Nadia Elkharadly: Don’t forget the Lyrics

Music is such an amazing thing.  It can tell a story with the pluck of a string, the beat of a drum, the sound of a voice, and of course, the combination of all of those things with words: stories, poetry; in short, lyrics.  Words set to music; it’s such a simple, even a common concept.  But sometimes, maybe even more often than not, these words, the lyrics to even the most popular songs go unlistened to, overlooked, even…ignored.

I’ll freely admit that it’s happened to me more than a time or two.  I’ll hear a song, a catchy one, the kind that makes you tap your finger to the beat, even start humming along.  I’ll pick up a few words here and there, not enough to carry the whole song but enough for it to stick in my head.  Then one day, I’ll really listen, and realize, what I thought was a happy song, a sad song, a funny song, or just a simple, fun song, really isn’t what it seems.

This happened to me most recently with a Foster the People song.  This Los Angeles based trio have been making their mark in the global musical landscape, and that’s quite a feat considering they’ve only been a band since 2009.  They’ve played sold out shows all over the world, including huge festivals like Coachella and South by South West.  They’ve got a massively popular record, Torches as their debut.  And of course, they’ve been nominated for multiple Grammy awards.  Not bad for three guys, who less than 3 years ago were out of work musicians, struggling to get by writing jingles (as lead singer Mark Foster was).  It all started when their first single “Pumped up Kicks” was released.  This is a song that is positively infectious, so much so that it went viral last year (pun intended).  People absolutely love this song.  They love to dance to it, they love to sing along, they love everything about it.  I was (and still am) one of those people.  But I have to wonder:  how many of the Foster the People fans have taken the time to really sit and listen to the lyrics?

Robert’s got a quick hand

He’ll look around the room

He won’t tell you his plan

He’s got a rolled cigarette

Hanging out his mouth

He’s a cowboy kid
Yeah he found a six-shooter gun

In his dad’s closet, in the box of fun things

I don’t even know what

But he’s coming for you, yeah he’s coming for you
All the other kids with the pumped up kicks

You better run, better run, outrun my gun

All the other kids with the pumped up kicks

You better run, better run, faster than my bullet

It’s been said to be a song about the Columbine school shootings, or the Westroads Mall shooting in Omaha, but Foster dispels these notions time and time again.  The dark content of the song is far more general, calling attention to gun violence, and youth without direction, or support.  “I was trying to get inside the head of an isolated, psychotic kid” he said to Rolling Stone Magazine.  And it’s that sad, troubled place that these words describe, and it’s almost chilling to listen to closely.  A song that I sang, danced to, and enjoyed on such a superficial level ended up being one of the saddest, and sadly much too common stories I’d ever heard.  “It’s a ‘fuck you’ song to the hipsters in a way—but it’s a song the hipsters are going to want to dance to.” And he was right.  In the great tradition of many songwriters before him, Mark Foster wrote an ironic song that completely flew over the heads of most of his fan base.  For a short time, I was one of them, until a chance comment by a friend gave me pause, and drove me to dig deeper.

There’s also a complete opposite of this phenomenon; a song whose words are completely sweet, happy, uplifting even, but are sung in a melancholy way.  When I first started writing music reviews last year, one of the public relations companies that bombarded me constantly with coverage requests asked me to check out a local singer.  His name was Warren Hildebrand, also known as Foxes in Fiction.  Warren has a beautifully sweet voice, gentle and melodic, and an incredible gift for making music.  He was actually one of my first ever interviews, which gave me the chance to talk to him about this song that he recorded with Weed.

If you guessed that this song was a cover of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream”, then you’d be right.  Teenage dream has to be one of the most saccharine, happy go lucky song about young love that there is.

Let’s go all the way tonight
No regrets, just love
We can dance until we die
You and I
We’ll be young forever

You make me
Feel like
I’m living a Teenage Dream
The way you turn me on
I can’t sleep
Let’s run away
And don’t ever look back
Don’t ever look back

But Warren’s interpretation takes it to a decidedly dark place.  The angst in his voice, almost like he’s wrenching the words out, as if they pained him to sing them, is evident.  And the fact is, they did pain him.

N:  What made you decide to cover Katy Perry’s “Teenage dream” out of all the pop songs out there?

WH:  That song was actually a collaboration I did with a friend (Weed).  I’d never heard it before he asked me to record it with him.  I did all the recording for that song in one day, and my best friend from high school (Kate Morris) actually died from a drug over dose that day.  Working through that song is something that I needed to do to focus my attention away from how completely grief filled I felt.  It’s kind of ironic because it’s such an upbeat song, and the lyrics are so cheery and optimistic, but I recorded it during the most fucked up time. 

Words, even the happiest ones, sung in this sombre, despondent manner, create a complete disassociation with their meaning.  The feelings behind the music, they are conveyed despite the mask of happiness the words attempt to create.

So there you have it.  Two examples, two opposite instances, but one interesting similarity:  neither of these songs are what they seem.  And isn’t that what’s really the most amazing thing about music?  The different layers, the different interpretations, all the different ways that notes, beats, and words can come together, to make you think and feel in different ways.  Never forget to listen to the lyrics, and never forget to feel what the music makes you, despite what the words may be trying to say.

Until next time,



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Nadia Elkharadly is a Toronto based writer with a serious addiction to music. Corporate drone by day, renegade rocker by night, writing is her creative outlet.  Nadia writes for the Examiner (.com) on live music in Toronto and Indie Music in Canada.  She has never been in a band but plays an awesome air guitar and also the tambourine.  Check in every Tuesday for musings about music, love, life and whatever else that comes to mind.

One Response to “Nadia Elkharadly: Don’t forget the Lyrics”

  1. Sheesh! now you’ll have me listening to the words!…er, not! for me efer since I tried to figure out “scuse me while I kiss the sky, guy” or what ever it is, it just ruins the vibe of the music itself. Words are cheap, money buys the beer and for me that will always be the music, but then again, I have WAY (Wierd Al Yankovic)syndrome, where I change the words as I see fit. Cheers!

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