Meaningless Matters: The Form of Musical Lyrics

Noah Cowit

For a while I hated 80’s pop. Or at least I thought I did. I thought I hated about “Call Me” and “Come on Eileen”, “Tainted Love” and “I Ran.” I thought I hated big synthesizers, repetitive melodies, and articulated lyrics. At the very least I saw these things as empty, a useless joke. Something to scoff at, not to listen to.

I was certainly not the only one.

80’s pop, and pop music in general, may be one of the most critically disregarded genres of music. There is none other so routinely criticized in popular intellectualism. Of course there is the occasional contrarian fluff piece, like the Huffington Post’s so called “Defense of Pop Music”[i], which boldly states that “Pop music is nowhere near as bad as people make it out to be.” Despite, or perhaps because of, these feeble defenses, I would’ve been content to hate 80’s pop forever. Except for one thing. It’s structure, it’s lyrics, were fantastic. It was form without truth, a glorious superficiality.

Maybe for this reason, it grew on me. 80’s pop began to become a guilty pleasure. It slowly ate through my playlists, becoming 10, then 20, then 30% of what I listened to. Trying to justify 80’s pop to myself, I searched for some significance in the lyrics. I can tell you that it becomes pretty obvious, pretty quickly, that looking for hidden truths in “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” is an exercise in futility. A friend of mine perhaps put it best when they said, “Music should have meaning, even if it is just about love and relationships; the music you listen to is about nothing.”

But that does not settle the matter. It should not settle the matter. It cannot just be accepted without a fight that meaning is all that matters, that form and style have no value. 80’s pop is hardly unique in this. People like meaningless lyrics. People like meaningless language. Yet they are bothered by a lack of meaning, and not by a lack of form.

So, this leaves us with one option. To develop a defense for meaninglessness, or find that it is impossible to listen to 80’s pop, or read detective novels, or the comics in a newspaper, without creeping feelings of guilt and insecurity. This is a defense of 80’s pop, and not only that, it is a defense of all language, all art, that does not carry an inherent meaning; that which is primarily form.

Interestingly enough, the route to doing this is through the song “Tom’s Diner”, by Suzanne Vega.[ii]

This may seem an odd choice at first. Although made in the 80’s, “Tom’s Diner” is not a pop song. For one, it is sung A Capella. No drums, no synthesizers, not even an acoustic guitar. It does not blast into being like most pop music, it smoothly flows. There is no repetitive chorus. In fact, there is no line repetition whatsoever. The events it describes are simple, the setting ordinary. And most importantly, “Tom’s Diner” arguably has hidden meanings, hidden “truths”. But this, of course, is absolutely necessary. You cannot elevate form unless it can be shown that it has some potential to outdo meaning. It cannot be done in a song with none.

Perhaps the best way of interpreting what meaning and form contribute to “Tom’s Diner” is by comparing what can be gained from both. We can try to separate the two, describing the song with meaning at the expense of form, and then form at the expense of meaning. Then we may be able to tell how they each contribute differently to our understanding of the song. We will start with meaning.

Tom’s Diner is a song about a lonely person in a diner. Some evidence that they’re lonely is because they look away when two of the characters in the diner show a level of familiarity with each other, kissing in greeting. This could also be attributed to social awkwardness or perhaps a general problem with intimacy. However, later contextual evidence points to the idea of loneliness over these later two premises. Additionally, the character feels isolated from the world, and from other people in general. Examples of this include when the character doesn’t know of the person they read about in an obituary. There is a level of blocked intimacy when the character finds themselves unable to make eye contact with a woman outside, because the glare from the glass blocks her view of the inside. So the woman outside can also be considered to be isolated. Also, there is a level of sexual tension, as the character outside is moving her skirt up on her leg, to straighten her underclothes, but despite her efforts the rain is making her hair damp. This could also be considered commentary on idealized perfection. Finally, there seems to be a romantic aspect to the loneliness the character may be experiencing, as another person in mentioned who seems to have a level of familiarity with the person at the diner.

Hopefully that didn’t completely ruin the song for you.

It could be questioned at this point why that read like the essay of a middle schooler. The answer is simple. If meaning is all that matters, everything of value in Tom’s Diner should be able to be gained from the paragraph above. Creative form shouldn’t be needed to supplement meaning, so long as the knowledge given is correct and clear. But there is something obviously wrong with this argument. Or if not wrong, at least not right. If it hadn’t explicitly said it, a person could honestly wonder if what is being described is a song, or just some weird passage about a person in a diner. Clearly something is missing.

Maybe it’s that the paragraph doesn’t take into account how seamlessly the words line up in “Toms Diner”, how even a slight syncopation grabs the attention like a vice. Maybe it’s that it doesn’t have quotes to show us how the language is so simple, and yet so effective. Maybe it’s that it doesn’t tell us that song is written in first person, that is “I am sitting-in the morning-at the diner-on the corner” and how the result is intensely visceral and personal. Maybe it’s that it doesn’t mention despite this first person narration, when the women is “outside looking in”, it is not “I think she sees her own reflection”, but “cause she sees-her own reflection” and how it isn’t “no she does not see me” but “no she does not-really see me”. Or maybe it’s all of these things. Maybe it’s that the story of “Tom’s Diner” is one that could be described in a million different ways, but that for some reason, this way, with this particular arrangement of words, is one that works.

Wasn’t that better? Doesn’t it seem that by concentrating on form instead of meaning-by focusing on the language-not the knowledge-we can gain a better sense of what “Tom’s Diner” really is? This may be because form alone has the potential to affect the reader, or the watcher, or the listener, in a way that meaning simply can’t. It is all about effect. If form is effective, if it makes the audience feel something, then it works. Form can exist in a palatable form without meaning, but meaning cannot do the same without form. This may be because form alone has the potential to create feeling, while meaning alone just has the potential to create more meaning. It is about emotion and subjectivity, about the potential of words to shape us.

More than that, it is about the potential of words to shape how we view the world.

The study of words is central to the understanding of form. Words are often incorrectly considered perfect descriptors. That is, the word “chair” is not just a representation of the thing we call the chair, the word chair is the chair. Or at least the thought connected to the word is the chair. But is it really? Are the word and the thing truly one and the same? In “Tom’s Diner”, would there really be no difference if the word wet was replaced with moist? Or better yet, saturated. The words all refer to the same thing, why couldn’t they just be swapped? Possibly it’s because words aren’t just descriptions, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Words are packages of connotations, “actively shaping the things they purport to describe.”[iii] Wet, moist, and saturated all bring different feelings into the mind, feelings that are shaped by our prior experiences with language. We need to study form, or risk being thoughtlessly swept up in these connotations. Words matter, especially if we think they don’t. Meaning cannot exist on its own in language; form will always create meaning of its own. It is then necessary to study form to fully understand a piece of writing.[iv]

Now, “Tom’s Diner” uses particularly broad and vague language. Words like “counter”, “man”, “coffee”, and “window” make up the majority of the song. The connotations these words are general and impersonal. They give the song a sense of transparency and clarity that could be mistaken for a lack of form. But this is simply untrue. Choosing to be broad with language creates an effect on the listener, just as the use of specific ornamentation does. In this case, it creates a sense of emptiness, leaving a vacuum where “horoscope”, “stockings”, and “cathedral” can take on a greater prominence. It is an active choice to use general language, not an unbiased default. Form is truly present everywhere.[v]

Yet even this does not do form justice. Sure, it shows why form is valuable to study, but it doesn’t give validation to our innate desire for it. It does nothing to show us why we enjoy form on its own. Meaning professes to tell us what are deepest desires are, how we think, how best to live a life. Its goal is to show us who we truly are as human beings. It makes sense that we would be drawn to meaning. Form can tell us a lot about a text, but what can it tell us about ourselves?

Perhaps the answer to this question can be found in “Toms Diner”.  Again, “Tom’s Diner” is about a person in the diner. But it’s about more than that. Ironically, it’s about a person who has a problem with form. The narrator, who is “turning to the horoscope and looking for the funnies”, but with an air of detached triviality. Who doesn’t talk to anyone for the entire period of the song, and in fact seems to avoid doing so. It’s about the instance with the women outside who looks and “does not-really see…cause she sees-her own reflection” Overall, there is a sense that the narrator in the diner can no longer appreciate form. And what is the result of this? The narrator seems profoundly isolated and deeply lonely. They seem unable to make basic connections, for want of deeper ones. They are stuck in a prison of import, where meaning is the only thing that matters.

An appreciation of the study of form is necessary to break out of this prison, by acknowledging that human beings are inherently social animals. We do not always talk about substantial matters. In fact, most of the time we talk about nothing. Yet we always talk with form. If a person who speaks with only form is shallow and superficial, then the person who speaks with only meaning is incomprehensible and insane. Yet for some reason, we act as if we are completely serious whenever we write, or we read, or we listen to music. We ignore the lighter social aspect of our nature, half of what makes us human.[vi] We ignore the part of us that is the not logical, but emotional, that is not knowledgeable, but creative. On some level we know that meaning isn’t everything. That is why we like form; that is why it is so important to music, cinema, and literature. We are naturally drawn to things that bleed form, the subjective and the superficial, because that is part of who we are. Through fantastic form a song, a movie, or any piece of writing can become greater than the sum of its parts. It can become something truly human. It can become art.

Both form and meaning have a purpose. Meaning can make us feel complete. It is part of our sense of being, the way we interpret the world. But sometimes looking at a piece of art for its form can tell us something more revealing than looking at it for its meaning. It can tell us that words matter for their own sake, that they change the way we look at the world. By imparting in us that form is naturally a part of who we are, it can make us feel more in touch with all aspects of our own humanity.

Form can make us feel free. Free from the stifling pressure that everything has to mean something, free from the idea that meaning is all that we are. We should embrace form. We should revere it. And at the very least, the next time you watch a superhero movie, or read a romance novel, or listen to a fantastic 80’s pop song, remember the unnamed women from “Toms Diner” and do as she did.

Look, and see your own reflection.



[i] Harris, Austin S. “In Defense of Pop Music.” The Huffington Post. Accessed October 14, 2016.

[ii] Full Lyrics Sheet can be found at:

[iii] Thorne, Christian. “Lecture: Theories of Language and Literature” September 2016

[iv] Nietzsche, Friedrich. On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense. S.l.: Aristeus Books, 2012. Nietzsche establishes in the idea that there is a separation between the word and the object described. This is the idea that words are metaphors themselves, and that they carry innate cultural connotations that are not vested in reality.

[v] Lanham, Richard A. The Motives of Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976. Lanham established the idea that form is most evident where it seems like there is none; that seeming transparency is sometimes the craftiest use of form.

[vi] In Motives, Lanham established the idea of the rhetorical (social) man as “half of man”. He compares the style of literature to social life, and the meaning of literature to meaningful life. Lanham considers the balance between meaning and meaninglessness the fundamental dichotomy of humankind, and tasks literature to be a projection of this balance.