as creative minds have yet to stop creating unique ways of exploring the world of music. Whether its the words that are left open to interpretation or the ones meant to be understood, I hope that lyrical comprehension and story telling lives on in artists of future generations because it is a characteristic of music that has helped creative composers thrive.