The problem I’ve had with Bryan Adams is that I always expect more of him.
This is out of respect for his ability, but usually he delivers just enough to whet the appetite. So, it was a relief to go to his August 21 concert at Empire Field as a spectator not a critic. He and his band seemed to be having fun and, under the sun of a hot afternoon, there was more spontaneity than a few years ago at GM Place.
The problem I referred to is that Adams will take the easy way as a lyricist, arriving at statements that are cliched, trite or pat. He is more intelligent than that but a deep thinker he evidently is not or he won’t be pushed.
This didn’t bother me at Empire Field. I looked at 23,000 people enjoying themselves, often singing along. His songs meant something important to them, they connected. That was the significant thing. Also, if you just heard the music, Adams has a facility with melody that has to be admired. You give in to the sentiments of Summer Of 69, the chant of Cuts Like A Knife, the buoyancy of Can’t Stop This Thing We Started. He doesn’t write above the head of his audience. Neither does he write down to it. Therefore he is one with the audience. To the audience he is a regular guy, singing its song.
This isn’t a wholesale approval as it wouldn’t hurt Adams to dig a little deeper. However, his aim is true and it’s better than passing off an obscure verse as poetry.
To me, obscurity is a big cover up. The writer is trying to avoid looking vulnerable or is being clever. They do this by writing lyrics that are impenetrable. Most of it is gibberish and possibly comes from the insecurity of being young. So the lyric only has meaning to the person who wrote it. That goes against the idea of pop, as in popular, music.
Not that anyone has asked me, or I’d be suited to the job, but I often daydream that if I were a producer, one of the first things I’d do is demand that the lyricist tell me the meaning of the songs. If they can’t explain a song in a few easy to comprehend words, I’d get them to rewrite the song in simple language.
The theory isn’t complicated. The songs that stick tend to strike a universal chord. The listener thinks, I can relate to this. I can identify with that. The writer is thinking, I’m going through this right now and is asking the audience if it feel the same way, too.
There are a lot of reasons why bands don’t last anymore and possibly one of them is that they don’t speak to the audience through their songs. Why would the audience be loyal to someone it doesn’t understand? It owes the band nothing. This is not to say there is no room for poetic expression in pop music.
In Lumpy, the band for whom I sing, we’ve been doing Bob Dylan’s My Back Pages for years. In all that time, I’ve never fully understood the verses. However, Dylan’s chorus — I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now — tells me what the song is about. I get the gist of the verses. Plus the images are fantastic. Similarly, the early REM vocals were deliberately buried because lyricist Michael Stipe wasn’t choosing words for their meaning but for their mood. A lot of his lyrics were nonsense but his tone became important and that conveyed meaning.
Thus the lyrics don’t have to be literal. Literate would be nice and sometimes that seems to be asking too much. When asked, Robert Plant answered that his lyrics for Led Zeppelin were “deep and meaningless.” They appear to be saying something profound but aren’t actually. That might explain the popularity of Bryan Adams: offering something to think about without the burden of intellectualizing it.