I'm often declaring that words matter. "Words matter" is the tagline on a promotional piece for my business. I make a living flirting, fondling, and fussing with words, as is evidenced in this space. But how and when words matter circumscribes a shifting landscape of context, complexion, and atmosphere.
Listening to some Beatles oldies has driven this home ("Baby, you can drive my deconstructionist car...") Several years ago, I was driving around. "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," from Abbey Road, was playing. My youngest child was in the car; maybe a young teenager at the time, or younger. I was bopping along to the relentlessly cheery and bubbly tune. My daughter said something like, "Dad, are you listening to these lyrics?" Well, I had many times listened to the song's gleeful depictions of MURDER, but never gave it any mind. The narrative was indefensible, if you were to take the lyrics seriously, that is. But who did? I never did. But a new generation of listeners perhaps took away an utterly different message. This has become a family joke, especially if we listen to "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" in the car.
I recently slipped in the CD for Rubber Soul. (I am really bothered that Capitol released the British version; it totally messes with my boyhood memory of listening to the LP; different songs, different sequence.) "Run for Your Life" has John Lennon, or more accurately the character in a song, threatening death to a girlfriend (maybe it's an ex-girlfriend) owing to the narrator's jealous rage. As a teenager, these lyrics never fazed me (perhaps because I was such a late bloomer and had no actual 3D girlfriend at the time of the song's release). I don't recall the song causing the slightest controversy. It likely caused less stir than "Under My Thumb" by the Rolling Stones. (Was preconceived prejudice a factor? After all, the Stones traded on their outlaw appeal.)
Would any of these lyrics cause a ripple today?
These reflections have forced me to evaluate some of my easy-access hostility to pop or hiphop lyrics that strike me as patently offensive (though, I don't have ready examples except the obscenities or verbal brickbats hurled from car speakers whose drivers are pleased to give the finger to society as if to shout, "you got a problem with that?").
And it's not just words alone, is it? In music, the lyrics coexist with the melody, whether we like it or not. It has been said that the tune for "Yesterday" started off with "scrambled eggs" as a holding pattern, a place holder, for the immortal lyrics eventually wedded to the musical notes. Imagine if "Yesterday," perhaps the most covered song in history, with its haunting and heartbreaking melody and lyrics, had silly or indecipherable or obscene lyrics. It would not endure. At all.
So, I'll come full circle and say that words do matter. But how and when and why are tricky concepts to delineate.
Just as in life.