Play the song, skip the message
Whenever I hear somebody suggest listening to a song because "it has a great message," I cringe, no matter if the song is a call to protest or a summons to piety.
Music should be music, not politics or preaching.
Music touches a different part of the brain than spoken language. Stroke victims who cannot speak sometimes maintain the ability to sing favorite songs.
Alzheimer's victims who don't know where they are can often sing along to all verses of an old, familiar hymn.
The charms of music are mysterious.
Most great musicians have nothing of interest to say in spoken interviews. Their eloquence arises from the musical part of their brain and doesn't translate well to the intellect.
Songs with an overt message obscure the profound emotional impact that comes from a great melody performed by a great musician.
That's why I prefer nonsense lyrics to songs with a story.
"Obla di, Obla da, life goes on," is about as deep as I can stand.
I have never figured out opera. The few times I have tried, the experience was ruined when I found out the soprano's screeching up and down the scale for the past five minutes said nothing more than "The kitchen is on fire!" in Italian.
Much better just to enjoy the beautiful sound of the Latin words in Mozart's "Requiem" than to discover their meaning and be disappointed that more wasn't said with all those beautiful syllables.
Most songs with an overt message fail to convince.
Nothing worse than a con-artist crooner singing, "Baby, baby, baby, I'll love you till the end of time."
His real goal is more carnal, and his drippy sentiments will likely dry up by Monday morning.
Much better to hear Mick Jaggar use his voice as a rhythmic instrument. No need to dig for deep meaning in "Jumpin Jack Flash, it's a gas gas gas!"
The words of the best rock songs are just an excuse to have fun.
Bob Dylan has a reputation as a great protest songwriter. However, his most memorable songs make no sense at all except as an enjoyment of the sound and rhythm of the language.
Oh, I suppose there's a story to Bob's "Like a Rolling Stone." But isn't it more fun just to enjoy the poetry of "once upon a time you dressed so fine, you threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't youuuuuuuuuu?"
Boors who insist upon explaining the message of that song are in the same class as people who give away the endings of movies you haven't yet seen. Please, just be quiet.
Although George Frederic Handel was German, he wrote the great "Messiah" oratorio in English. The text was taken from archaic and beautiful passages of the King James Bible. Handel emphasized the poetry of the words and created something miraculous.
However, immediately after a live performance of the "Hallelujah Chorus" you can usually overhear certain people in the audience rush to make sure everybody knows that the text was more important than the music.
"You can't let the beautiful music get in the way of the important message," they nervously lecture in a panicked attempt to can the deep joy of the experience.
These kill-joys can't stand the idea of beautiful music for the sake of beautiful music. Unless a song browbeats you with their ideological message, they don't want to hear it.
Perhaps they are afraid to revel in the part of the brain tied to pure music, the cranial sector that produces our deepest emotions, emotions you can't express in words and shouldn't even try.
Good music is so powerful it makes some people afraid.
And let's not let the coffee house crooners off the hook, those joyless granolas who write preachy ditties against multinational corporations and acid rain.
C'mon, people, music is a break from the cares of this world. It is a window into something bigger, something we don't understand.
A few weeks ago, I attended a gathering where a talented music teacher took 17 of us, most with no musical experience, and taught us a complicated round.
We sang no words. Just nonsense syllables. But there we were, 17 people from all different backgrounds and of all ages producing stunning four-part harmony together.
None of us could describe exactly what we learned. But for many of us, it was a peak experience that we'll never forget.
That's music as it should be: Too big to be reduced to words.