Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Voice of the People - lyrics of Depeche, Human League, New Order, eurohouse & the Smiths and 80s/90s Eastern Europe

[extended version on my entry in the 'Words' #352 issue of The Wire, 'Babble On!' on the 'shitty lyrics']

“People are people so why should it be/you and I should get along so awfully. To this day Depeche Mode fans are not exactly sure what Martin Gore meant by this lyric. But as with many other Depeche songs, this terminally clumsy attempt at significance wasn’t an obstacle to the contagious popularity of “People Are People”. It's a lot like life - that's their statement on Sado-masochist practices. In Jeremy Deller’s documentary The Posters Came From the Walls, on the phenomenon of the band's international fandom, fans speak nostalgically of forming squads more solid than in the army. We hear one Russian fan stating that “We’re Depechists the same way other people were Communists, or Fascists!” That’s motivation.

The power of Depeche Mode’s lyrics lay in a perfect combination of vagueness and a resemblance to agitprop, ending up somewhere between the political sloganeering of the falling Communist bloc and the promises of the Big Capital offered by the West. It was a formula that hordes of young people from both sides of the Wall, raised among Cold War paranoia, understood almost subliminally. Over this, they formed a perfect union, which remained stronger than the politically induced unifications after the Wall has fallen. Depeche could appeal to both Soviet Bloc and America, because aesthetically and lyrically they consciously flirted with both sides of the Curtain: heavy industry, Red Army, red stars, looming nuclear catastrophy and Potemkineqsue battleships for one side and lust, orgies, stock market, Eastern Tigers, money, high contracts and cocaine binges for the other.

Usually heavy-handed, staggeringly literal, simplistic—even didactic, given how often the crime must immediately meet its punishment, the lyrics of Martin Gore always hit upon something, touch us somewhere, always move. However you look at the following lyric, it can’t possibly pass as good: “There's no turning back/The turning point of a career/In Korea/Being insincere” (from  “Everything Counts”). Around Music for the Masses they achieved their trademark anthemic, grandiose style, perfected on songs like “Stripped” or “Never Let Me Down Again”, and then the tortured, synthetic, smoky blues of “Personal Jesus” and “I Feel You”. Enjoy The Silence is their manifesto, the famous lyrics are DM in a nutshell: “words are very unnecessary”, “feelings are intense, words are trivial.” They based the rest of their career solely on the intensification of this, while endlessly vaguely dwelling on the dialectics of sex, sin, atonement and the final release. That’s also the reason they’re a tough writerly topic—how long we can focus on the endless permutations of violence, sex and punishment? Writing on Depeche, one is challenged to participate in this collective emotion.

Yet, in the strange and fantastic world of pop music, words such as these can convey more than avant-garde poets could dream of. We often say lyrics are crap not seeing the special place they have in the history of the valuation of the spoken word. That is, the pop lyric is a perfect example of 20th century folk art. If after pop art, everything could be important for 15 minutes, the pop lyric makes sense only during the provisional three minutes of a single. The words hold meaning within the context of this magical moment, and nowhere else. It’s a metaphorical space of transformation, where temporary unions and associations can form. A pop utopia.

Sometimes a lyric is saved by the personality and charisma of the singer. Phil Oakey from The Human League achieved a new benchmark of crap lyrics with his group’s first single, “Being Boiled”, the only protest song in the world concerned with silkworms. Oakey not only conflated Buddhism with Hinduism (in India, renowned for silk production), but came up with the line “Just because the kid's an orphan /Is no excuse for thoughtless slaying”. Yet there is something moving about his delivery, the way he tries to keep his shaky voice cold. Oakey notoriously overdid cold war topics, making them camp – “Dehumanization/is such a big word/it’s been around since Richard the Third” (“Blind Youth”) or war, which becomes ludicrous in “The Lebanon”: “And where there used to be some shops/is where the snipers sometimes hide”. Or the cheesy aside in “Love Action”:  “This is Phil talking, I wanna tell you”. The Post-punk era's combination of the amateurish and overambitious was much reflected in League's lyrics - after all, written by an ex-hospital janitor and sung with two high school girls. Nothing was too good for ordinary people, to use the modernist maxim.

“When I was a very small boy/Very small boys talked to me”, sings Bernard Sumner of New Order, on 'True Faith', at his most honest. Yet it has strong competition in “One of these days when you sit by yourself/you find that you can’t shag without someone else” (“Subculture”) or maybe “I have always thought about/staying in and going out/tonight I should’ve stayed at home/playing with my pleasure zone” (“The Perfect Kiss”). Yet those mocking Bernard Sumner's efforts are usually those claiming how great Ian Curtis' verses were in turn. Really? A closer look at them will reveal, that Curtis’ premature, tragic death makes for at least half of their appeal. Without that, aren’t they simply nihilistic musings of a naïve boy who got very concerned after reading some history books? Sumner’s lyrics were a perfect match with New Order’s music: unreal, otherworldly, bathing in an endless Summer of Love. This land of innocence and constant highs where even sorrow is sweet was a utopian alternative to the reality of the 1980s. They're never really about anything, yet, despite sounding as if they were made up on the spot, the lyrics often unexpectedly hit at something. New Order had perfect simplicity, giving a mot juste of modernity to pop, like Kraftwerk – yet, where lies the difference with simple crap? New Order took their fans from trauma to euphoria, often drug induced, like in Touched by the Hand of God, where the lyrical I, after the crush of love is metaphysically resuscitated when touched by the title's god's hand. Like with Depeche, the ordinariness and generalizations of Sumner’s words were completed by their fans.

This euphoric trend continued after the break of 1989 and in the early 1990s in dance music, through House, especially in Eurodance. Even degraded words, devoid of meaning, within music can suddenly start a new life. Let's take international anthems, such as Coldcut's “People Hold On”, Rozalla's “Everybody's Free (To Feel Good)”, even “Happy Nation” by Ace of Base – all called to unity, to get together and to brotherhood above all divisions. Sterling Void's “It's Alright” - later reworked as a smash hit by one of the most successful pop duo in history, Pet Shop Boys  - might've been a blueprint, in which the lyric tried to combine the concern with the world and calling for a revolution, yet, for now, suspended for the sake of the happiness found within the dancing crowd, of the illusionary community of co-clubbers: People under pressure on the brink of starvationI hope it's gonna be alright/(Alright, alright, alright)/Cause the music plays forever and so on.

A temporary collectivity can be founded over lyrics even if those listening have little or no idea what is being sung. From my own experience, with English as my second language, I regularly mistook words in The Smiths’ songs, despite recognising Morrissey’s lyrical talents. Despite getting Smiths lyrics wrong, they were meaningful to me. For some reason, when I misunderstood them, and it was happening more often than I'd wish, they  usually ended up being more pessimistic than they really were: in "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before", I thought that “lied” in “who said I'd lied because I never, I never!” was “liked you”, as if it was obvious that all relationships must finish in rejection. Did it matter? Not much – what unified the fans of The Smiths all over the world was a feeling – something which seemed subjective, yet magically transsubstantiated into an intersubjective sharing between fans. Morrissey's lyrics are often a combination of the very intricate and obscure culture references and places in Manchester with the general themes of love, loneliness and rejection and to this second part they probably owe their mass appeal. The opposite was the case with Depeche Mode – their appeal was based on the big themes put in simple words. As we understood every second or fifth word, our version of the lyric was  already pretty crappy, frankly, but I guess we still got the most important part.

Sometimes pop music surprises us with lyrics which despite their superficial crappiness are sublime, or are sublime crap, like Manic Street Preachers. Written on any page, including the copybook of a bored 6th form student, they are not passing the test of 'poetry' or tastefulness (if we were to be botehred by this anyway). MSP lyricist and ideologue, Richey Edwards, as if predicting his premature end, was only interested in Big Ideas: the Holocaust, communism, mental diseases, masochism, anorexia, life & death. Yet, who, in the ironic 90s was still interested? Pulp may have sung that “irony is over”, yet it was far from it. There was a guy who wanted to prove some stuff must be for real, even if that meant leveling crap written by a 14 year old and Guy Debord to one and the same level. As Adam Ant said, 'ridicule is nothing to be scared of'.


  1. Martyn Ware wrote a lot of the lyrics on the first Human League album, including "Blind Youth". (Source: Phil Oakey; I wrote him a letter of rather querulous adulation & he replied, writing by hand on studio notepaper.)

    Can't believe there are no (other) comments on this fascinating post - maybe the Czech-language(?) comment box is putting people off.