Great song lyrics have an ability to drill into the deep crevices of our limbic system and will happily hang out in our amygdala for years, waiting to be picked up when a particular emotional experience arises, at which point they will come belting out of our mouths in almost perfect word-for-word recitation.
What makes lyrics so memorable and pertinent is a question songwriters have been battling with for years. What is the formula that makes a lyric great?
There are numerous web pages that can help you construct lyrics (though on most of them you have to pay a fee to get any further than the title page, and not one of them will tell you anything you haven’t thought of before).
Take a look at the (free) WikiHow site, which provides 11 easy steps to achieve and “create unique and unusual lyrics that will get everyone singing”. It lists obvious advice such as involving deeply personal subject matter, writing in an accent or using – surprise, surprise – metaphors and similes.
The truth is, nobody really understands the magic and the zeitgeist that has catapulted songs such as Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, Paul McCartney’s Hey Jude or Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl into the greater public conscience.
One thing we can be sure of is that good lyrics become memorable when the words are delivered in a way that speaks directly to the listener’s ear.
I was reminded how pertinent lyrics and words are, especially in their presentation, while attending the second day of Poetry Africa last week. It featured voices from Sweden, Zimbabwe, New York, Ivory Coast and Nigeria.
Contemporary poetry is highly influenced by music and the spoken word – it rides along on a rhythm that is either global in its origin or unique to the region from where the performer hails. It was no surprise to me that I could relate to the lone American poet, Saul Williams, more than the dynamic songstress from the Ivory Coast, Were Liking.
It was all due to the delivery. Whereas I couldn’t connect to the manic pageantry of Liking, feeling as if I was watching a bootlegged televised pantomime from the 1980s on full volume with English subtitles provided by a Chinese translator, I could associate profoundly with the deep resonate flows of Williams and his bohemian wanderlust ramblings.
The choice of words, slang, melody and rhythm of hip hop Williams incorporated in his delivery made his verse appeal to me.
Though Williams and I are from opposite sides of the planet, we share a global popular youth culture aesthetic through our fashions, our music, our technology and our politics – so when he speaks I listen, and I remember because I can understand.
Eminem is a great case in point. His words speak to a particular generation while another sits in bewilderment at what all the fuss is about. Mr Marshall Mathers’s aggressive style and use of metaphor-heavy lyrics, delivered in a seamless flow of multiple syllables that take your breath away, has had suburban kids laughing their faces off while subconsciously appreciating that the poetry is cool.
Teenagers appreciated his robust honesty, his energetic style and his taking the mickey out of cultural monoliths that they identified with while their parents didn’t.
A generation before Eminem, around 1986, Rakim Allah was heralded as the pioneer of this multisyllabic style.
Rakim’s influence on new generations of passionate lyricists, ready to take their word play and story to the world, is huge. Through his simple stories of life on the bread line mixed with expressive and heartfelt energy and pioneering multisyllabic style, used by Eminem among many others, he’s the best of both worlds – easy to understand with enough cryptograms snuck in to keep you listening fresh for years.
However, though their delivery is similar, timing is everything. Eminem comes fresh into the 20th century, a world propagated by youth culture and MTV.
Where comfortable college-bound kids do not understand the hardship endured by rappers like Rakim, they can understand the frustrations of Eminem – the dire worship of celebrity that has his middle finger perpetually flipped up.
Through Eminem’s delivery style and associations with old-school hip hop though, they soon learn about Rakim and so the delivery perpetuates the verse and the cycle will soon begin again for the next generation.
Hip hop rules contemporary music. Its influence is everywhere from pop songstress collaborations with the new “it” rapper on the block to EDM dance floor hits. I’d be surprised to meet anyone in their 30s who couldn’t quote me a line from an NWA song or who didn’t know who Jay Z is.
For now, hip hop’s our tongue, a hard, fast-talking reflection on what it’s like to be young and living in an even harder and faster world.