UPDATED: Argument Two: Fuck You, Nate (Music and Lyrics)

Me and a friend of mine are having a debate. I say, “having” because fuck you, Nate, I’m stopping just because you went home? Yeah, right. Think you can beat me with your black Magic deck I’ll just give up. Nay, sir, nay!

“Music doesn’t need lyrics. Lyrics tell you what to think. I’m smart enough to think for myself. Also Thomas I only beat you ’cause I cheated at Magic. I’m so sorry.” — Nate (paraphrased) 

This is the second of his music claims.

You’re forgiven Nate. Now we’ve dealt with the argument that lyrics need to just rhyme, and nothing else, to be good, and we’ve proven that untrue. So here’s the second claim — that lyrics “tell you what to think” and above that, that lyrics are unnecessary.

Now the thing is you’re not wrong. There are some songs — Katy Perry’s “T.G.I.F.”, Frozen’s “Let It Go”,  — where the lyrics really are doing nothing but saying, “Hey, guess what this song’s about? You guessed it. Let me shout it at you.” But I wouldn’t argue that this is a case for music not needing good lyrics, but more for music needing good lyrics. Take a look at Amanda Palmer’s Oasis, it’s a cheery upbeat song that you’d never guess is about date rape and abortion if you didn’t have music and lyrics. It’s about the fusion of the two.

So let’s look at one example I think will clinch this whole thing in my favor — one song that, I think, proves music and lyrics are just as important as each other, no if ands or buts.

Let’s look at Javert’s Suicide.

Who is this man?
What sort of devil is he
To have me caught in a trap
And choose to let me go free?
It was his hour at last
To put a seal on my fate
Wipe out the past
And watch me clean off the slate
All it would take
Was a flick of his knife.
Vengeance was his
And he gave me back my life!

Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I’ll yield at the end of the chase.
I am the Law and the Law is not mocked
I’ll spit his pity right back in his face
There is nothing on earth that we share
It is either Valjean or Javert!

How can I now allow this man
To hold dominion over me?
This desperate man whom I have hunted
He gave me my life. He gave me freedom.
I should have perished by his hand
It was his right.
It was my right to die as well
Instead I live… but live in hell.

And my thoughts fly apart
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?

And must I now begin to doubt,
Who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles
The world I have known is lost in shadow.
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?

I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean.
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on….

So I’d love to use this for the terribleness of rhyme because while it rhymes it is not that great of a song. It’s not too interesting. I like the nihilistic lyrics that call back to the beginning of his character, STARS, which I would argue is a much more lyrically complex and interesting song. STARS has him singing that stars fill the darkness “with order and light.” He calls them sentinels, keeping watch, that know their course and aim.They “hold [their] place in the sky.” So here, at the end, where he calls back to that — he’s saying that his life is dark and cold because he can’t see the stars, the symbol of order and light. I don’t want to dig too deep into the lyrical connection between these two songs — let alone how wonderful it was staged in the Tom Hooper version — one with him on top of the church and the other with him on the bridge, which was just perfect — but I think we can let it go with saying that the connection between these two songs would not exist without the lyrical quality. But all of that’s beside the point, so moving on.

In this song Javert realizes that his life view is wrong, he is at a loss of what to do, doesn’t know which way to turn and kills himself. You can probably get at least somewhat close to that idea without the lyrics, right? Sure you’d lose the connection to STARS that makes it, in my opinion, resonate, but you could still have a good idea of what’s going on.

Hell, stick Javert’s Suicide on there as the title and any numbskull listening to just the music would know what was going on, right? So what’s my argument here? Am I wrong?

No. Because here’s the interesting thing. Musically, it’s the exact same song as Valjean’s Soliloquy. I’m sure that’s not a surprise to most people reading this. Especially not you, Nate. The music is the exact same in both songs, and of course it’s on purpose — because both characters are dealing with huge life changes, seeing that the way of life they believed in before was incorrect and making a big change.You’ve argued that the idea is with music without lyrics, you don’t like things being spelled out, and sure enough some lyrics can be done that way but those are just bad lyrics. Good lyrics add to a song, much in the same way that dialogue can either spell things out in television — “Look, the bad guy is getting the Macguffin.” “I know, man, that’s the key to him taking over the world.” — or they can add character and depth and beauty and emotion to a show. Moving on.

So here, with Javert’s Suicide/Valjean’s Soliloquy we have a song where the music is the exact same — but due to the lyrical changes, the song is entirely different. In Valjean’s case it’s him turning his back on the darkness of his life and resolving to become a good man, resolving to throw away that life, “to escape now from that world” and become someone good. And in Javert’s case, it’s him escaping from the world of Valjean and committing suicide.

Obviously the music in both cases represents a somewhat similar turn of event — both are having their life inextricably changed, altered to unrecognizable and have to decide how to deal with it. In Valjean’s case he turns to the Lord and becomes good, in Javert’s he kills himself. These are really tonally similar but you can’t make the argument that listening to the music you would get that.

You could get that the song is about a life change perhaps — a moment of despair and then a sudden change in their life — but without the lyrics, you wouldn’t have the beautifully specific touches. It’s the lyrics working with the music that make these two songs compliment each other so well. Here’s the bit I wanted to take a look at —

It’s the darkest part of the song, right before Valjean tears up his ticket in the movie and right before Javert kills himself:

Javert: “I am reaching, but I fall / And the stars are black and cold / As I stare into the void / Of a world that cannot hold”
Valjean: “I am reaching, but I fall / And the night is closing in / As I stare into the void / To the whirpool of my sin”

See? Two of the lines are the exact same. It’s beautiful. Again, note Javert’s reference to the “stars.” It’s gorgeous. And it works so well with the music, in which you can hear you can hear the depression, taste it even. And in both versions, the exact same sentiment is being shown.  But, the very next lines of the songs, ending it are —

Javert: “I’ll escape now from the world / From the world of Jean Valjean. / There is nowhere I can turn / There is no way to go on….”
Valjean: “I’ll escape now from that world / From the world of Jean Valjean / Jean Valjean is nothing now / Another story must begin!”

The music is the exact same but in Javert’s it seems dark, depressing. It’s a man giving up his hold on life. Ending his life. It is hopelessness incarnate. However, when Valjean sings it, same music but different lyrics, it is the peak of hope, it is beauty, it is him becoming the man we all will know and love for the next ~two and a half hours of the show.

Musically Javert’s Suicide and Valjean’s Soliloquy are the exact same song. But with the lyrics? They’re transformed into polar opposites representing the archetypal force of good and the archetypal force of evil. You could not have this kind of  with just the music. It’s impossible.

Songs, ones constructed well, need their lyrics because they’re a vital component. You wouldn’t argue that a clarinet is an unnecessary instrument in a symphony if the symphony was written to include the clarinet. It’s the same here. You can’t just remove pieces from a piece of music haphazardly or the entire idea is changed.

Songs are composed out of music and lyrics — that’s what makes a song a song. If it’s not music and lyrics, it can’t even be classified as a song. If a piece of music loses a part of the whole it isn’t as good. The argument should

In each case they react in a way that you could argue is generally the same — and I mean look — both of them begin with the exact same lines — but the difference between the two scenes is fucking staggering. Without the music AND lyrics this would simply not be possible.

And that’s my argument. I pass the buck to you. Bitch.

UPDATE: Nate’s reply was, “I started to read your article, and then realized it was nothing more than a huge load of shit. So, I stopped after the first paragraph.” Which, I think, means I was winning and he conceded so he doesn’t lose. So score three for me! (One for this article, one for the other, and one because I am a more gracious debater than he.)


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