Why some musicians don't explain the clear meaning behind obscure lyrics

“He’s the one who like all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Knows not what it means, knows not what it means
Knows not what it means and I say yeah”

Did we ever find out ‘what it means’?

Why do musicians talk in code or ever carry a “if you know what I mean” attitude?

THAT particualr song and those lines does have quite a clear meaning which is obvious when a little bit of context is supplied. It was Kurt Cobain railiing against certain kinds of fans attending their show. As much as I love Nirvana, that song isn’t my favourite one as I feel it’s just reverse-snobbery.

Nirvana though did write many songs who’s lyrics where cryptic and meanings obscure and their hardly alone in doing that. I would say artisically the reason for making the listener interpret the lyrics to some degree allows them to assign their own meaning to the lyrics giving the song a wider personal resonance than if there was little room for interpretation.

It’s possible that Kurt Cobain won’t explain these song lyrics because he’s dead.

Moved to Cafe Society from GQ.

General Questions Moderator

Because many self proclaimed artists are big in self-centered delusions of grandeur and they think anything they utter or do is up to the lower classes of humans, aka their audience, to decipher.

There is a legitimate use of metaphor or analogy or allusion in many art forms, but pop culture is not likely the place to find it.

In the case of American Pie, Don McLean wrote to Cecil Adams and said, “long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.”

What makes you think they know the clear meaning behind obscure lyrics? or that there necessarily is a meaning?

As someone who writes lyrics, often where you start and where you end up are not obvious. Words have to be “sing-able,” they have to match the music so the words can get changed.

Also it’s to the songwriter’s advantage to keep it a mystery as it promotes the song.

I got a kick out of Daryl Hall explaining how “Kiss On My List,” is not about love. He says the point of the song which says “Your kiss is on my list of the best things in life.” He says, the point is the kiss is just one of many things that are good.

OK fair enough, but few people are gonna read it like that

Personally, I enjoy a pseudo-obcurantist rant if it’s tuneful and done well. I try not to look too deep.

He’s keeping busy, yeah, he’s bleeding stones
With his machinations and his palindromes
It was anything but hear the voice
Anything but hear the voice
It was anything but hear the voice that says that we’re all basically alone

Imagine you’re a songwriter and your little ditty about nose-picking has been glommed onto by fans who think it’s a manifesto about social justice. Suddenly, you’ve come out ahead. With minimal effort, you have become an Important Poet.

Your next song, a deliberate manifesto about social justice, is dismissed (critically and popularly) as atonal tripe about nose-picking. You’ve come up short and are now a pariah.

This actually happens a lot. Richard O’Brien was an important genius and filmmaker after Rocky Horror Picture Show, and a waste of space and oxygen after its follow-up, Shock Treatment (In the cold words of one critic, “You can’t set out to make a cult movie; it just sort of happens”). Man, I sure wouldn’t explain my lyrics any more after that happened.

cain7, out of concern for copyright laws, we ask that posters not repost the entire lyrics to songs. I’ve edited your post down to just a single stanza.

A lot of song lyrics are meant to be evocative, not literal. There is no intended meaning to them, they’re just chosen because they work well to convey a certain emotion or general impression, and not to encode a specific message.

In reply to the OP, I give you What I Am by Edie Brickell & New Bohemians.

There were a couple of factors in play for me when it caming to explain my songs. One factor (and I think this is pretty common for songwriters) is that you don’t always have any clear intent. You’re stringing words and rhymes together, and sometimes something sounds cool so you use it and you worry about the meaning later.

Another thing I sometimes found happening was that followers of the band would sometimes project their own interpretations of a song which I never intended, but when they tell you a song speaks to them or appeals to them and tell you what they think it says, you don’t wnt to rain on their parade and say you meant something totally different.

Songwriting is a fairly abstract art form, and is often expressionist or impressionistic so I found I didn’t want to tell anybody what a lyric was “supposed” to mean, even if I did have a clear intent when I wrote it.

This. What a boring place the world would be if everything had an obvious meaning!

Yep. Britt Daniels of Spoon is a master of this, using words more for how their sounds fit together than their meaning. He accentuates this with his drawly delivery and occasional odd pronunciations (“defective heart” → “dahfecti’ hah”). It all paints a vivid picture, but in a way that’s more impressionist or abstract than realist.

*Tract houses, square couches
Short legs and square shoulders

Pot holders, egg and soldiers
Y’ tank rollers, your all overs

And you know
Ooh, the rhythm and soul*

Because without the metaphors, they just don’t sound the same…

This thread puts me in mind of Beck, on the Bendin’ in the Wind episode of Futurama:


Couple of possibilities:
–The lyricist doesn’t know what they mean either. Many artists mention lyrics come to them out of nowhere, and it that case they’re as hard to interpret as dreams.
–They want to keep the song’s mystique. Would people care as much about “American Pie” or “In The Air Tonight” if the authors revealed what they mean?
–If the lyrics are about personal events that happened to the author, they may be too personal to share with a mass audience.

This is sorta what Bob Dylan mentioned when he stopped doing protest folk. In a couple of interviews he’s mentioned he hated being considered the “Poet of a Generation” because it severely limited his artistic range. Soon afterward his songs became pretty obscure and could have held any number of meanings.

You also have to factor in that some songwriters were drunk or high when they wrote the lyrics. Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran has basically admitted that he would just get drunk and sing whatever came into his head.