What’s in a Name?


In the mosaic of qualities that give a piece of music meaning the last thing which often figures is what an artist calls their work. This seems appropriate: if something sounds abysmal it doesn’t matter what it’s called. Neither a turd nor a bland bit of Trap music can be polished. The movement in modern music towards using a song’s name can expose listeners to a particular shade of meaning, and has created a new dimension of creativity – or lack thereof. As captivating as classical music can be, it’s hard to get excited over a composition named ‘Symphony No. 4’, or ‘Quartet in G Minor for Clarinet’, without knowing the music beforehand. Those kind of titles are plain enough about the content of what you will hear, but if anything they are more interesting now as artefacts of a time when rigorous formality dictated that a title was nothing more than a line of script necessary to differentiate one part of a musician’s body of work from another. Thankfully listeners can now associate something more individual, and less formulaic, with the music.

The abundance of artists out there producing music carry with them an abundance of attitudes toward song naming, some better than others. There appears to be a large school of thought that a track should be titled something simple, often a word or phrase lifted from the vocals of a song, giving the impression to the listener that those words were chosen for their significance of the meaning of the song. James Blake’s ‘Limit To Your Love’ or Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Somebody To Love’ can be taken as examples, drawing as they do on the song’s lyrics while capturing the attention of the listener with the topic; love being the universal concept that it is. As can be expected (depressingly so) many pop songs exhibit this simplistic attitude to naming, an attitude that speaks more of record labels demanding a brief advertisement of what’s in the product that won’t put off any potential consumers from buying the music; see Yungen – ‘Bestie’, Taylor Swift – ’22’, or Avicci – ‘Hey Brother’. Here the songs are easily distinguishable and remembered, often centering on chorus soundbites, so that everyone has something to sing along to in Spoons. Even if you don’t know the intricacies of Avicii’s back catalogue, or all the lyrics to the song. The antithesis of this approach is Aphex Twin’s, who almost treats the listener looking for a taster of the chorus with blatant disrespect. I can only guess what songs like ‘s950tx16wasr10 [123][earth portal mix]’ or ‘Death Fuck’ would have been named if they’d been subjected to the rigours of a label that hadn’t given Richard D. James the freedom to name his music as he wished.

The music mentioned so far demonstrates only a small part of the potential value of a song’s name, as it can be a powerful tool for eliciting a vivid emotional response from the audience. In this vein, Burial has a breathtaking knack for evoking a sense of place, or a particular mood in his music, a skill complemented by his track names. His production style is inimitably linked to South London (clearly defined by his South London Boroughs EP and the single ‘Lambeth’), and more broadly the dark urban sprawl of cities, the purposely forgotten and unadvertised realities of these environments. ‘Dog Shelter’ and ‘Homeless’ are both poignant songs. The latter seethes with disarming vocal samples, while the pulsing rhythm gives you no time to catch your breath. The other is more of a sojourn piece, inviting you to pause and take stock – a kind of temporary home which a dog shelter should ideally be (though equally brimming with his signature disfigured pop samples). The sonic material of these songs will always be the trigger for these responses, but such judgments have their tone shaped by the connotations of their names. The hard fact of social exclusion is amplified in ‘Homeless’, and the privilege of we who have the luxury of a home take for granted. ‘In McDonalds’ name bears forth many questions to which there a no answers given in the song. The Aaliyah sample that haunts the song (‘And once upon a time it was you I adored’) suggests quiet contemplation in a late night McDonalds – for Burial’s tunes are undeniably late night songs, a characteristic made clear when taking his music and its titles together – a location all too familiar for the vast majority of people, bringing the melancholy stirred up by the song closer to home. Too close for comfort.

This multitude of different naming styles could be waxed lyrical about without end, and although an innovative and refreshing song title can never make up for a bad tune, a good song can do wonders for your personal relationship with a particular track. Maybe you can never separate the onset of evening from Frank Ocean’s ‘Nights’, or the silliness of Four Tet’s ‘The Track I’ve Been Playing That People Keep Asking About and That Joy Used in His RA Mix and Daphni Played on Boiler Room’ gives you hope that dance music production isn’t being lost to seriousness. Let’s just hope that The Smith’s ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’ never applies to us.


Oliver Staton