Do lyrics really matter? Music is a universal language, but without words even the universal language loses semantics.
Before you go through this article, listen to Oppa Gangnam Style and Gentleman from the K-Pop rapper Psy. Assuming that you have now listened to those songs, those massively popular songs, I can safely say that you hardly understand Psy’s rap. But so be it! He is popular not because of the lyrics—the words are neither instigative, nor provoking, or not even suggestive. They are just there, but the performance, both in vocals and via the video, is so strong that it has earned “the most watched video in YouTube”, obviously the “most listened to song in YouTube” as well.
“Lyrics are the roots to all songs,” says Rajendra Shalabh, the widely accepted songwriter whose prolific works have transcended over to films, solo numbers, albums, and even languages. “From lyrics come the stem called the music, and the arrangement, rhythms, and others follow,” he says. “That does not necessarily mean that lyrics are the most important of them all. When preparing khichadi, can you say that the rice is more important, or the lentils serve a better purpose? No! Even if one element clicks, the song will be accepted.”
Taking a very old example of the song Resham Firiri, this song is an anthem to Nepali people, especially NRNs—but the meanings of resham and firiri have connotations only. No one can really pinpoint what they really mean. Some say it’s a handkerchief in the breeze, some other say it’s fluttering wings, and some other come up with their own interpretation. But the song, that seems to have gulped down elixir itself, never dies. The performance of the song is just too powerful—generations have come and gone, and hundreds of covers can be found, but the song lives. Lyrics have not mattered.
How about forceful rhymes? With our ears trained to listen to beautifully crafted words put into systematic pattern, are rhymes really that important? Veteran lyricist Navaraj Lamsal, with his decades of experience in Radio Nepal, advocates, “I would say words don’t matter as much as stanza. Nepali language is rich with words that are created for the sole purpose of putting them into pattern only. Without rhymes, songs cannot even be imagined.”
New gen lyricist Abeeral Thapa, with his popular number Audai Chu Ki Jadai from the movie Saanghuro gives a nod to rhymes. “You cannot imagine songs without rhymes. There are various structures to it, they can range from AAAA to ABAB, or just AAA or ABBA, or can simple be AA only, but without rhymes songs don’t exist. Yes, sometimes the lyric has to be twisted to such a degree that it truly seems to lose its figure, but if it fits into the structure, then the lyrics does not matter.”
Chihan Ki Pari is one such example. Even to this date, without the lyricist explaining the song, no one can really say what the song means. But contrary, the song is truly popular. Singers like Prakash Ojha with Bhatkai Dinchu, Prakash Paudel with Nai Malai Tyai Keti, Narad Khatiwada with Dhoka Kholana have experimented on song styles like angry tone, crying or drunk (respectively) and have gained some certain exposure. Their styles were the talk of the town, but then again, lyrics helped drive the songs’ popularity.
Lyrics are a means for the song. It is the point of origination from which all the other aspects of song start flourishing. But lyrics need not necessarily be anything intelligible. Meaningless could work just well too. Songs during Gaijatra, a festival of humor and satire, would not exist if all lyrics made sense, would it?