It's a commonly held (and shared) belief among music industry big-wig fancy-pants types that teenagers don't listen closely to music. "The kids care about image, and they care about hook," they say. "Give them someone pretty to watch and something pretty to hum and they'll stroll on their merry way," they say. "Teenagers do not listen to lyrics," they say.
And I sit across from Captain of Industry Music Big-Wig, Sergeant Pants of the Fancy and think, "That doesn't sound right." I nod my head and steal his candy on the way out and say, "But I listened to lyrics as a teenager. Sometimes I listened exclusively for lyrics as a teenager. Was I the only one? Was I weird? Or, is it possible that someone in the music industry is wrong about something?"
Is it possible that Colonel Wigs of the Bigtimes, Lord of the FancyPantsed is wrong about something?
Then I remember a random day at Houston Middle School, years ago. The girl next to me in homeroom arrives ecstatic. She has won two tickets to a Presidents of the United States of America concert. How? She called 96X to request their breakout hit "Lump" and the DJ said he'd be happy to play it. He'd also be happy to give her two tickets to their upcoming concert if she could tell him what the song was about. She thought it was a trick question. Was he serious? The song's about a girl in a coma.
"The song's about a girl in a coma."
The DJ said, "Wow, I'm impressed! Way to go! Stay on the line for your tickets..."
I'll never forget her relief as she told the story. She couldn't believe she got tickets just for knowing on the most basic level what the song's lyrics were saying. She was convinced it was a trick question. "Does this guy think I'm an idiot," she asked, laughing.
Fast-forward to 2009, and I'm back in a middle school classroom, this time teaching a songwriting workshop to twenty teenagers. I ask every kid the group what their all-time favorite song is, and why. Over half the kids cited their song's lyrics first. Maybe I had an exceptionally literate class. Maybe I imagined the whole thing. Or maybe teenagers listen to a song's lyrics like everyone else. Maybe more than everyone else.
Maybe I should just speak for myself. When I was a teenager, I listened to song lyrics obsessively, because I wanted to feel un-alone. My favorite artists were the ones that said something I needed to hear. Chuck Klosterman has written that no band will probably ever mean as much to him as metal bands in the 80's did, because that was the music of his adolescence. I can't agree more. In many ways, teenagers are the best, most attentive, most literate music fans out there, out of sheer necessity. Adolescence is hard, and painful, and isolating; adolescents listen closely because they're desperate for something to relate to. While twenty and thirty-somethings often pick favorite artists in the interest of self-branding, teenagers get it right: they listen for what sounds right to them, and then they spazz out accordingly. Kids allow music to affect them; adults too often try to affect the music.
I came away from the songwriting workshop reminded of what it means to be a teenager and love pop music. I remembered nights circling the block until the song was over, because the last verse was the best. I remembered writing insane notes to girls I liked, quoting songs that said it better than I could. I suddenly remembered everything, including the girl in homeroom who won concert tickes because she simply knew what a song was about.
And I'll remember it all the next time I'm in General BigWig's office, when he shows me his business model, and when he talks about how someone in this model is an idiot, and I'll remember that he's right, someone is, and that he's wrong, it's not the kids.