RE: Wicked - How do you feel about 'abstract' lyrics?

RE: Wicked - How do you feel about 'abstract' lyrics?

Wicked mentioned Alanis Morissette, and how Jagged Little Pill took some flack for it’s supposed former vulgarity (that’s a joke about the name of one of her albums if you didn’t know).

I was thinking about other bands in that era like Nirvana, Foo Fighters, and Goo Goo Dolls, also wrote songs that could easily be classified as pure verbal nonsense from a lyricism and rhetoric standpoint, yet they were quite popular in their time.

I don’t impart any judgement on this approach to lyric writing. And most of us are probably in agreement that revenue and sales on the mainstream consumer market do not validate artistry.

Do you think there’s technique to writing good abstract lyrics? Where is the line between drawing random combinations of nouns, verbs, and adjectives out of a hat and singing them, vs making a nonsense sentence say just enough to spark someones curiousity?

I do not purport to be a writer, poet, or lyricist. But other than maybe abstract poetry, I’m unable to think of any other field in culture or humanities where someone intentionally verbalizes incoherencies (and please don’t go into politics with this one) yet people applaud. Anyone have ideas on why this works?


It’s good to discuss abstract lyrics but “You Oughta Know” , the song we mentioned in @Wicked 's thread, is not abstract at all and does have some rhymes.

You oughta know is different than a lot of the material on her follow up album ‘supposed former infatuation junkie’. That was why I broke it into a different thread.

I see where I didn’t communicate this adequately though. I’ll edit to clarify.

Another great topic!

I draw myself a perfectly large and blurry grey line within this topic. Generally, I am absolutely fine and in fact, even prefer abstract lyrics, yet I would clarify it like this:

What you call abstract: I have a more liberal definition of abstract when it comes to lyrics, in that the lyric does NOT tell me what the song is about explicitly and it is up to me to glean my own personal interpretation from it. This will likely be radically different to other listener’s interpretation.
I LOVE lyrics like that. I love how certain lines or passages resonate and how you can piece together your own interpretation, form your own image, create your own story. And when certain abstract lines are sung in a certain way or fit the music just right, I find it the most inspiring thing in music because that feeling and that resonance is uniquely mine.

Soundgarden are one of those bands that can drift into the abstract and sometimes the above occurs and sometimes it seems like just nonsense. The below is a short song of theirs that happens to be one of my favourites. I have no clue if the words mean anything and they are not entirely “abstract”, yet we could easily discuss and debate what the meaning is and if there is any. I love the way the lines work with the music and the final, varying phrases “There must be…” and “far away”, to me, are perfect.

On the hand, when lyrics are overtly pure nonsense, I have a harder time connecting with it, but still do on a musical level rather than emotional. I probably didn’t get into Nirvana as much as others for that reason. That said, I am working on a project that will have abstract lyrics as the project revolves more around fun than a message as such.

On the third hand (going abstract), I also love artists like Tom Waits, Springsteen and Billy Joel who’s songs more often than not, are pretty clear. And The Beatles did both ends of the spectrum…

Overall though, give me abstract (according to my definition) 90% of the time! I want to make my own interpretation and have the artist help me make a journey and experience just for me.

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Abstract lyrics are akin to abstract art. With both, the viewer or listener decides what they see or hear.

I’m not really a lyric connoisseur and words are almost always secondary to the melody and music of a song, for me. I was and am a fan of some Nirvana music, mostly because Cobain was a pretty good songwriter and they brought something fresh (not necessarily new) and slightly unique to the scene at that time. There was nothing special at all about their technical prowess but there was an artistry that Cobain had with creating certain atmospheres and moods in his songs. Some of the lyrics seemed pretty bad though …But, some of the lyrics have a really cool, poetic ring to them, even if they don’t make sense to most of us.

What do these words mean?

Smells Like Teen Spirit

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto, an albino,
A mosquito, my libido :rofl: :thinking:

At the end at the end of the song he’s belting out “The denial, the denial”, repeatedly. I like the anger, aggression, angst and something that almost feels like suffering and pain. I liked the song from the very first time I heard it ,but it was almost entirely because I loved the chorus melody, attitude and groove of the music. I really disliked the verse…and I still think the verse is very mediocre. Yet I love the song because I’ve grown accustomed to the verse and I’m “OK” with it, but the chorus is such an enormous pay off. The lyrics sound a bit like the ravings of a madman but I could easily say to myself, “These lyrics are about teenage angst, outrage and rebellion”, even though there’s no way of knowing that for sure. It’s like looking at clouds in the sky. Everyone can see whatever their imagination shows them.

A few years ago I was writing some songs and I had the vocal melodies, the music and much of the songs fleshed out, but I had only a few lines of lyrics for each song. I mentioned to my brother that I needed to sit down and really focus on writing the lyrics before recording the songs and I mentioned to him that I really disliked the lyric writing process because I had to tell a logical “story” or I had to make sense of what I was trying to depict. Within the confines of a song, if you’ve already determined the melodic and rhythmic structure of your vocal lines, then you have to create lyrics that work within that architecture. I almost always create vocal melody and rhythmic structure before writing words/ lyrics, so it takes quite a bit of time for me to find lyrics that are suitable and not laughable. Often I’ll write what I call “ghost lyrics” to use in the meantime , until I’ve found good or decent words for the final product. The ghost lyrics are often ridiculous, although occasionally I hit on something that is good. Anyway, my brother suggested that I write abstract lyrics. His way of thinking is that the listener will create their own meaning to the song. We all do that to some degree anyway, even in songs that are concise and direct. Everyone seems to interpret things a bit differently…, they hear what they want to hear. BTW, my brother likes quite a few Nirvana lyrics, so he does enjoy that kind of abstract lyric. I actually like some of it too…but as I said, I’m not a lyric connoisseur.

My view on abstract lyrics is pretty much the same as my view on vulgar and explicit lyrics. They’re both part of the enormous spectrum of creativity, and for me, they need to be explored and possibly incorporated to some degree. I do the same with scales, genres, textures, attitudes, grooves, musical colours, etc…All of these things are part of the artists palette. Everything is worth exploring. We don’t know what we may find if we don’t venture out of our comfort zone. It may be that we find a landfill of garbage or a goldmine of hidden treasures…Probably a bit of both.

I am very similar. I have found my Alien Lard project and the other one I was mentioning (under the moniker “What The Fun Will Be” quite liberating as I have made a conscious decision to NOT put much weight or to overthink the lyrics, but rather have a loose theme, image or concept and just roll with it. I am far more happy with the lyrics as I don’t feel I am on a high horse trying to spout something meaningful or retell a tired story that has been told by more talented people better than I have 1000 times over already.

Also, sometimes those ghost lyrics stick because they work. Paul Simon famously recounts that his song Graceland was never supposed to be have the chorus “Graceland” in it, it was just a placeholder. Turns out it wasn’t!
2 minute clip shows this exact thing!

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Yeah, sometimes creators will come up with some of their best material when they’re simply “flowing” and not trying too hard. I’ve been thinking about doing a bunch of demos in a manner in which I would completely let go of any preconceived notions of what the end product should sound like. The plan would be to simply accept whatever first comes to mind without any, or much judgement. There would be no second guessing, no asking myself what I can do to make this better, no doing perfect takes and no questioning the goofy lyrics that I spontaneously write. It would seem to be an easy and fun experiment…And,…just think of how quickly and effortlessly that kind of project could be completed !!

Absolutely. There’s always going to be some “happy mistakes”, where you just hit one out of the park accidently.

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I’,m a songwriter, for me lyrics are as much part of the song as the music. It’s the combination that makes it work. I love songs that tell a clear and instantly understandable story, but also songs that mean nothing at all. A good example is Jon Anderson of Yes. I became a big fan of Yes when I was about 16 or so, but had no idea what the lyrics were about. I thought it was just me, lacking some deeply philisophical knowledge. Much later I heard that Jon Anderson had no intention of writing anything understandable, he just had this stream of consiousness going looking for words that fit the music in an abstract way. Which I think he did remarkably well! It certainly inspired me to make up my own meaning, together with the Roger Dean album covers with way out SF themes. It took me to another place!

Great reference for me. I have been a fan of Paul Simon from when I was 10 I think. I sometimes didn’t understand his lyrics because they are very personal references. I was somewhat irritated by some of the songs on Graceland including the title song because it did not seem to be part of the theme (lyrics and music) of the album. In fact it took a bit of a lyrics analysis to realize the song was not just a shallow song about a tourist attraction, and this clip finally confirmed my analysis.

So to sum things up: I have no preference for either abstract or litteral lyrics, as long as they form an integral part of the music, and it takes you somewhere.


Absolutely. Remarkably similar to what I am trying with some current projects. This is why I have 4-5 projects on the go at once (most work at snails pace) so that I can do the style/genre/process that I feel like on any given day. That ranges from crafted, multilayered and more polished productions, punk/garage/noise rock imperfection to quirky and fun synth/digital based bubblegum. All depends on the mood I’m in. It’s nice having that freedom to know you can invest a little less in lyrics and get some songs made without compromising other songs that may have more significance lyrically in other works.

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If you want abstract, the Pixies make those weak ass pop scammers in Nirvana read like a children’s book.

So… just out of curiosity, what would your interpretation of this be?
Ob-la-di, ob-la-da
Life goes on, bra
La-la, how the life goes on
Ob-la-di, ob-la-da
Life goes on, bra
La-la, how the life goes on

I guess you would maybe think of some stuff like not actual lyrics (because that’s arguably not the intent)? Like Third Eye Blind…

do do do, do do do-do, do do do, do do do-do

Or ‘Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Fa la la la la, la la la la (fa la la la la, la la la la)’ where its sort of saying something but sort of not at the same time?

So maybe in one instance you’d have lyrics that weren’t meant to communicate a definitive thought, then you have another approach where you’re just filling up space with noises because the song needs it.

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That’s an interesting thought! Of course there’s no ‘correct’ opinion here. Just ideas :slight_smile: I tend to think of abstract 20th century classical music akin to abstract art, and abstract lyrics closer to abstract poetry or abstract literature. The difference being that abstract lyrics fused into tonal music doesn’t necessarily make abstract music. So there’s this sort of paradox where you can completely dichotomize lyrics from a song even though lyrics are clearly a part of a song. Otherwise it would almost be like trying to distinguish a poem from its words!

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Yep, I think that’s a fair delineation. Those nonsense syllables are arguably more for pushing a melody than anything else.

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I’m afraid I’m going to have to bring an obscure band by the name of Whale here…

sample of the lyrics:

You hobo humpin’ slobo babe
Get it off, get off, get off of me!
You hobo humpin’ slobo babe
Get it off, get off, get off of me!

and yet you’ll all be reciting these lyrics to yourselves inexplicably later on today…

I prefer lyrics that don’t have specific meaning. That way I get to decide when I’m listening whether the lyrics have meaning or are just noise to complete the song. When lyrics are too specific, I don’t have that choice.

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I agree, it’s always nice to have room for interpretation.
Sometimes “abstract” is just due to how difficult it can be to work out syllables that fit the melody and cadence. My favorite example is White Room from Cream. You get the impression of a sad story from the first listen, but you need to tear it apart to realize what all the embellishments do to propel it.
Some pop song lyrics just fit without meaning anything, others are poetry.

I saw Yes in the 90s, and I remember one of the band members saying between songs, the last song was about a dog, and the next is about a fish. Or something to that effect.

My wife was not amused by the abstractness. She preferred the Moody Blues or the Beach Boys, even though musically Yes is easy listening for prog.

I myself prefer the clear and understandable story, and I think I want to read meaning into abstract or nonsensical lyrics. It is like reading Alice Through the Looking Glass, or Sgt Peppers, I search for hidden messages, maybe social commentary. And if there isn’t any, it might still be a catchy song.