Louder Than the Beat

by Robine Jean-Pierre

You hear a song playing on the radio. You start humming along and nodding your head, and your friend who notices says, “Oh, you know this song?” You recognize it as a song that’s been on every station, every hour, for weeks now, so you reply “yes.” But when he or she asks, “What’s it called again?” you are embarrassed to realize not only that you do not know the title, but that you don’t know any of the words either. Does this sound familiar?

This is the tragedy that has especially befallen our generation. Tragedy might seem too strong a term, but as I may have made clear in previous blog posts, I take words very seriously. I live by the maxim “my word is my worth and my worth is my word.” I give music the same value, so when you put the two together, I have very high expectations for songs. This is why I am appalled by how oblivious people can be to song lyrics.

Let’s indulge ourselves for a moment and consider the following examples: I have heard Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” played at the funeral of my family-friend’s mother, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on at least one Christian gospel album, “Say Something” by A Great Big World at my high school prom, “I’m in Love with the CoCo” by O.T. Genasis at an elementary school block party, and most recently, Rihanna’s “Kiss It Better” played at a sweet sixteen. These are just a few of the scenarios where the songs did not match the occasion at all. I can imagine what the DJs might have been thinking when they made these selections. However, I’ll explain why each was an inappropriate match-up.

Only one or two lines in the chorus of Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” are suitable for a funeral: “Oh won’t you stay with me? / ‘cause you’re all I need.” This is something you might wish you could say to a loved one you just lost. Take the first verse, however (“Guess it’s true, I’m not good at a one-night stand”), and that should make the context of the song clear.

I have seen way too many people mistake Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for a gospel song, which is so unfortunate. Hallelujah does mean “Praise the Lord” but the only thing being praised in this song is sex, not God. In short, it is filled with disturbing sexual references hidden behind Biblical allusions (such as King David and Bathsheba in the first two verses).

In terms of music alone, “Say Something” by A Great Big World might sound like the perfect slow dance, but I would hope that the words “I’m giving up on you” and “you’re the one that I love / and I’m saying goodbye” are far from what you would want to say to your lover or date on prom night.

On the surface, “I’m in Love with the CoCo” by O.T. Genasis is a catchy and funny sounding song. Nevertheless, it ultimately promotes cocaine addiction. I don’t see how drugs and kids go together, ever. Someone just wasn’t thinking straight at that block party.

As for Rihanna’s “Kiss It Better,” this was one of too many songs played at a sweet sixteen that would have better suited a strip club or someone’s bedroom.

The DJs in each case must have given precedence to the musical components, as in the rhythm or melody, rather than the lyrical components of the songs, and that is where things often take a bad turn. They did not consider who would be present or what the overall purpose of the gathering was. They just wanted something that people could “bump” to or “turn up” to and that was it.

Music is not just about the beat; if it were, why have lyrics at all? Why not just make instrumentals? The truth is, music is such a powerful force, one that can be used for good or evil. Without getting into detail on the moral component, every song has a message to get across or a mood to express. If we can mindlessly play, sing, or dance to certain songs without acknowledging the message they are conveying, that just goes to show how clueless, vulnerable, and unsophisticated we can be.

To me, there is something beautiful about choosing the right embellishments for the right occasion–the decor, dress code and especially the music all contribute to creating the perfect atmosphere. This stylistic decision-making, practiced by many wedding and party planners, is an art in itself. My hope is that people will value it more, and that lyricism will not become a lost art.

2 thoughts on “Louder Than the Beat

  1. There are some songs that I love because of their lyrics and others hate because it’s “whack” and “overplayed.” But lyrics are so powerful and the poetry of them makes me relate to a song even more. So, the other way s also quite true in which people knock on a song for its rhythm but totally disregard its meaning. Like country music. I am not the biggest fan, especially since its a genre that started as a place to express the toll of the hardship of the agrarian lifestyle but is now trashed by pick up trucks and beer. But a truly amazing country song tells a story about heartbreak and betrayal or trying to work to something better. So in a way, its similar to rap music.

    But I’m just going on a tangent now. I apologize! I loved this post and it totally hit home!

    • I appreciate the tangent either way, Pebbles. 🙂 I didn’t even think of that side of things, the songs that have hidden beauty in the lyrics but get overlooked. It’s funny because in almost every circle I’ve found myself in, country music has been considered twangy and annoying. I don’t listen to it much, yet I love the richness of the harmonies and instrumentation often found in them, especially country gospel songs. And as for the lyrics, aside from the beer-and-pick-up truck variety, they always tell such amazing stories like you said! I think we need to be more patient and dig deeper than just the initial melody or sound of any song.

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