In Hal Hartley's movie, Henry Fool, the Vatican issues a statement in which it promises to pray for today's youth, who are being corrupted by the "the illusion of conviction offered by rock music, drugs, and contemporary poetry."
And while that may be a joke, I would have to ask, what's the difference between contemporary poetry and rock and roll? Rock lyrics are the most popular form of contemporary poetry, drunk with the power and the glory that once was poetry's private property. Today you can quote Will Smith before Wordsworth. In previous centuries, the second sons of the aristocracy became clergymen, while the first-born became lousy poets. The better of them, like Lord Byron, retained notoriety past his 19th-century-regency milieu. But I'll give you better than even money that Byron wasn't stringing words together for posterity as much as he was stringing along a corseted posterior. You're so vain, I bet you think this ode is about you. Poetry is a time-tested chick magnet. Even Baudelaire, a syphilitic lech whose muse was a ho, got plenty. But straight-ahead poetry became poofy (damn Leaves of Grass!), and the ladies fell for the new leaders of the pack. For sheer volume, not to mention quality, in the 20th century, the rock stars got the babes.
Let's clarify what I mean when I talk about rock stars. I mean every man under 40. In a brief history of time, a cultural footnote might read: "In the last half of the 20th century, it was understood that Caucasian boys across socioeconomic classes and regardless of rural, suburban, or urban background, would at some point be in a rock band, or at least play guitar in a coffeehouse or at an open mic." In other words, next time you're having trouble sleeping, count boys with guitar cases strutting down Pine Street.
Too many musicians, too much competition. How do you stand out? What can you do that's new? Got to weed out, whittle away, downscale. So rock stars, as mercurial and adaptable as they are slothful, have done away with lyrics for the new century. Lyrics are so over. That chorus is so '99. For the new millennium -- the aughts, the oh-ohs, the virtual age, the cut-your-own-edge age -- you can finally tell your "primary lyricist" to fuck off. What do you call a lead singer without a girlfriend? Homeless. Ha ha. What do you call a lead singer in 2000? Unemployed. Ouch.
In the same way that poetry lost its stranglehold on culture, lyrics have gone flaccid. How many times can you hear "I love you baby" before it goes in one ear and out the other? By now, you know that when someone sings, "I've got to find" that the next line will be, "my peace of mind." Better peace of mind than a piece of their mind, which most lyricists can ill afford to spare. Song lyrics are overwhelmingly predictable and rote, to the point where they hardly matter. Witness the willingness of songwriters to make up words. "And after all, you're my wonderwall." Gee thanks, Oasis, but what on earth does that mean? I've heard of the Wailing Wall, Pink Floyd's The Wall, and the Great Wall of China, but I've got to wonder what a wonderwall is. My theory is that it's all it has to be: three syllables that end in "all," and anyone who hears that would be pretty happy with it. Meaning is superfluous, a lyrical luxury. Hey, you can get some satisfaction! Just lower your standards. If you expect nothing from lyricists, you'll quickly grow inured to the pabulum they spew. And if a band expects nothing from the lyricist, eventually they'll write songs without words.
It's happened that way before. The great rock instrumentals of surf music -- the Ventures' "Walk, Don't Run," and "Wipe Out" -- conveyed physical action without resorting to the elementary and yet still fundamentally flawed logic of, "If everybody had a surfboard, across the USA, then everybody'd be surfin', like Californ-i-a." The limitations of lyrics are obvious. The song's meter didn't allow them to create a sound semantic argument (if everybody in America had a surfboard, and an ocean with monster waves, and a decent sense of balance, and no physical disabilities, and maybe not everyone...), so they wrote kinda wimpy lyrics -- but man, the tune said it all! The music was engaging as all hell, practically interactive, but add vocals and suddenly all the energy was sucked down to a man with a mic. Whereas before you were part of the action of the song, you're now a passive observer of the lead singer.
Why are bands today abandoning lyrics? There's a deceptively simple answer, which you can discover by replacing the object; imagine five years ago asking, "Why are bands abandoning grunge?" or 20 years ago asking, "Why are bands abandoning punk?" and the answer becomes manifest. Lyrics are played out, in the same way that other musical trends get played out.
And who couldn't see this coming? Isn't it ironic that ironic lyrics should herald the death of lyrics? Let's think about good old Pavement for a minute. They wrote songs mocking the writing of songs. Their indie-rock standard screed, "Cut Your Hair," while far from their greatest moment, may turn out to have been their most prescient. "Songs mean a lot, when songs are bought, and so are you." This was irony, and well done, I might add (after all, you bought the record). Yet through no fault of their own, their excellence has made them responsible for a legion of poor imitations; bands writing about irony when they don't actually know what it is. Rain on your wedding day isn't irony, it's shit luck. When even winking lyrics are predictable, when irony loses its grip, when you can't even write lyrics making fun of writing lyrics anymore, what's left for the rebels? Where do we go from here?
We know there's no such thing as the present -- you're not in it now; nor are you in it now; and you're not even in it now. (Director Mike Leigh taught us that.) As soon as you read it, it's the past, so there's no shame or new age shamanism in talking about the future, and right now the future of rock has no verse, chorus, or refrain. Don't you feel giddy, as if the training wheels are finally off and Dad's not holding the back of the banana seat? There's no net anymore. One more metaphor: "I'm as free as a bird now." If you can't make your meaning clear with the music, you're fucked. Isn't that great?
There are an infinite number of combinations of notes and chords in music. There are also an infinite number of possible lyrics (especially when you make up words). But not all of them will sound good, and when you factor in beat, melody, harmony, and three to six instruments, each doing something different -- ask any self-respecting math rocker and he'll tell you -- some infinities are bigger than others (and some infinities' mothers are bigger than other infinities' mothers). Speaking purely statistically, there's a better chance that your music will be more compelling than your lyrics. It gets harder every year to hear quality original lyrics; and why not, when you're up against "Tangled up in Blue," "Across the Universe," "Anarchy in the U.K.," or even "It's the End of the World as We Know It"? Besides, we all know that the best living lyricist was homegrown right here in the lonesome crowded West (Isaac Brock, come on down!). There's a handful of rock bands that should keep writing, and the rest can shut up and play. From now on, you're smarter with your mouths closed.
But enough of the lyric-bashing. There's a purity to songs without words that's refreshingly modern. In the same way that different movies have imagined the future -- 2001 was sanitary, spare, immaculately white, and crisply efficient, while Blade Runner was smokily ferrous, narrow, and vertiginous -- instrumental rock bands have imagined a future music that's appealingly direct, yet says no words. It's music from the strong, silent type, except of course, that the sounds speak volumes. The music is communicating on a subfrequency. "Ground Control to Major Tom" sounds positively antique.
By stripping away the conventions of verse-chorus, A-B-A constructions, instrumental rock songs invite new modes of listening. In the 20th century, maybe you had the time to wait until the chorus for the hook, but not anymore. We're busy-busy-busy, we're e-busy, we're multi-tasking, we're walking and chewing gum, and music has to grab you -- now. Patience is a virtue but immediacy is virtual. And the instrumental rock song does that exactly. You don't have to wait for it to start.
Do you know what some people say about rock songs without lyrics? They say rock songs without lyrics are boring. But we just laugh at these 20th-century people with their 20th-century concerns, customs, and criticisms, don't we? Who's bored by our very own Kinski? Not forward-thinkers. Kinski may do many things -- they'll transform an innocuous drone into a lugubrious swarm at the drop of a hat; they'll turn on a dime from wan repetition to succulent, undulating bravado -- but they won't bore you. "Most of the time, there just doesn't seem to be room for lyrics. The music is doing enough. Lyrics would just get in the way," says Kinski's Chris Martin. "Listening to Krautrock and electronic stuff in the last couple years has certainly put me in the mindset of wanting to make music that is expansive and spacy. Straight vocals seem to bring you back to reality."
Kinski bassist Lucy Atkinson adds, "The music should bring your mind somewhere on its own.... People can make their own meaning, or not at all."
Or try to get bored by the Turing Machine (Jade Tree), whose instrumental emo is the rough equivalent of eight hours of sleep, three double espressos (in an hour), and the over-the-counter, ephedrine-loaded antihistamine of your choice. That is to say, no shoe gazing here. Without resorting to the naive modernism that anticipates an automated music of blips and beeps, instrumental rock removes the limitations of verbal context and, liberated from a time marked by language, rockets forward.
Again, it's not the first time in the history of music that singers have lost a voice. In fact, lyrics as we know them are a 20th-century fad. There's something to be said for timing, no? Along with more established instrumental rock bands like Mogwai and Don Caballero, these bands are making difficult, personal, evocative music without resorting to prosaic prose, in a time when lyrics are being recycled more enthusiastically than corrugated cardboard. And it sounds, well, if not original, at least earnest. Coming on the heels of the last 10 years of rock, sincerity is shockingly modern. It flies in the face of post-modern irony and ennui, rebelling against apathy. How can you move forward if you care about nothing? As Brock said, "Every time you think you're walking, you're just moving the ground."
In the past, art has imagined the music of the future as wordless. It's as if humankind anticipated that at some point, words could fail to say what needed to be expressed. And between globalization and the onrushing reality that there may come a time when "universal" could include the actual universe, the ability of instrumental rock to convey meaning without language is to be welcomed. After all, singers can have really annoying voices.