Waxing (Un)lyrical

Great music is as much about great melodies as it is about great lyrics. Unless your interest in music originates from your desire to dissect the B minors from the high Cs, chances are that you are more likely to remember the lyrics to songs rather than the tunes. The average wannabe rock star on the street may be great at playing air guitar and doing unspeakable things to his favourite tunes, but I'm willing to bet top dollar (even at its depreciating rate!) that he would be singing the right words.

Of course, it would be over simplistic to suggest that the craft of song writing - and make no mistake, it really is a craft - tends to lean towards lyrics than to melody making, as both enjoy important positions. One has to say though that at the end of the day, great lyrics are what make a song so memorable. It's not too difficult to fathom why: words are the instruments of expression that come most naturally to us as human beings. Our thoughts, beliefs, communication and our entire social behaviour is structured around and shaped by, words. More so, in our part of the world, where words have traditionally been a more important cultural, artistic and creative tool than other forms of art. The street storytellers, the court poets, the wandering minstrels spreading gospel truths in verse (or untruths, for that matter!) all form part of our historical, cultural legacy. In fact, from a historical perspective, our music has differed from western styles in that ours has been more phonetically inclined whereas that of the West has been acoustic-oriented. Our traditions of ghazals, geets and qawwalis are rich examples of how word-reliant our music has been.

So one could be forgiven for expecting that given this cultural baggage, the Pakistan music industry and more specifically our pop music, would be thriving on the back of good lyrics. Well, think again! Sample the work around you right now and one would be hard pressed to recall even three songs that one would be remembering words to six months down the line. Compare this, for example with "Come Away With Me" by Norah Jones and you can easily see yourself singing this in your grave! In fact, Norah Jones and her astonishing work on the album is a perfect example to quote to prove our point. The melodies are great, her voice is sublime but this package would be all dressed up to go nowhere were it not for the fact that the lyrics in all her songs reach out and touch your heart. Sadly, our industry does not have anything on offer that comes remotely close to even approaching this kind of work. Sure, there is that odd song here and there and the works of Strings, Najam, Fuzon, Sajjad Ali (occasionally) and of course Junoon do carry the burden, but as an industry-wide phenomenon, lyrics have been a very weak link in the entire value chain. I am of the firm belief that the deepening of the music industry is a function of the deepening of the lyric-writing ability and till such time as we are able to hone our skills at writing good lyrics, we may never be able to take our music to the next level in the evolutionary process.

Of course, this won't happen overnight and there is bound to be widespread divergence in quality, but that ought to be expected. Visions of our music suddenly morphing from the lyrically-challenged to the lyrically-happening status should be dispensed with, but a start nevertheless has to be made. Mind you, even western pop music can boast of absolute turkeys amongst its output (Eurotrash, anyone?) but the difference between us and them is that the ratio of turkeys to gems is far higher there than it is here; hence, for every soulless Britney Spear's song, there's an absolute ripper by Avril Lavigne, for every mindless bubble-gum collection by the boy bands, there is the heart-wrenching work of a Coldplay, a Travis or a Richard Ashcroft and even for every pretentious Eminem single there is the infinitely more inspiring rap of the Bone Thug N-Harmony.

Comparisons of this sort may not be appropriate or fair, given the difference in the state of evolution and development in the two industries, but they are relevant to the extent that they demonstrate the need for sifting the reasons for their success-and good lyric writing is one of them. Moreover, this comparison is important in that it shatters the Van Gogh syndrome which afflicts the artistically inclined: the distinction between art and tart lies not in the extent to which one has suffered to produce good work but how deeply and truthfully one has expressed one's emotions. All this talk about 'commercial' and 'artistic' work treading parallel paths and 'never the twain shall meet' arguments are about as hollow as the next 'national' song by your next door band. The west has shown that artistic and commercial acclaim can be great bedfellows and the Beatles yesterday and Norah Jones today prove this point most emphatically, with the former raising commercial pop to classic status and the latter trampling over the false divide between high art and money raking work.

All this is easier said than done. Our lyricists are far and few in between so that the ones that do exist are creatively (if that is the word one can use for them) stretched. Secondly, there is comfort in the kind of 'tuk-bandi' that we find in our songs - you know, the senseless rhyming along the lines of "Pakistan meri jaan, meri aan, meri shaan, mera khandaan, aur main hun jawaan." Third, the fact that most of our songs are now being written in the form of three minute advertising jingles makes life difficult for those contemplating higher forms of lyric writing - I mean, there's only so much creativity you can squeeze into a song eulogizing Babu Biri! And last but certainly not the least, I think our musicians need to come clean: music is all about you and the songs you write or sing are meant to encapsulate your spirit, not your supari binges. So confront what is it that your music is saying. This introspection over, be willing to take some risks to answer your calling. I can vividly recall the passion that Junoon had ten years back when I worked with them on their second album. At that point in time, there was an awakening restlessness about the political situation, the social hypocrisy and such like. Junoon were bold enough to not only have their songs written by an un-tested commodity (yours truly) but to launch themselves with full gusto on a more socio-politically aware musical route. The songs I wrote for them including the anti-jingoistic yet very nationalistic "Talaash," the tragic-romantic "Bheegi Yaadein" and the bluesy "Woh" were all about how we were feeling at that point in our lives and Junoon stuck by them and indeed made them their own. What is heartening to note is that they've continued to be true to themselves. Likewise, it's great to have Najam singing about Utopian bliss on his latest album and see Strings continue to sing unpretentious romantic songs, their world-cup aberration notwithstanding!

So if you want to make great music, be true to yourself and write great lyrics - and we shall all wax lyrical for you!

Farrukh Moriani
April, 2003
The News International, Pakistan