In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it
Everyone has a favourite misheard lyric they can tell you. I had a schoolfriend who assumed that TLC’s Waterfalls was a song of encouragement for someone called Jason Waterfall (“Go, go Jason Waterfall!”). It’s a misinterpretation that helps to answer the question: what’s more important: lyrics or melody? The fact that Waterfall is a really weird surname didn’t matter, because a great melody pulls you along and sweeps you up. You don’t know any misheard melodies because of their wonderful lyrics, do you?
For the mega-successful songwriter and producer Max Martin, who has worked on hits including Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off and the Weeknd’s Blinding Lights, lyrics are secondary to melodies. He even has a formula that he calls “melodic maths”. The key rule is that the words have to adhere to a strict number of syllables.
While a melody can tether you to a song, however, it’s the lyrics that make you want to excavate it. The best songs pull you in beyond their hooky topline, and there is a fresh wave of superstars whose music encourages you to home in on the lyrical content. Lana Del Rey’s soporific delivery feels as if she has cast a magnifying glass over the words: has there been a better opening couplet to plant you straight inside an album’s world than “God damn manchild / You fucked me so good that I almost said: ‘I love you’” from 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell? Billie Eilish, meanwhile, sings as if she’s whispering her lines down the phone, pulling focus towards her sharp observations on everything from fame to body image. Together with Olivia Rodrigo’s fierce discontent with teenage life and young love on her album Sour (“I read all of your self-help books so you’d think that I was smart” is one in the ribs for her ex and then some), these artists understand the art of painting the big picture in vivid, small-print snapshots. Pair that with a great melody and you’re one of the greats.
Sometimes, though, you don’t need words to lift a song skywards. Sigur Rós have made some of the most emotive music of the past two decades and they sing in a made-up language called Hopelandic. Similarly, Arcade Fire’s early ascent wasn’t fuelled by lyrical eloquence as much as it was by some really great “Whoa-oooa!”s. Often, chucking a bunch of vowels at a really good melodic hook will make a song fly further than all the poignant words you can muster, such as the way the chorus soars on Sia’s Chandelier, the intro to Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head, or the bridge on Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance.
At other times, words tumble out of songwriters and fit the melody like a glove. Damon Albarn had no idea what a Beetlebum was, just as Noel Gallagher didn’t have a firm grasp on the philosophical construction of a Wonderwall. What stops the listener going: “Hold on mate, a what?” is the way the nonsense is delivered. Both are yearning and earnest, with a melody that could hold your house up.
Lyrics and melody are so wonderfully entwined that one shouldn’t, and in most cases can’t, exist without the other. But a great melody feels like a sturdier platform on which to build. That’s why it just about edges it.