The Rules for Judging Music

Jun 13 2015

I read this in a review of Death Cab for Cutie’s new album:

It’s slightly unrelatable in its specificity, but the album is a testament to writing what you know, and when Gibbard sticks to specific and personal lyrics, he is at his best.

It’s a reference to the first song on the album, called “No Room in Frame” — which I think is pretty good. The reviewer seems to think it’s pretty good too and lists it as one of the album’s “essential tracks.”

But whatever. I’m not really interested in whether it’s a good song, or whether the reviewer thinks it’s a good song. What I want to know is this: Is it true that specificity in lyric writing is a quality to be avoided?

OK, so what does “specificity” mean here? The song mentions places like “Coalinga” and the “cliffs of the Palisades.” Those are specific places. I don’t know where Coalinga is (or I didn’t — I looked it up just now, and it’s a a city in Fresno County, California). I have heard of the Palisades. I haven’t been to these places. Maybe if I had been to these places I would find these references more relatable.

Is that a problem? Is that where it becomes too specific?

In the song “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Leonard Cohen mentions Clinton Street. He also mentions people like “Jane” and “Lili Marlene” — people I don’t know. Cohen has said that he actually owned a blue raincoat. I have never seen that particular blue raincoat. I do not own a blue raincoat.

And yet I have managed somehow to relate to that song.

The Death Cab song, as I interpret it, is about someone who feels pushed aside. From the chorus:

Was I in your way
When the cameras turned to face you?

That line will probably be read by fans as a reference to Gibbard’s ex-wife, Zooey Deschanel. I have never been married to a famous actress. Nor has a famous actress ever divorced me because she was only interested in fame. The chances of this ever happening in my life are exceedingly slim.

And yet I kind of do understand the emotion being expressed there. Or at least I imagine I do.

The most non-specific song I can think of at the moment is “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift. There are no place or character names in that song. There are no raincoats of any color. It is built to be vague. She is supposedly referring to an actual rift with another pop star, but there’s nothing that would qualify as detail. They used to have “mad love.” Now they have “bad blood.” They were friends and now they’re not. And no apology (“Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes”) will change that.

So is it more relatable than Gibbard’s song? I’m not asking if it’s better — I like both of those songs just fine — but does it connect more or less deeply because of its universality?

I don’t know. I don’t think so.

Maybe I just don’t understand music reviews. I remember how in an old review of Pearl Jam’s album Vs a reviewer wrote that the song “Elderly Woman …” was very good but didn’t belong on the album. I don’t know what that means. I also remember a review of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot complaining that some songs had too many repeated words. Apparently that’s a no-no.

In addition, your songs shouldn’t be too specific or else they risk being unrelatable.

I wish there was a list of these rules somewhere. That way I could be sure not to enjoy anything that fails to measure up.

(the end)