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…music: Framed!

April 12, 2011

In Bruno Mars’ latest single, “The Lazy Song,” the ubiquitous singer/songwriter writes about the luxury of wallowing in one’s own lack of motivation. This follows the #1 hit “Grenade,” where Bruno talks about his willingness to step into harm’s way to demonstrate his devotion to an ungrateful lover.

So why aren’t parents up in arms over these irresponsible messages? Hanging out doing nothing is a dead-end enterprise. Clinging to an unhealthy relationship, where you’re giving more than the other person, is self-destructive behavior. If you don’t think so, try catching a grenade sometime and see if your self doesn’t get destroyed–all over the place.

Wait, you may be saying, that’s not it at all. Mr. Mars is a songwriter. He’s encapsulating sentiments that are familiar to everyone in the form of verse and making music out of them.

Too true, my astute readers, too true. But more than that, he’s framing those sentiments. What makes Bruno Mars seem like such a throwback in this era of “bad” songwriting is that he puts a frame on everything. All his words are so exactingly fitted together that it’s hard not to see them for what they are–the language of Songwriter-ese, the language of Paul McCartney and Elton John; of Diane Warren and Billy Joel. They contain that extra finesse, those interesting turns of phrase which make the listener hear them as words and meters first, and messages sometime a little down the line. Even then, they’re messages once removed, made much prettier by the ornate word-frames that separate them from the real world.

In the era of post-punk and hip-hop, however, not all lyrics come with an ornate frame. Some are roughly scrawled on their musical arrangements like spray paint on a building. Some are stream-of-consciousness. In some cases, gasp, the songwriters don’t even seem to care if the separation from reality is fully understood by the listener. For better or not, it’s part of today’s musical landscape. It’s a blunt new world.

I tell you what, though. For me, if I hear it on the radio and it’s not on a news station, and there’s drums behind it, generally I understand that it’s not real. The lyrics, whether they cast females (or males) in an unsavory light, whether they detail bad habits or criminal activities, whether they contain violence or sex, are still lyrics–some degree of wordsmithing by a lyricist, set to music. It’s an expression that may stem from that person’s reality or an alternate reality.

Ultimately, I don’t presume to know what anyone’s thinking when they write a lyric. Anything could be a parody. Sometimes people take up a point of view that they don’t endorse. (Please see paragraph #2 above.) That’s the beauty of art. It’s open to interpretation. So I cast a suspicious eye on anyone who claims to have figured out what a particular musical artist is thinking.

As you may have guessed, I don’t really have anything against Bruno Mars and the messages in his songs. On one level, though, it could be argued that his type of songwriting, the classic pop songwriting most everyone is comfortable with, is the least interesting type of songwriting, because the ornate frame helps define the message and makes it exceedingly less ambiguous (and arguably less complex) than the “bad” or unframed songwriting that gets people up in arms.

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