23 January 2013
The Potential of Annotated Song Lyrics

By Emily White | @emwhitenoise

In the perennial lyrics vs. music debate, I am what you might call a lyrics-freak: I listen to the words first, have to know correct ones, and endlessly analyze and interpret their meanings. When I bought my first iPod, I engraved David Bowie lyrics on the back where you’re supposed to put your name. My AIM buddy profile, MySpace, and early days of Facebook were filled with face-palm worthy lyric quotes. I still have a short Fiona Apple lyric in my Twitter bio now.

I’m not a niche audience — “lyrics” is one of the most searched terms on the Internet. Most song lyrics are at my fingertips. Databases like LyricsFind and Gracenote license their catalog of lyrics out to countless websites, services, and apps that display, discuss, and debate lyrics. But still, words get misheard and misinterpreted. Samples and quotes go without credit. And ultimately, the real stories and intentions behind lyrics get lost.

To me, that’s a shame. So I’ve been wondering: Could artist-verified, digitally annotated lyrics preserve these stories and create a unique way to listen to music?

Liner notes already give artists a space to control the transcription of their own words and acknowledge inspiration (in mostly tiny print). Box sets certainly offer more space. Jay-Z wrote a whole book explaining his lyrics. There have been some digital responses to liner notes. The iTunes LP was supposed to replicate the physical experience of liner notes and box sets. But since it’s launch in 2009, it has failed to really take off or boost album sales. Bjork’s Biophilia is a truly interactive multimedia experience, and Arcade Fire has synchronized artwork, links, photos, and hand-written lyrics for their album, The Suburbs. These are good examples of innovative digital albums, but as more artists start to re-imagine packaging, downloading a different app for each of my favorite artists with bonus content and interactive booklets might become cumbersome quickly.

Spotify sometimes includes special artist interviews and album commentary with albums. For her album Sun, singer-songwriter Chan Marshall, also known as Cat Power, talks about the lyrics of her song “Peace and Love” explaining that the line “Peace and love is a famous generation” comes straight from a Nina Simone cover of a Tina Turner song she loves. She also tells an uncomfortable story about scrounging for money in bars as a child. I obsessively listen to the audio clip over and over again. I wish I could listen to a clip of the Nina Simone cover at the same time — like a music-based version of director commentary from an extended DVD.

What if all the information about songs that already exist in artist’s liner notes, Twitter feeds, SoundCloud pages, and blogs was curated and displayed as I listen, the same way that muisXmatch and TuneWiki play lyrics in real time?

The app CueNotes scans your existing library, or Spotify if you are a premium user, and curates a social feed of user generated “liner notes” as you listen, but it lacks many users as of now. On the website Rap Genius, users annotate lyrics line by line in a pop-up explanation box that can include links, photos, diagrams, or video. Rap Genius has artist verified accounts so that the original authors can log on and write annotations themselves, including Nas, Big Boi and Schoolboy Q. When Fiona Apple’s latest album, The Idler Wheel came out this year, I was amused to find the lyrics up on RapGenius. Though Apple can turn a phrase, it’s a little funny to see her words in the company of 2Chainz. But the creators of Rap Genius are developing a rock version of the site named Stereo IQ too.

What I’d like to see from Stereo IQ, or another app, are more figurative annotations than RapGenius provides; and more expertly curated comments than CueNotes. Instead of just explaining metaphors and references or offering fan interpretations, these annotations could be an audio clip where the sound engineer identifies a recording technique or an artist tells a story, a photo or drawing that inspired the song or video of a live performance, like Behind the Music. It could also be a way to reference samples or quotes by adding an annotation with a clip of the song or artist referenced. I loved reading an interview with Britt Daniel and realizing that he wrote Chicago At Night by riffing off of the Liz Phair song Stratford-On-Guy — that would make a great annotation.

Over the summer, Willy Staley wrote an article for the Times that explores the concept of a mondegreen – or misheard lyric that takes on a new meaning. He argues that taking the Rap Genius approach to lyrics misses the point. “We can turn something that ought to be enjoyed into something that owes us an explanation for its existence, into something that must reveal its underlying worth,” he writes, “We can use the Internet to sniff out and suffocate every mystery from all four corners of the globe.”

There is a certain mystery to lyrics, and I don’t think I want every single little thing explained. We may never know what Beck is singing in “Girl” (it’s probably cyanide) the same way we’ll never know what Bill Murray whispers to Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost In Translation, but that’s okay. Some artists prefer being cryptic or just don’t have any explanation. Part of my lifelong fascination with song lyrics is that I can impart my own meanings to them. And to me, quoting song lyrics is like a self-affirmation. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was one of my favorite songs growing up — for a while; my default username was always emily_fandango, as in “will you do the fandango?” I still have no idea what a fandango is. Rap Genius doesn’t have an explanation either. And I don’t think I want to know.

Learning what lyrics mean to the artist doesn’t ruin my own interpretation it just enriches it. Finding out where artists get their inspiration is a source of discovery for me: Nina Simone inspires Chan Marshal? I’ll listen to more Nina Simone. If not artist annotated lyrics, sell me some merch with my favorite lyric on it so I don’t post anymore embarrassing lyrics tweets that are thinly-veiled references to my life or get the lyric quote tattoo I’ve been thinking about.

Digital music has long gone without the art, credits, and lyrics that accompany physical packaging. Instead of merely replicating or scanning liner notes, the Internet and mobile technology affords us a new space to reimagine how these stories can be told. Instead of lots of individual apps, integrating these features into an existing digital music service seems like the best path—one unified place where artists can turn to verify or dispel the myths that surround their songs or provide even more cryptic evidence for us to decode. Staley suggests that annotated lyrics could “suffocate the mystery” out of songs. But digital annotations could potentially add a new dimension to music and change the way we grow with and appreciate it, too.

Emily White is the General Manager of WVAU, a college radio station in Washington, D.C. She’s a live music, film soundtrack and radio junkie.

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