I went to a music festival this summer in the Berkshires with my friend Ben. They’re a small mountain range (OK Pacific Northwesterners, “set of hills”) that tightrope the New York/Massachusetts border. The festival’s headline act every year is a band called Wilco, a critically lauded group who I thinly knew at the time aside from their unequivocally positive rep in music circles. Wilco, who began playing in the early ‘90s and who rose to prominence in the late 90s/early 2000s, has a large cult following of thirty and forty-something-year-olds, and so Ben and I spent the day surrounded by what felt like urban chic versions of familiar uncles and aunts.
Wilco is a band largely defined by its head honcho; a stout, long-haired, grizzly man by the name of Jeff Tweedy. Tweedy is the band’s longest acting member and its chief lyricist, and part of the reason you get the feeling that so many older people — couples with kids, high-end managers — make their way to Solid Sounds Music Festival year after year, from places like Park Slope and Cambridge, because of the unbreakable intimacy they feel with Tweedy’s lyrics. Although not a novelist or short story writer, Tweedy is, make no mistake, a first rate raconteur, which is why people journey from far off places to come see him. It is dare I say it, a sort of holy experience.
Lyricism is an extraordinarily powerful form of art, especially when words are accompanied by music. But they don’t have to be. Louis CK is, in a certain sense, a masterful rhetorician, who makes people laugh, but more fundamentally, has an exceptional ability to connect with them on common ground; in Louis’ case, on the grounds of human folly and imperfection. His honesty and hilarity help listeners feel more comfortable about their own hidden flaws and inconsistencies. It is therapy through comedy, something you can’t really put a price tag on.
Which brings me back to the importance of lyricists in music. Like a visual artist who strives to map the visual world in the most sophisticated, beautiful, and clear way that he/she can, or a comedian who uses humor as a way to connect with people on a deeper level, so does the musical lyricist try to capture the inner depths of human thought and emotion, unadorned and for what it is. When Tweedy says in one of his more visceral song, “I am trying to break your heart,” he’s not celebrating meanness. Rather, he’s creating a forum for people who feel downtrodden by negative emotions (something all of us can relate to), who crave honesty, and who are sick of BS. He’s allowing people an exit out of the world of endless marketing, where everyone seems to be either selling a widget or themselves. Compared to, say, a politician who has to garner millions of votes in order to keep his job, you can rely on a musician to have an honest conversation with you (figuratively, of course), about both the good and bad.
Tweedy is far from the only master of the craft. I could give you a laundry list of names: Thom Yorke, Win Butler, Matt Berninger, Jeff Mangum, Tunde Adebimpe, Karen O, Bilinda Butcher, Doug Martsch, Kim Shattuck, Joe Strummer, Michael Stipe, Dolores O’Riordan, Craig Finn, David Byrne, James Murphy, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar. Call me a pretentious hipster, but the truth is that every one of these lyricists has a line or two that has changed the way I view the world, or myself.
So how does this relate to college students? I look around and see tons of people, including myself, who are genuinely trying to figure things out — themselves, their futures, their interests — which is a positive thing. The trend of wearing goofy, ironic and ass-backwards clothing (something that I’m overwhelmingly in favor of) helps explain what I’m talking about. The reason people wear Hawaiians, Vans with high socks, safari hats and, and, my personal favorite, “mandals,” as far as I can tell, is that they’re unconventional and unexpected. They embrace the meaninglessness of trivial expectations, and to a certain degree human imperfection. They are a means of shying away from mindlessness and boring-ness; of expressing that we’re far more complicated, ironic, and even conflicted than at first glance. What college students try to express via the sartorial, in other words, is exactly what musicians are trying to get at through their words.
So I guess my message, aside from wear as much goofy clothing as possible, is this: The next time you find yourself blasting Kanye or Katy Perry (Roar’s been on repeat for days, can’t lie) in your room, think about why you’re drawn to what they’re saying (I won’t try to dissect Katy Perry, but with Kanye we relate to his almost primal need to not be self-censoring and PC all the time; or his desire to be great while simultaneously feeling weighed down by rules and expectations). Then do that with the other artists and bands you listen to. What I think you’ll find is that the connections you make with certain music, although often done subconsciously, take root somewhere within your own personality and experience. It is the realization that perhaps you share something realer and more intimate with musicians than you realized before.