Joseph Andre Thomas
Daniel Renton writes in his essay opening this series that, in a song, “music and words are always irreducibly intertwined in some way.” This relationship is fascinating for two major reasons. One, that a piece of music, stripped of words, is still a song; a series of words, stripped of music, is generally not considered a song. Words on their own are poetry, literature, etc. This problematizes any poetical assessment of a song’s lyrics. Words are often—though certainly not always—brought into the musical landscape after the musical “skeleton” of a song has been written, a companion to the music itself. Musicians who write lyrics in a more traditionally poetic sense—Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Lauren Hill, Kendrick Lamar—are often celebrated as much for their poetry as their musicianship, but few would expect Chad Kroeger’s lyrics to crack a post-secondary literature syllabus. Two, that “bad” lyrics—or lyrics not traditionally considered poetical—can make for good songs or at least popular ones. Poetry is generally written to express a perspective, transmit a specific emotion, create beautiful imagery or euphony. That is not always the pursuit of a song. The average pop song typically aims to sound catchy. Many songs’ lyrics are a secondary concern. But songs with bad lyrics are still songs. (For his myriad faults, Chad Kroeger is still a musician.) Thus, it is essential to consider flawed songs in this discussion, too; songs whose very construction illustrate the friction between words and music.
I’m going to examine two related songs: “Valerie” by Steve Winwood and “Call On Me” by Eric Prydz. Neither of these songs are groundbreaking, musically, but they do create an interesting enough complication of the verbal and non-verbal elements of song to merit a look.
Steve Winwood was a briefly popular British musician in the 1980s, best known for the hits “While You See a Chance” and “Higher Love.” (Perhaps, these days, best known as Dennis Reynolds’ musical obsession on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.) “Valerie” was his fourth hit single. At a glance, it appears to be a song from the perspective of a man yearning for an ex-lover, a woman “so cool, she was like / Jazz on a summer’s day,” (and a line so scrumptiously awful it practically begs us to wonder when a lyric should be considered “purple”). The speaker, reminiscing about their time together, begs Valerie to “call on me … Come and see me / I’m the same boy I used to be.”
Setting dark lyrical themes against a musical landscape of bright guitars, towering synths, and electronic drums was a trope of new wave music.
One would be forgiven for thinking it was another synth-driven ’80s love song, fairly rote in its proclamations and clichéd in its “boy-pines-for-lost-love” perspective. But there’s a little more to it than that. Will Jennings, Winwood’s “Valerie” co-writer and regular collaborator, claims to have written it about a female singer who was, he felt, losing herself to drugs. “Valerie is a real person,” Jennings said in an interview, “whose identity I will not reveal. She was almost at the top of the world in her profession and let it slip away from her. She was a dear friend and this is my tribute to her.” Winwood himself doubled down on this claim:
‘Valerie,’ for instance, isn’t a song remembering this girl I was madly in love with. It’s not that at all. It’s a plea to a certain girl singer—someone I didn’t know personally but who Will Jennings had drawn my attention to—not to destroy herself with drugs. The narrator in the song is saying, ‘I’m back, and I’m same person I used to be—so why isn’t she?’
(Quick aside: some sources, including Wikipedia, believe the song might be directed at Valerie Carter, a talented, prolific backup singer, but I question this. It goes against Jennings claim that he does not want to reveal her identity. He also speaks of her in the past tense. Carter only passed on in March of this year.)
This is not a particularly original upbeat ’80s tune. Setting dark lyrical themes against a musical landscape of bright guitars, towering synths, and electronic drums was a trope of newwave music. Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” (depression/suicide ideation), Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark’s “Enola Gay” (bombing of Hiroshima), and Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” (Brixton race riots) all do something similar. This dissonance can add a striking dimension to a song, an ironical tension between the verbal and non-verbal. Executed well, this tension can raise a song far above the average pop tune. A solid chunk of The Clash’s discography—London Calling,” “Spanish Bombs,” “Rock the Casbah”—depends upon it.
Creating tension by these means can create problems, too. If his intention was indeed to eulogize, not pine over a person, Winwood’s performance undermines that intention. Musically, “Valerie” is not far off from “Higher Love,” which is certainly a love song. Winwood’s vocal performance on both songs are at about the same register, making use of similar melodies and flourishes. There are few lyrics in “Valerie” that feel like they are about a person losing herself to drugs. Winwood opens the song: “So wild standing there / With her hands in her hair / I can’t help remember / Just where she touched me.” Lyrics like these and “call on me / I’m the same boy I used to be” —especially in the way that Winwood almost coos that last line of the chorus—sound like the kinds of things one would say to or about an old lover, not to a person struggling with addiction. The ironical dissonance that works in other songs does not work quite so well here. “Valerie” is essentially, for the average listener, a love song.
Another song I mentioned, Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” is musically upbeat, yes, but a quick glance at the lyrics—“I find it kind of funny / I find it kind of sad / The dreams in which I’m dying / Are the best I’ve ever had” —along with the gravitas of Curt Smith’s performance signal to the listener that the song is about something drearier than dancing. There are no such signposts in “Valerie,” though some of the vaguer lines—“Music, high and sweet / Then she just blew away” or “Her cries hang there, in time, somewhere”—might be interpreted as being about Valerie’s addiction. If the spirit of “Valerie” is to lament an old friend or lover’s descent into addiction, that doesn’t come across in the mood of the music. Put simply, in Winwood’s hands, “Valerie” sounds like a love song. And “Call On Me” might be his punishment for that.
In 2004, the world was treated to Swedish DJ Eric Prydz’s “Call On Me,” a house music redux of “Valerie.” It is not a remix, cover, or even a sample—so impressed with an early cut of “Call On Me” was Winwood that he volunteered to re-record the pertinent lyrics—of “Valerie,” but a kind of electro homage that reapplies the earlier song’s chorus. Prydz whittles the lyrics of “Valerie” down to “Call on me” and “I’m the same boy I used to be” repeated dozens of times.
This is a song, like most electronic dance music and house, that relies almost entirely on its non-verbal components for effect. Regardless of its label, any EDM makes this discussion challenging, purely because the genre often relies so little on lyrics. Many EDM songs eschew a recognizably human element, while some musicians include human vocals that are nonsense (Justice, “Newjack”) or pure melody (Aphex Twin, “Xtal”). They include lyrics only insofar as they complement or weave organically into the musical tapestry. “Call On Me” falls into this camp. The verbal aspects of “Call On Me,” scant as they are, are essentially another instrument, part of the song’s rhythmic thrust. But the relationship between the song’s verbal and non-verbal components says much.
Further establishing this new context is the music beneath the words: a driving, sex-fuelled, progressive house track that, like so much EDM, seems to be on a perpetual journey towards some impossible climax.
In Prydz’s song, Valerie, the character, is cut from the equation entirely. It is probably safe to assume that Prydz chose the lyrics from “Valerie” based entirely upon the way they sound, and either did not know or care that the song was about an addict. For all its vagaries, Valerie was always at the centre of Winwood’s version. She is a non-entity in “Call On Me.” The woman who was cool as “Jazz on a summer’s day” is reduced to an emblem of sexual desirability.
This re-contextualizes the plea at the centre of the song. What might once have been a call for maturity and sobriety is here an emphatic lover’s plea, likely a sexual one. Further establishing this new context is the music beneath the words: a driving, sex-fuelled, progressive house track that, like so much EDM, seems to be on a perpetual journey towards some impossible climax.
Another quick aside: surely colouring any interpretation of “Call On Me” is its music video. I wanted to focus solely on the song and not its notoriously sexual video, but they are too deeply intertwined to simply ignore. Much of the commentary and criticism of “Call On Me” available online is really a discussion of the music video, which is understandable. It is a brazen, borderline pornographic, wildly problematic piece of filmmaking. I’m not sure exactly what, but it’s sure as hell something. Watch at your own discretion. And while we’re on the topic, the video to “Valerie” is something of a masterpiece.
We return to the question of Winwood’s performance. If you read “Valerie” as a fairly typical, saccharine love song, then it dovetails nicely into Prydz’s version. “Call On Me” feels like the mid-aughts, nu-disco successor to “Valerie”—more open in its sexuality, sure, and more desperate in its central plea, but nonetheless in the same spirit. If you read “Valerie” as Winwood intended, however, then “Call On Me” bears it little to no resemblance.
I know, I hear you. The fallacy of intent. But isn’t the author’s intent an even muddier subject in music than in literature? Not only do we have to deal with the words themselves, but the performance and the music, too. All these elements should be doing what the musician intends for them to do. Of course, there is room for interpretation—everyone knows you can never really trust an artist—but if none of these elements ably articulate the song’s greater significance, the musician invites misunderstanding. Because the sanguine musicality and melancholic lyrical content of “Valerie” have such a strained relationship, it is easy to see why Prydz and others have misread it. Had Winwood’s performance signaled the significance Winwood and Jennings later claimed the song to have, perhaps it might have merited an update that hewed a little closer to its spirit, such as Gary Jules’ somber cover of “Mad World.” “Call On Me” disconnects Valerie even further from the lyrics at the centre of both songs.
If anything, “Valerie” and “Call On Me” are examples of why words are simply less important to music than to poetry. Does the intent behind Winwood’s words really matter, honestly, if the song is successful on a sonic level? Valerie’s dark struggles are set within—and devoured by—his buoyant musical landscape. Just like Prydz, Winwood likely wanted, on a musical level, to get hips swaying and toes tapping. By those standards both songs are undeniably successful.
If Steve Winwood’s lyrics and performance are misaligned with the meaning and emotion he hoped to convey, “Valerie” is an example of how both the verbal and non-verbal elements of song can both work musically, while they perplex poetically. His words are, for many listeners, going to be remembered in not his own, but Eric Prydz’s thundering, hyper-sexualized context. In the process, however, “Valerie,” the song, just like Valerie, the person, is a casualty.
Joseph Andre Thomas is a writer living in Toronto, ON, originally from the west coast. He is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto’s M.A. in Creative Writing program. He was a recipient of the Avie Bennett Emerging Writers Scholarship and the Canada Master’s Scholarship. He writes freelance, bartends, reads for and sometimes contributes to The Puritan, sometimes even finds time to work on his own writing.