Paul Jarvis

The difference between writing lyrics and listening to songs

Years ago, I wrote songs and played a lot of live shows around North America in a band (it may sound exciting, but mostly it was 22hrs driving and sleeping in a vehicle, with 2 hours of impassioned music per night).

After shows, we’d stick around and chat with the folks who spent their money to see us live, which was both fun and interesting. Fun because it’s a trip as a creative to get paid to do something creative. Interesting, because people would always talk about the songs we had written, how they had made some difference in their lives, and their interpretations of our lyrics.

Now music is pretty open to interpretation because it’s mostly poorly-enunciated, aural poetry. Typically lyrics have very few words, each a huge punch of feeling. So misinterpretation can be fairly common, especially if your lyrics aren’t very literal.

What I realized, after the first few times talking to people—who were all eager to tell me what they thought the music meant—was that they were always right. Even if we had written a song about something specific and a listener thought it meant something entirely different, they were still right. They were right because the second the music went beyond the band, it was out of our control. And what we actually meant by the words now didn’t matter to anyone but ourselves.

Although my writing now is (hopefully) far less obtuse than the lyrics to songs, it’s still completely open to interpretation. The second it leaves my computer and shows up in your inbox or my website, it’s no longer mine. I’ve interpreted something and shared it as best, as honestly, and as clearly as I can. Past that, it’s not up to me to explain further, even if someone is angered by my point of view. They have every right to feel those things because the work of mine they’ve just consumed is now theirs. People are going to read between the lines, or read only some of the lines, or assume I was feeling a certain way when writing it, all while possibly being in an awesome or terrible mood when they consume it—which isn’t up to me, the creator, to integrate into my writing. I try to be clear, sure, but not to the point where a piece is unwieldy or so full of apologies or clarifications that it’s hard to read.

If something I write offends or disappoints or hurts someone, I am sorry (I may lack humility, but I’m brimful of empathy), and a lot of times, I learn why if I can and adjust—especially if it’s lots of people who interpreted something completely off from what I meant. It’s how people grow as writers and more so, grow as humans.

As a person who creates things and shares them (which is what a lot of us do), I’m responsible for what I put out into the world. But where our responsibility ends is when a consumer of that creation takes interpretation beyond the work through a series of assumptions. I’ve written songs that started out as noticing my furniture was so old it was fraying and someone telling me they found solace in a song they thought was about suicide which helped them get through a difficult time. Their derived meaning, in this case, was far more powerful than my intent with the words.

My friend Sean D’Souza put it well: “It’s easy to pick and choose [what you believe] when you’re unsure… and even when you’re sure.”

Case in point, when I wrote what I dislike about thought leadership, a handful of folks thought it meant that they shouldn’t ever start a business. First, I should never have the authority, as random angry nerd on the internet, to wield influence like that over others. I have no credentials beyond the fact that I know how to put words onto your computer screen. Second, that was the opposite of the point I was trying to make: which was that we should work at creating real and measurable value for the people that trade their hard earned bucks for what we’re selling. Marketing ourselves isn’t the problem, trading BS for money is.

Even huge publications (with smart people working for them) mess up headlines in the news from time to time, like relating exercise to being addicted to cocaine (turns out those two things are slightly different, who knew). But as a vegan and animal lover reading that article, my only thought, which is reading between the lines on the original post, is that regardless of headline is that science needs to move on from animal testing—not only is it cruel, it’s also bad science. The author probably didn’t even consider the one take-away I had from her article would be that.

Most creatives aren’t here to tell you what you should do or think or feel. I’m sure some other “experts” are that, but not me. My writing, my work, my products, my business as a whole exists to notice things, point them out, and offer ideas (which aren’t facts) in hopes of being helpful. I think most writers fall far more into the “notice things” camp than “here are my directives, LIVE BY THEM”. And as consumers of creativity, be it the written word or lyrics, we have to be mindful of the fact that our interpretations of what we consume are always legitimate, but they may veer from what the original creator intended. And if there is a difference in understanding between writing lyrics and listening to music, the two points can exist validly and simultaneously.

Want articles like this in your inbox each Sunday, read by 30k+ subscribers? No BS, spam or tricks... just useful content: