Wednesday, May 26, 2010

In Defense of Stevie and Lyrical Obscurity

This week Stevie Nicks turns 62 years old, and this means two things for me. First, by acknowledging her birthday, I will undoubtedly be reminded by a loved one of the South Park episode where Stevie is impersonated by a goat, kidnapped by the Taliban, and does a stage performance (in goat-form with a chiffon skirt) singing “bah, bah, bahh.” Damn you, South Park. But second, and more importantly, her birthday gives me license to unabashedly praise her in all her fairytale-telling, gossamer-wearing, la-la-land living glory.

Stevie has long been an easy target for mocking and parody by the cynics of the rock and roll world. Last night I read through every album review that Rolling Stone magazine ever gave Stevie’s solo work. I don’t recommend it for other Stevie fans. It is harsh criticism, and it is the primary reason I soured to the magazine years ago. To appreciate Stevie’s words and her image, one must be willing to suspend reality, embrace the fantasy world she lives in, and come to terms with the notion that great lyrics can sometimes be nonsensical as long as they convey a mood or a feeling. This is something that rock critics have never accepted in Stevie’s songs, and as a result, she has not been taken seriously for her fantastic songwriting.

I like lyrical obscurity in songwriting, and I don’t think a songwriter should be discounted because their lyrics lack clarity. The songs that do not reveal all of the writer’s truths are the songs that stay with you over the course of time and take on different meanings as you grow and change. Stevie writes almost entirely about relationships, but she leaves her words open to interpretation by the listener and their own relationships. “Landslide,” “Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You,” “Silver Springs,” “Storms,” “Sara,” and the list goes on… are songs that the listener can apply to any number of relationships in their life: to a lover, a child, a parent, a friend. Landslide will comfort the teenager struggling to get over the break-up of a first love, but then take on a whole different meaning to that same person when, 20 years down the road, they look into their child’s eyes. And the song’s meaning likely had many incarnations in between.

Stevie also is a master at putting words together in a way that conveys mood through imagery:

You could be my Silver Spring / Blue-green colors flashing / I would be your only dream / Your shining autumn, ocean crashing (Silver Springs)

And a black widow spider makes more sound than she / Black moons in those eyes of hers made more sense to me (Sister of the Moon)

The ones you dream of / The ones who walk away / With their capes pulled ‘round them tight / Crying for the night / Cry for the Nightbird (Nightbird)

She out in the distance sees him against the sky / A pale and violent rider / A dream begun in wine (The Highwayman)

Track a ghost through the fog / A charmed hour and a haunted song (Angel)

What does it all mean?!?! It doesn’t matter if her words are puzzling. As fragmented and obscure as her lyrics can be, they paint a pictures in the mind. You may not know what she was writing about in some songs; nonetheless, you know what she was feeling. Not all of Stevie’s songs are crafted in the style of a medieval fairytale. She has written many straightforward country-style tunes, and is quite talented in writing for that genre. “That’s Alright,” “Rose Garden,” “Enchanted,” and “Leather and Lace” are a few examples of her country-style songs. At the request of country singer Waylon Jennings, Stevie originally wrote “Leather and Lace” for Jennings to duet with his wife Jessi Colter. Jennings also produced very convincing country versions of “Rhiannon” and “Gold Dust Woman.”

I do understand some criticism of her albums. Although I think Stevie has consistently written great lyrics throughout the years, the overall quality of her finished music has depended on who was producing her albums. She fell prey in the late 80’s to some unfortunate instrumentation, as many artists did. I also understand that her lyrical style, as well as her vocal style, is not palatable to everyone.

Despite never being the critics’ darling, Stevie is intensely beloved by her fans, respected and admired by the countless artists she has shared the stage with, and continues to reach out and mentor young songwriters. For all of the fanciful tales she has told through song, she is as authentic a writer and a performer as they come. Her songs, her audience, and performing with her peers are the great loves of her life, and we are lucky recipients of that passion and dedication.

Don't listen to her, listen through her...



  1. Very thoughtfully written and keenly observed. I agree with your description of Stevie's lyrics conveying feeling rather than literal meaning. I relate so easily to that emotional connection with her songs - and subsequently with her - that I cannot in the least understand those who don't care for her music.

    The music industry seems to have become more superficial than The Real Housewives of Orange County lately and coined its darlings accordingly. It stands to reason that an authentic artist and poet like Stevie might find harsh criticism at every corner. Hopefully she'll continue to pay no mind and take heart that her fans are loyal as ever. Vivienne

  2. Love what you wrote here - and agree with you 100%. I've been a fan of Stevie since the first time I ever heard her ethreal voice. Love what you say in "About Me." You said everything I feel there. Like you, I'm not a professional critic; but I have worked in the music industry (back in the 80's) with local talent and have always had an "ear" for great music. I just KNEW Stevie would go farther with her solo career than anybody else ever would out of Fleetwood Mac. And it turns out that Lindsey was the real diva!
    Like me, you have a very diverse taste in music (from Carlos Santana to Johnny Cash!). I've always said I have everything in my record collection from Barbra Streisand to Judas Priest (bought an album of theirs for the cover of Joan Baez's "Diamonds & Rust" that I heard on the radio back then). Someone I'd have to add to the list would be Bob Seger. Only God knows how many hours I've spent listening to his lyrics and music. In fact, I've always said the "theme song" in my life has always been "Against The Wind." There was something he was accused of that I totally despise, but I've always loved him as a singer/songwriter. Another one I'll have to put in that category is Melissa Etheridge. Check them out, if you haven't. I'm positive, from reading what you wrote, that you'll "hear" them emotionally, too.
    Keep up the good work, obviously, write better than most rock "critics" I've read and you FEEL the music. You Rock, my friend!