Music listeners have a long history of attempting to decipher the lyrics of their favorite bands. In the days of vinyl records and later cassettes/CDs/etc., bands had the ability to choose whether or not to include a lyric booklet along with the album. If no such lyric booklet existed, it’d generally be up to the community of listeners to figure out what their favorite bands were saying. And ever since singers have been singing (or at least it seems), it’s been incredibly easy to misinterpret their lyrics. ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy.
Much is made of the internet’s impact on the music industry. Rightfully so. The internet has radically transformed music in all aspects. While most are focused on how the industry has changed in terms of monetization, some tend to forget a key word in the previous sentence— all (or maybe it should read:almost all. Artists still use the same 12 notes).
One key aspect that has changed in the modern, digital era is that lyrics are readily available for any listener that chooses to look them up (or type them up for other users). Not long after modern web browsers gained in popularity, lyric sites began popping up. None of these sites, however, ever really got things right. They’re riddled with annoying advertisements and clunky layouts. Most still look like they were made in the mid-90s and haven’t been updated since.
Over the past few years, RapGenius has been fulfilling a service that was otherwise lacking in the aforementioned lyric sites. Lyrics on RapGenius are laid out in an easy-to-read format. Better yet, users of the site can add annotations to the lyrics using a Wikipedia-style system, giving their interpretations of various phrases and lines. The site even gives credit for use of humor.
What makes RapGenius great also gives it a huge limitation. The site’s called Rap Genius, and most of the lyrics on the site correspond to hip-hop songs (although sometimes users slip in lyrics to other songs). That’s good because it fosters a more tight-knit community, and hip-hop is a genre filled with an abundance of in-jokes and references. To be a part of the hip-hop community, understanding of these references is essential. Some claim that the site takes away the fun of recognizing references and manually weaving the threads that bind hip-hop together, but, regardless, RapGenius makes it a little easier to join the crowd.
The founders of RapGenius are cognizant of their site’s limitations. Instead of expanding the site to include other genres, however, the site’s creators are simply creating new sites. Rap Genius Co-Founder Mahbod Moghadam has claimed that his new site StereoIQ is “Rap Genius for indie rock,” and that his team is working on “Bible Genius” as well (with ambitions to expand further, allowing users to annotate documents such as The U.S. Constitution, for instance).
Until those sites exist, many indie rock bands are taking a different approach: the lyric video. I was recently watching one such video by the Portland-based punk band The Thermals. It’s for a new song called “Born To Kill,” which is scheduled to appear on the group’s forthcoming album Desperate Ground(which will be their first album on Saddle Creek Records).
While watching the video, I couldn’t help but realize something strange: ten or so years ago, and this would’ve been a karaoke video. The vocal track would be missing, but someone would be singing along at a bar somewhere, drunken and off-key. And a new song like “Born To Kill” wouldn’t even have a karaoke video yet. That honor was/is primarily bestowed upon major hit songs. What used to be a gimmick is now regarded as a legitimate form of debuting new music.
This phenomenon exists largely because of YouTube’s impact on the music industry. Although it rarely seems to be the object of copyright persecution, YouTube is filled with illegally uploaded musical content, consistently uploaded by its numerous users. Tons of people use YouTube to listen to music (I’d argue that the site is responsible for the resurgence of and higher quality of music videos), even though every uploaded file must contain some video. Many of these “videos” consist solely of an album cover or a random photo. Others contain user-uploaded lyrics. Even the video-less SoundCloud (which is essentially YouTube for music) has yet to surpass the widespread use of YouTube music streaming.
Even though there’s a surplus of user-uploaded lyric videos on YouTube, bands are also making their own, higher-quality versions to promote their songs. The trend is nothing new; it’s been going on for a while now. But it seems as if YouTube lyric videos are an increasingly popular way of debuting new songs for bands.
Some lyric videos, like The Thermals’ “Born To Kill,” are more straightforward. They consist of simple text as the song plays in the background. Others, like Skylar Grey’s “C’mon Let Me Ride” video, combine animation and various fonts to create something more in-depth and “video”-based (her particular video attempts to lure fans in with explicit content).
The presence of these lyric videos and sites like Rap Genius demonstrate that there’s a huge demand for written lyrics to accompany songs. The likely cause? A lack of lyric booklets. With distribution moving increasingly online, fans are forced to find a new way to figure out what the hell their favorite artists are saying. Digital versions of lyric booklets have been attempted, but are largely crude imitators that fail to live up to the tangibility of the originals.
As is the case with many aspects of the music industry, a perfect method of displaying lyrics for fans has yet to be created. But the many innovative ways in which artists are still distributing their lyrics shows there’s still a demand for the process. Fans uploading their own versions and interpretations of bands’ music demonstrates that idea even further.