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The Language of Lyrics

Jan 29, 2020
Music has a profound power over us, and while this isn’t always easy to understand, some of this power can be attributed to the way lyrics often reflect the world around us. And as times, people and the world change, so do these words.

A musical mirror:
Looking more broadly at language as a whole, we see that the way we speak is often dictated by our environment – and this of course influences the creation of music. This sentiment is excellently put by, O’Shea Jackson Jr. in 2015’s Straight Outta Compton’ – the biographical drama about NWA’s rise and fall: 
Ice Cube Quote
This is particularly apt, as during in L.A. in the late 80s, reality for the members of the notorious rap group involved regular harassment from police. Many of Ice Cube’s anti-establishment lyrics were vilified in the eyes of the general public – but these lyrics spoke to the oppressed black and minority listeners who looked up to Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E et al., and gave them a sense of belonging. It’s in this way that the language of lyrics can inform public opinion, for better or worse, and create commonplace ideas and speech that gets used to this day.

A loss of innocence:
Studies have shown that over the last forty or so years, profanity and themes of violence in lyrics we have skyrocketed – with the sharpest increase by far coming between 2010 and the present day. This rise of popularity for the profane seems to point to growing social unrest over this period – and one artist in particular comes to mind here. Tyler Okonma’s lyrics – more commonly known as Tyler, The Creator – have been widely condemned since he burst onto the scene in 2009, but despite this, his album ‘Igor’ debuted at number one in the Billboard 200 album chart. If we look at the same week forty years earlier, we see Supertramp’s 1979 smash-hit ‘Breakfast in America’ – with the lead single, ‘The Logical Song’ that starts on a more idyllic notion. ‘When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful / a miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical’ sings Rodger Hodgson, reminiscing on the easier times of his youth. Comparing this to Tyler, The Creator’s lyrics that deal with the reality of his present – such as his infamous line ‘kill people, burn sh*t, f*ck school’ – there’s a clear link between modernity and indecency.
Tyler the creator image
What’s interesting is that in this forty year period, the number of songs using profanity and bad language hasn’t risen too much – it’s the number of bad words per song that’s shot up, from roughly 300 recorded uses of bad language in ’79 to nearly 2500 in 2018. As modern audiences have become hardened, it seems to take more shocking content to really speak to them – and that’s a fairly universal idea across male and female artists today, although it hasn’t always been that way.

Closing the gap:
One week in April 1967 saw the release of two truly seminal singles, Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ and ‘Light My Fire’ by The Doors. Both are widely regarded as timeless classics – but the differences in lyricism and message between the two are striking. Franklin’s song is a female empowerment anthem, and promotes a healthy relationship between a woman and her partner. In many ways, it was ahead of its time – but it also plays into the stereotype that female artists are historically far more likely than male artists to reference dating and love in their songs. ‘Light My Fire’ has a more ambiguous meaning, but drugs, sex and delinquency in general are heavily implied in the lyrics. This difference makes sense for the time, as the social landscape of the 60s was considerably more conservative – and whilst Jim Morrison & Co’s song was wildly popular, the same words being written by a woman was almost unthinkable.

Contrasting this with the music of 2020, we see much more crossover in themes across the genders. Not only have we seen a sharp increase in profanity in general, but female artists are now nearly as likely as their male counterparts to sing about sex and vulgarity as opposed to just relationships and love. This is a positive sign for female artists, as it means we’ve come a long way since the close-minded gender expectations of the 60s – but it could be said that this closing of the gap is further fuelling the trend for the profane.
profanity image
When you take a second to really listen to what’s being said in your favourite songs, you’ll open up a whole host of things consider. This goes for language in general, and it’s particularly resonant in marketing. Even more so than in music, the language of a business – whether it’s a full-scale advertising campaign or a company website – should speak to the consumer, and it will do this by reflecting the world and the time we’re living in. This doesn’t mean we can expect to see marketing messages packed with profanities, but to create a message that really connects with the audience, more and more attention should be paid to the language we’re using.