October 9, 2008

A question.

Do song titles matter?

I’m wondering, because as I have been obsessively listening to the new Ben Folds album over the last week, I realized this morning that I had no idea what most of the songs are called (This is totally par for the course for me – Trevor’s constantly asking me about song titles – um, and artists – to songs that I know all the lyrics to, and more often than not I cannot [correctly] answer). And as I realized that one song that I was in the middle of was called ‘Cologne’, it changed the entire way I was thinking about what it meant.

Before it was about the painful disintegration of a relationship:
Four, three, two, one,
I'm letting you go
I will let go
If you will let go
Now, there’s a why and a how: “Here in Cologne, I know I said it wrong…” makes this later verse so much clearer:
Such a painful trip
To find out this is it
And when I go to sleep
You'll be waking up
Perhaps I would have eventually gotten it without knowing the name of the song. Because music is really all about absorbing meaning through lyrics and notes, right? I mean, how often are you sitting with the track list of an album in front of you while you listen to it? Mostly, you’re making dinner or cleaning the apartment while your stereo plays, or walking around with your iPod firmly tucked into your pocket. And even at concerts, only a couple songs are typically introduced by name. So how relevant can a song title really be?

But on the other hand (my internal debating self has three hands), isn’t song meaning really all in the ear of the beholder anyway? Maybe you hear this song, knowing the name of it, and still take away an entirely different meaning.

Extra layer of meaning, simple lyric support or entirely superfluous? I’m just not sure!


Trevor said...

Song titles matter for only like %15 of songs. Most of the time the lyrics speak for themselves and the title is just out of obligation to the pop music format. For example, the song "My Girl" is clearly going to be called that bc that is the main lyric. The title is useless and serves no artistic purpose and adds nothing to the experience.

The second way to title a song is to focus on a particular lyric that might not be repeated all that often in the song, but is IN the song nonetheless. An example of this would be "Seven Nation Army" by the White Stripes. Or the title can be hinted at in the lyrics even if not explicitly stated ("Transatlanticism" by Death Cab for Cutie). These are telling the listener to pay special attention to these aspects in the lyrics, or the title just sums up the tone of the song nicely. SO, these approaches mean that the song title can sort of mean something.

Finally, you can have a title that is non-lyrically based. The song "Baba O'Reily" not being called "Teenage Wasteland" is a significant decision on the part of The Who and is very important to not. It adds another layer of meaning to the song... even if nobody can figure out what that meaning is. It is asking the listener to investigate what the title is referring to. And then the listener will rethink the songs meaning with this extra-textual information in mind. These non-lyrical titles can be pretentious, but also quite interesting. They are usually called something FOR A REASON, and that reason is worth finding out, assuming you like the song.

In conclusion, song titles matter for some songs. But for most songs the title is an effortless tag placed on the song and should be given little-to-no thought.