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Dance Business Asia: The good economics of bad lyrics in dance music

Why simple lyrics are good for business….but at what cost to the art form?

  • Otto Clubman
  • 19 October 2020

Welcome back to Dance Business Asia, Mixmag Asia’s monthly column focusing on the business of dance music in the region. Dance Business Asia dives deep into the business issues confronted by artists, managers and promoters. We look at the economics of dance music in Asia to see what’s working, what isn’t, and how issues can be addressed. The column also features interviews with movers and shakers on the business end of the industry in the region. Your guide, Otto Clubman, is a music industry executive with over twenty years of experience in the dance business.

Dance music lyrics generally suck. There, I said it. And you know it’s true. Take a minute to try to list three dance tracks with interesting / compelling / profound lyrics. I wasted a good half-hour brainstorming with three knowledgeable dance music aficionados in my office last week, and we had to reach back at least ten years to agree on a set of dance lyrics that could be considered “artistic” in even the most liberal sense of the word.

Ok, you say, lyrics aren’t the point of dance music. It’s about the beat, and the vibe and getting people on the dance floor. So, who cares?

But I’m not convinced. Dance poetry didn’t have to suck. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that there wouldn’t be true “poets” in the dance world. Where are the Bob Dylan’s with their political statements? Or the Neil Peart’s with their obscure Ayn Rand references? I’m sure some dance music lyricists secretly scribble touching stanzas into their journals late at night when they are off duty. But it seems they save their most anodyne rhymes for the dance tracks. Why?

In short, the economics of the business dictate bland verse. Darwin’s Law of Music clearly states that the industry will evolve steadily in the direction of whatever sells the most records / drives the most downloads. So, this reversion to banal lyrics in the genre must be a form of natural selection. DJs, producers and record label executives have learned that deep librettos don’t move product.

"Simple words can cross borders and be understood more easily. The accessibility of the basic lyrics has given the genre a passport to travel more seamlessly around the world, picking up fans as it went along."

Let’s look at the economic case for broad, unspecific (and therefore usually uninteresting) lyrics. Dance music was always meant for the dance floor first, so naturally lyrics took a back seat. But more importantly, dance music has always been a truly international genre — its global ambitions were evident from the start. Simple words can cross borders and be understood more easily. The accessibility of the basic lyrics has given the genre a passport to travel more seamlessly around the world, picking up fans as it went along. The default assumption was that dense, specific lyrics would only slow down this spread. It was posited and generally believed by industry leaders and artists, that that broad lyrics, simple themes and / or hooky catch-phrases would appeal to the widest potential customer base. To some extent, this has proved out as a winning formula for creating international superstars and ringing up sales. An English hook or catchphrase can catch on like wildfire around the world. Conversely, international fans could only be turned off by thoughtful prose in a language they don’t understand.

While maybe this default assumption was true in the early days of dance, helping fuel its world domination, I’m not sure it needs to be there rule anymore. Maybe there is room for both universal (i.e. simple / mindless) lyrics, as well as more sophisticated, artful and specific themes? Isn’t there an audience for both?

Remember back in the day when pop / indie lyrics sometimes veered into strangely specific territory, way outside the generic tropes of love and loss. In the 1980s, in Paint a Vulgar Picture, Morrissey sang about a recording artist failing to recoup his / her advances from the record label. Around the same time, Deacon Blue’s Raintown waxed poetic about the merits of saving money and embracing a thrifty lifestyle. These were pretty specific themes that only added to the pleasure of the song (for me, at least). More recently, Taylor Swift’s lyrical mini-dramas – diary entries, some might say – have only added to the appeal of her music. Personally, I want to know much more about Betty and James, from her most recent album. She’s left me curious.

"Good lyrics add to the value of the track as a work of art that helps it stand the test of time."

There is a reason in pop, rap, country music — any genre outside of dance, essentially — that the lyricist receives a big chunk of the publishing royalties. Good lyrics add to the value of the track as a work of art that helps it stand the test of time. You may counter, dance music isn’t meant to last the test of time, it’s for the here and now — good times, dance floor. But I think that’s selling short the artistry (or potential artistry) of the genre.

Let’s look at rap as a contemporary counter-example. Rap has swept the world, much the way dance had a few years earlier. Rap and hip-hop are as big in China now as dance music. Historically, it could be argued, rap led with verse and the beat came second. Dance may be the opposite — the beat always came first and lyrics were a secondary afterthought. But that said, in rap, the beat is still important. I mean, you can’t just ignore it entirely. It’s the blend of the two that create a lasting piece of art — or, to be more practical, a lasting piece of monetizable IP. And lyrics have value, even when separated from the song. There is no reason that dance music lyrics couldn’t similarly have intrinsic, stand-alone value as both a piece of art and a piece of valuable IP.

Genius, the music lyrics site, was initially formed as Rap Genius, providing rap fans and artists with a forum to dissect and discuss the dense lyrics of the tracks. There is a reason they didn’t call it Dance Genius — the discussions would have been quite short. But again, I believe this is a missed opportunity on the part of the dance industry. Artist and executives are ignoring a piece of the puzzle; something that adds value to the finished product. We can start small. Maybe some dance lyricist can pen some lines akin to a Taylor Swift-tale of breakup and heartache, but with specifics, please.

A positive example to look to in dance: the lyrics to Jonas Blue’s remix of Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car are as compelling and touching as anything out there. But remember, these lines were penned by Ms. Chapman over a quarter of a century ago. So we can’t give Jonas full credit; but we can thank him for bringing back this poetry for a new generation! Listen to the remix. The poignant lyrics add to the experience; it’s a significant part of what makes this track great. Yes, it’s a nice remix, but I wonder if it would have been such a smash with lesser lyrics. Fans might not have asked for it, or even realized it on first listens, but I believe the specificity, the heartbreak and hope of those lyrics seeped into the listeners’ consciousness, helping fuel the success of this dance hit.

Anyway, take it from Taylor Swift — specifics connect. And her music has crossed international borders just fine, so I refuse to believe that a well-told tale embedded in a dance track will inhibit the success of the song. In fact, since very few in dance are focusing on quality lyrics yet, a dedicated emphasis on this is likely to be a competitive advantage for the first DJ to take it seriously. Lyrics could be a part of his or her value proposition, and a differentiating factor in a crowded market. So, seize the day, young dance music poets.

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