Saying the Unsayable SXSW Lecture | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, May 18th, 2024  

Jarvis Cocker presenting his lecture at SXSW 2009

Saying the Unsayable SXSW Lecture

Jarvis Cocker on the Importance of Lyrics

Mar 19, 2009 Pulp Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share

At SXSW each year we never bother to go to any of the panels at the convention center, and we don’t know anyone else who does. This year I guess we’re missing out on such exciting-sounding panels as “Licensing for Unsigned Bands,” “Should Artists Be Paid for Radio Airplay?,” “Branding Latin Music for a Worldwide Audience,” “Adult Rock Music Meeting,” and “Recording Agreement Provisions that Didn’t Exist in 2000!” But one panel actually stood out this year: “Saying the Unsayable with Jarvis Cocker.” Yes, that’s the Jarvis Cocker, legendary singer, lyricist, lead singer of Pulp, and all-around witty person. The panel’s not even mentioned in the official SXSW directory, so it must’ve been a late addition, but if Cocker ever brings the lecture to your town, you are well-advised to check it out.

“Saying the Unsayable” was an “investigation into the role of lyrics in popular song.” Cocker, dressed as dapper as ever in a jacket and tie, stood in front of the eager crowd crammed into the small convention room, and armed with a slide/video projector and a long pointer, as he presented a near-two-hour lecture on the importance of lyrics. And if anyone should know about the value of lyrics, it’s Cocker, arguably one of the greatest British lyricists of the last two decades. “Everything expressed is solely based on my subjective opinion,” Cocker said in his opening, “but I’m usually right.”

Cocker’s first point was that lyrics actually weren’t as important for pop songs as you’d think. As an example he played an old video clip of The Kingsmen performing their 1963 hit “Louie Louie.” Even though it’s near-impossible to make out most of the song’s lyrics, it was still a huge hit, Cocker explained. Cocker pointed out that the FBI investigated the song for obscene lyrics, but that the report was inconclusive because the lyrics were so unintelligible.

“I’m going to try and tell you what makes a good lyric. But in the end, why are lyrics good? Because they are.” Cocker continued. “Lyrics don’t matter, where does that leave someone like me?….Even though lyrics aren’t important, they are important to me.”

Cocker’s next point was that delivery and presentation were more important than lyrics, that lyrics can look iffy on paper, but work well if sung by the right person, with the right arrangement. As an example he played the video David Bowie’s “Heroes.” “The delivery of the song is a massive factor in the success of a song,” Cocker said. “Music + lyrics + performance = dynamite,” he added, aided by an illustration of a stick of dynamite.

Next Cocker played Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” and said that it was the first lyric to blow him away, way back in 1970. “This was the first song that I can remember conjuring up specific images in my head. As I was six at the time, these images were rather literal,” said Cocker, referring to lyrics about castles and the like.

Then Cocker performed on acoustic guitar the first song he’d ever written, which was in 1978. The song was about a girlfriend who is always quoting Shakespeare and the lyrics reference many famous Shakespeare lines. “Gotta baby, only one thing wrong/She’s quoting Shakespeare all day long,” the song began, later followed by the chorus of “Shakespeare rock/Shakespeare roll.” Perhaps it’s a far cry from “Common People,” but the song still showed off Cocker’s imaginative lyrics.

Cocker explained that writing lyrics is often viewed as a chore by most musicians and then he recounted a conversation he once had with Oasis’ Noel Gallagher about The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus.” Gallagher claimed that the song laid the groundwork for Oasis, and other bands, to write meaningless lyrics (such as Gallagher’s own “Slowly walking down the hall/Faster than a cannonball”), but Cocker’s point was that John Lennon’s lyrics for “I Am the Walrus” were purposefully making a mockery of those who try and find too much meaning in his lyrics.

The singer then spoke of the importance of rhyming, but warned that rhyming “can lead to some of the greatest crimes in the name of songcraft.” He introduced the term “Rhyme-Whore,” which Cockers explained: “A Rhyme-Whore will do anything for a rhyme.” One of the greatest offenders is Des’ree’s song “Life,” which was voted in a recent BBC poll as containing the worst lyrics. The offending song’s video is played with the words on screen.

As the lecture continued, Cocker spoke about the differences and similarities between lyrics and poetry, comparing a Leonard Cohen poem that was later adapted into a song. He explained the disclaimer that ran in the booklets of Pulp’s albums asking you not to read along to the lyrics while the song was playing, explaining that he did that with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and it ruined the lyrics for him. “Seeing a lyric in print is a bit like watching the TV with the sound turned down,” he said. Cocker played a version of Pulp’s “Babies” on acoustic guitar to point out that the hook of the song is really where he simply sings “yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah.” It was an enormous treat to see Cocker perform the song is such an intimate setting, almost alone making the trip to SXSW worth it. He then played a student film he made in college for the Scott Walker song “Plastic Palace People,” a film that superimposed the image of exploding fireworks over the face of a newborn baby. “I first heard that song when I was laid up in bed with flu, it was on a compilation tape someone had made for me,” said Cocker of the Walker classic.

The next topic involved inappropriate lyrics and Cocker’s stance that no lyric is inappropriate. Examples included The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” which tackled drug addition in the ’60s, Hot Chocolate’s “Emma,” a 1974 hit about suicide, and The Fall’s “Wings.” “When I first went to see The Fall, my sister and I had a discussion about whether or not it was music,” remarked Cocker, adding that he firmly came down on the side of Mark E. Smith’s band definitely being classified as music!

The lyrics to MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” were flashed on the screen and cited as an example of how lyrics can be innovative and why lyrics might actually be more important now than ever before, as every guitar riff has already been played to death, but the imagination still has unlimited amounts of unique lyrics to be dreamt up. James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” was highlighted as the lecture’s last example of bad lyrics. Cocker closed with the statistic that “me” is the most commonly used word in popular music lyrics, but for a pop song to be successful, “the personal becomes the universal.”

Following his enlightening and humorous lecture, Cocker hung around to talk to, and take pictures with, fans. Cocker told Under the Radar that the next morning he was due to fly to Chicago to put the finishing touches on his new solo album, Further Complications, which is being produced by Steve Albini. Cocker said that most of the album was already recorded, he might have to record one more vocal and work some more on the mix. Let’s just hope he’s gotten the lyrics right on this one!


Submit your comment

Name Required

Email Required, will not be published


Remember my personal information
Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

February 22nd 2010

Hello. Man is distinguished from all other creatures by the faculty of laughter. Help me! It has to find sites on the: Suddath moving company. I found only this - oklahoma city moving company. You may be combined to injure for them without any dry till you make their number, moving company. Mccoy converts they provide them to help that there was a sunscreen to stand the stress man can pack as the relocation the binding program items crashed, moving company. Thanks for the help :cool:, Angelica from Palau.

ruchii sin
June 30th 2017

“Seeing a lyric in print is a bit like watching the TV with the sound turned down,” he said. Cocker played a version of Pulp’s “Babies” on acoustic guitar to point out that the hook of the song is really where he simply sings “yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah.”

Israel National Trail
August 25th 2017

Thanks man, great article.

September 2nd 2017

Great Info

September 2nd 2017

Great Info you have provided. Thank you

cheap real diamond rings
April 25th 2019

This blog is a good blog apt for people who love art and music. All the art related news, releases, galleries, labels, artists are available here. I like this blog very much. They have a unique style of presentation and maintain good quality in everything.

UIDAI Online Aadhar Card
February 9th 2021

Found your post interesting to read. I cant wait to see your post soon. Good Luck with the upcoming update. This article is really very interesting and effective.