As two of my sons and I were leaving the theater after a screening of The Golden Compass (which was, on the one hand, not as wonderful as the book, but on the other hand, not nearly as awful as I had been led to believe, but, as any reader of this blog knows, it's not very hard to please me, so take that judgement for what it's worth), my son the singer commented on the Kate Bush song that runs while the credits are rolling--"Lyra." In classic Kate Bush fashion, there are some extra-odd lyrics and beautiful, haunting singing.
"Lyra, Lyra," he yodeled, mockingly.
I said, "I think it sounds kind of beautiful."
"Yeah, but listen to the lyrics," he said, although, what with all the music criticism, I really couldn't, but I'll take his word for it--they were fatuous.
(Okay, I looked it up on The Google: "Lyra… Lyra…And her face full of grace/Two worlds collide around her/The truth lies deep inside her/Lyra… Lyra../And the stars look down upon her/As darkness settles on her/Lyra… Lyra…/Who’s to know what’s in the future/But we hope we will be with her/We have all our love to give her/Oh Lyra… Lyra…"
Are these lyrics terrible? I don't know--maybe not good. Probably not good.)
"But sometimes songs can be good regardless of the lyrics," I ventured--running son agreed.
"Name one song where the lyrics are terrible but the song is good. Where the song is great."
Well, I don't know about that, but the other day while I was out Christmas shopping (motto: one for you, two for me; two for you, three for me), I heard one of the hoariest, probably not-good Christmas songs of all time, by Dan Fogelberg, "Same Auld Lang Syne." I don't know if I will say the lyrics are terrible, but I'm pretty sure they're risible, at least in places, and it features a slightly overblown saxophone solo at the end. Fogelberg doubles his voice throughout, there are loads of strings amping up the sap, there are a million things wrong with this song. On a very good day, Dan Fogelberg is kind of a twee singer (not that there's anything wrong with that--). When my daughter the makeup artist was still in elementary school, she and her then-best friend made up a dance to "Run for the Roses," which involved running toward each other on the diagonal and leaping to emulate the horses running, I guess. That's the basic frame for my response to the Fogelbergian oeuvre. [Note: in looking for a link to the song, I was reminded that he's dead now--feeling a little sorry to be so dismissive. Yet I stand by it. Although, read on:]
But I was so very pleased to hear this song! It hit the melancholy note I find in nearly anything, it hit that note hard; it articulated a certain lonely quality that I always find amplified at Christmas. Something in the chorus--the harmonic progressions, the melody over that, the idea of drinking a toast to something lost?--caught me in the song, as it always has from the first time I heard it. It infected and inflected the rest of my day, and when I got home, I downloaded it from iTunes and listened to it several times in a row.
Why a song catches your ear, or more than that, may be more, or less, than the sum of its parts. It might just be the way the singer slows down at the end of a phrase, or the instrumentation when the song picks the tempo back up, or even a little lyric like
just for a moment I was back at school
and felt that old familiar pain,
and as I turned to make my way back home,
the snow turned into rain.
One's critical faculties may not be the most useful apparatus to engage in judging what amounts to an emotional artifact. Even an emotional artifact that is arguably constructed in whole or in part of ripe cheese.