In Defense of Grey Bands


Roland Dodds

Roland Dodds is an educator, researcher and father who writes about politics, culture and education. He spent his formative years in radical left wing politics, but now prefers the company of contrarians of all political stripes (assuming they aren't teetotalers). He is a regular inactive at Harry's Place and Ordinary Times.

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74 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    “Man, I wish the Rolling Stones knew when to stop.”

    “Man, isn’t it awful that Amy Winehouse died at 27? How many great albums did we miss out on?”Report

    • Avatar Roland Dodds says:

      I think I have said both statements at one time or another.

      Perhaps our expectations from rock bands is still tied up with rock music being a “young” persons genre. Even though it is untrue in practice, this perception still resonates in our culture.Report

    • Avatar Saul DeGraw says:

      There is a big difference between wishing that Amy Winehouse released music for another 10-20 years and thinking the Stones are a bit embarrassing at 70 something.Report

  2. A *real* rocker would have killed himself with drugs decades ago.Report

  3. Avatar Saul DeGraw says:

    I am not sure I fully agree. There is something about seeing Mick Jagger whither about that is kind of sad.

    My parents are prime boomers. They were born in 1946 and 1947 respectively. One thing I have noticed about Boomers/Rock n’Roll is that it has destroyed the concept of aging gracefully. Everyone is trying to be cool forever and this process is accelerating. You see all these middle-aged guys in San Francisco and they are trying really really hard to look like 20-somethings.

    Interestingly I have gone a bit the other way. I still mainly wear jeans but if I were a t-shirt, it is more likely to be solid colored. I am more into wearing a long-sleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled up a bit than a cool band t-shirt. Guys are also too afraid of wearing shoes with jeans.Report

    • Avatar Roland Dodds says:

      @saul-degraw A good point about aging gracefully. I also think our culture puts a ridiculous premium on youth to the point that it provides few paths to age gracefully without simply “checking out” of popular culture all together.

      I would like to see more bands/artists find a path that includes more than playing up their youthful years. In many ways, I think Chris Squire did that.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        My mom is a huge fan of Yes but I don’t think she listened to the newer stuff. Rush seems to be a band that continues past their youth without seeming embarrassing. A lot of indie rockers from the 1980s or 90s like the Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, Aimee Mann, Sleater-Kinney, The Clash, are in their 40s to 60s now.

        I get that being 40 now is a lot younger than being 40 in 1970 or 1980. It is not too uncommon for people to just be thinking about having kids in their late 30s and 40s. A decade or so ago, this would have made you a really old parent. My mom was an old parent for having her children at 34 in 1980.

        The more arty bands like Yes seem to be the ones that can age the best. The Stones are just trying to seem like they can sing Let’s Spend the Night Together like they are still 27.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        All fans want to hear is the popular stuff at concerts.
        It sucks, but it’s the fucking truth.

        Artists want to play their new work, and wind up hating the old, popular stuff.Report

        • Avatar Slade the Leveller says:

          I saw Wire a couple of weeks ago. They’re famous for playing what they want and to hell with the fans (see Document and Eyewitness for a recorded example of this). It helps that their new stuff is inventive and different, making them as relevant in 2015 as they were in 1977.

          At the show there were fans of all ages. The older ones knew the older stuff and cheered for the new material, and the younger ones were there for the spectacle of seeing guys their parents age make some really good, loud music.

          It is possible to remain musically inventive while aging.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        Re: Aging gracefully

        You see this in SF a lot. There are seemingly a lot of second and third rate Metal bands on tour. The concert crowds have a wide-age range and people are there all in black, leather jackets, and boots. This looks a lot better at 20 than it does at 55.Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          Everything looks a lot better at 20 than 55, except maybe hourglass figures.Report

        • Avatar switters says:

          You know what i think looks good? People who wear what they want because they like it. Or people who do what they want (like play music at large venues into their 70s), because they like it.

          The idea that 50 year olds should wear what others want, or play what or where others want, in order to satisfy some weird obligation to age gracefully, is really offensive to me. Its like asking women to dress more respectably.Report

          • Avatar switters says:

            I mean its one thing to take a flyer on a show, realize you wasted your money, and decide to never go see that guy again, or to even warn others of the train wreck they are considering.

            But claiming that a band playing a show you are not paying to see should hang it up to satisfy your beliefs about the proper way to grow old gracefully. I mean, you get how absurd this is, right. For some musicians, it be like asking a homosexual to not be so gay in public.Report

          • Avatar Glyph says:

            Possible exception: on Father’s Day in the afternoon, I took my dad to see Fury Road. After the film was over, we were leaving the parking garage in my car, and as I rounded the corner, some dumbass older than me (which is to say, he was at least mid-to-late 40’s, and I would guess more likely in his 50s) flew around a (blind) corner the opposite (wrong) way on a longboard. To avoid a collision, I hit the brakes, and he swerved and ditched and nearly went over a low concrete wall on the second floor.

            I was a LOT more annoyed than I would have been at a 15-year-old dumbass. I EXPECT a young man to do something so stupid, but this jackass should have known better.Report

          • Avatar veronica d says:


            Look, I’m mid-40’s and I dress like a young adult. And fuck anyone who has a problem with that. I look good.

            I mean, you can see my age in my face. Can’t do anything about that. Life is life and it goes so fast. But still, I truly do feel young inside and I’m still excited to get out and see things, cuz in a lot of ways I skipped the first half of my life —

            — but if I start talking about that I’ll cry.

            Anyway yeah. Wear what you wanna wear. Feel gorgeous.Report

            • Avatar veronica d says:

              On older artists, Kristin Hersh is starting to get long in the tooth, and the woman did not take care of her voice. (Turns out basing your vocal styles on bellowing and screeching is not sustainable.) But still, I’ll go see her when I get the chance. She’s a big deal to me. I hope she pushes on until her body just quits.

              That’s what I’m gonna do.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      To be fair to the boomers, the culture they grew up in made it hard for them to age gracefully. Before rock, age played little or no role to the type of music you listen to for the most part. Class, race, and geography might have played a great deal but age not so much. Even if jazz mainly appealed to the young, it had more than a few middle-aged or older listeners when it became main stream. Same for big band swing music. Teenagers might have been the largest audience but lots of adults listened and danced to it to.

      Rock and it’s derivative genres are probably the first real music genre where the appeal was distinctly towards young people with few or none middle aged or older admirers when it came out. Even if boomer parents didn’t see rock as the devil’s music, they weren’t necessarily going to be big fans and would probably soldier on listening to more traditional pop, jazz, classical, country or something else. When the boomers became adults, there wasn’t much “adult” music to listen to besides what their parents listened to. Attempts to recreate traditional pop music in the form of adult contemporary failed miserably and were a joke just as it was created. This led them to continue to listen to rock.Report

      • Avatar Roland Dodds says:

        Good background @leeesq. This last weekend, I attended Burger Boogaloo in Oakland with my wife. We are both in our 30s, and she constantly reminded me that the crowd at the event was (generally) younger than we were. Yet, she has dragged me to Banda and Corridos events with a predominately young crowd and she never seemed to notice the age discrepancy. To her, I think she associates rock and roll with youth in a way that she does not see other communities of music.Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


          When I got to concerts in SF, I see a full range of people. I saw New Order last summer at the Civic Center and the crowd was a mix of people who were in their late teens and early 20s to people old enough to remember Joy Division from the late 1970s.

          The same was true at Sleater-Kinney in May.Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

          Of course there is a concert in Oakland called Burger Boogaloo.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        Except for the fact that adult contemporary like Michael Bolton sold tens of millions of copies if not more.

        Our parents mocked it. Maybe many other boomers mocked it. But a lot of boomers did go full Lite-FM.Report

        • Avatar LeeEsq says:

          Certain adult contemporary stars like Michael Bolton and Celine Dion did make it big but I really doubt that they were as big as the boomer rockers that stayed true to their roots. The entire adult contemporary scene also fizzled out by the mid to late 1990s. It doesn’t seem to exist anymore.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Mock the old people for wearing leather jackets well into their 40’s and listening to the same bands they listened to 20 years ago.

          Mock the old people for ditching the leather jackets and listening to adult contemporary.

          If we get a comment mocking the old people for ditching Boston and starting to listen to The Spice Girls, I’m going to start suspecting that this is about something other than music.Report

      • Avatar Notme says:

        Those poor por baby boomers. I feel so sorry for them.Report

    • Avatar morat20 says:

      I saw Paul McCartney two or three years ago. He remains awesome

      The fact that the set design included elements and visuals from Beatles Rock Band didn’t hurt. (Which itself was a fantastic game).

      But I do agree there comes a point in your career where you have to switch up. There’s “edgy” in your twenties and “edgy” in your 50s, and they’re different sorts of things.

      If you’re 50 and still trying to be all raw and new despite having been making music for 30 years, that’s just not going to work. You’ve got 30 years experience in writing, performing, and making music. Do new stuff — Paul Simon seems to get bored with any particular style after a few years, for instance — for sure, but again — you’ve got experience. Your edgy and new is an entirely different thing.

      You’ve got this weight of skill to put behind it, and if it’s not there it’s just…sad.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        I think it depends on the band. Smaller bands probably have a better time sticking with their roots or changing directions than more popular acts.

        More popular acts can always go the Vegas route though.Report

        • Avatar morat20 says:

          It’s not so much roots, though. I just mean…your music needs to mature with your band.

          yeah, play your classics and great hits. But unless you’re just doing the Greatest Hits tours (which hey, that can work), your ‘new’ stuff can’t be new like you’re a brand new face on the scene.

          The expectations are different. The envelope you’re pushing is different as an established group with history than as a brand new face.

          I think that’s where bands go awry. You can’t be a decade into your group and still act like you’re the brand-new hotness.Report

  4. Avatar Dan Scotto says:

    If we’re talking about grey bands, as a New Jerseyan, I feel I must offer some praise for the E-Street Band, which has continued touring into their 60s to great effect. Springsteen’s live show remains one that has to be seen to be believed.Report

    • Avatar StellaB says:

      Yes, I saw them a few years ago. It was a really good concert. Even my anti-Springsteen snob husband became a convert. The band is really tight and professional and The Man gives it his all for three hours, even if he doesn’t go leaping around the stage like he did 35 years ago. I would go again.Report

  5. Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

    Coming from a classical music background, I find the attitude you describe weird. After all, to us classicists, something written two centuries ago can be bog standard mainstream material, while something written two decades ago still qualifies as new music. But this is the difference between popular and classical music. With popular music, there is a default assumption that the listener’s taste will develop at an early age, will be heavily influenced by the popular music of the time, will be essentially fixed for life, and that popular music will change, resulting in the next generation having different taste.

    Combine this with the cultural tendency to privilege youth tastes, and there you go: The aging rock band cannot be anything but ridiculous, until the band and its fans eventually die off. The music will then survive only as an eccentric niche interest. After all, how many people listen to popular music of a century ago? Yes, some people sing in barbershop quartets. Everyone else roll their eyes at this. Wait long enough and some antiquated popular music will be reclassified as classical: hence symphony orchestras playing John Philip Sousa and opera singers performing negro spirituals. But most will simply disappear.

    I went to college in the ’80s. An older guy I knew there played a bunch of Beatles albums. I had known who they were, of course. I wasn’t *that* isolated from popular music. But I had never really listened to them before. So I came home for summer break and enthused at my parents about this terrific band. They felt better after I didn’t try to get them to listen to it. The upshot is that while I developed an appreciation of popular music, it was never tied to what happened to be popular at the moment.

    All this being said, while old rock bands still performing is not ridiculous, old rockers prancing around like they are twenty years old is.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      How should they perform, I ask you that?
      I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Tori Amos’ Piano Bar — “whatever the fans want”…

      But Kraftwerk is the performance, isn’t it? Same with Kiss, and a bunch of bands.

      There’s no shame in keeping up with a good thing…

      (Negro Spirituals are a form of opera, half the time — storytelling with ornamented song, chief among which is the use of the performer as part of the composition — each time unique to the artist as well as the original song).Report

      • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

        If acting like you are twenty is a necessary element of the performance, then we do indeed have a problem, as old people acting like they are twenty is inherently ridiculous. It seems to me–and again, this is me coming from a classical background–that the initial premise is an admission that the music can’t stand on its own, and needs accompanying razzle dazzle to obscure this.Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          I appreciate acting, and I don’t think that a 60 year old acting like a 20 year old is any more inherently ridiculous than a 15 year old playing King Lear.

          “the music can’t stand on its own”
          And so what if it is? There are all sorts of different performances, and the use of music to enhance an acting performance is a timehonored tradition…

          I’d argue that any vocal music that tells a story (not “Africa”, capiche), is pulling a lot more from storytelling. I don’t mind, it’s a performance. You judge the performance as a whole.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck says:

          ” the initial premise is an admission that the music can’t stand on its own, and needs accompanying razzle dazzle to obscure this.”

          This is an argument commonly made by copyfighters, in fact. “Oh, free copying of music doesn’t matter because music is a performance art and musicians should only expect to be paid for live shows”.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      Were your parents very anti-Rock music? Why didn’t you listen to it as a kid and teenager?

      My parents took me to classic concerts as a kid (Young People and the Orchestra at Lincoln Center) and I still like classical music* but I also remember listening to rock and jazz in the car a lot. I grew up listening to the Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, the Dead, Moody Blues, Paul Simon, even the Police and the Talking Heads. I had Thriller and Born in the USA as cassettes when I was 5 years old. When I was 12-13, I began branching into my own tastes in music.

      So it seems odd to think of someone born after the first Beatles L.P. who did not grow up listening to any form of popular music but I guess it could happen. I remember a guy who was in middle school when the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan. He said that his friends could not understand why their classmates were crazy about the Beatles because Gilbert and Sullivan was where it was at. My only thought was that it must have been really isolating to love Gilbert and Sullivan** while your classmates are getting into the Beatles and the Stones.

      *Interestingly my mom has been going through her records to try and consolidate the collection. She has a fair bit of classical and has said listening to classical is a drag because of the length. So Rock obviously conditioned her brain to prefer shorter songs.

      **I loathe Gilbert and Sullivan with an undue passion.Report

      • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

        It’s not that my parents were anti-rock, in the sense of prohibiting me from listening to it. They were anti-rock in the sense that they had no desire to listen to it, and it wasn’t part of the household environment. At the same time we were a musical family, so there was a lot of other stuff going on: just not popular music of the day. I don’t recall feeling a void.

        I don’t hate Gilbert and Sullivan. I quite liked them when I was a kid. But then, their humor is pretty junior high, so that was age-appropriate. I haven’t seen a performance is decades, and feel no strong urge to. I might take my kids, when they are a little older. Full adults going around and exclaiming on how delightful Gilbert and Sullivan are? That’s a different matter.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        I suspect that a lot of nerdy kids who did not listen to rock music did so partly out of a very strong desire to be eccentric, unusual, or stand out from the crowd as well as taste.Report

  6. Avatar Glyph says:

    (Disclaimer – I know next to nothing about Yes.)

    I go both ways, even now. It’s a double-standard.

    Way back when, there was an interview with Jagger and/or Richards, asking them why the Stones, who even by then had more money than God, didn’t just hang it up?

    And they seemed genuinely (and to my mind, admirably) perplexed by the question – they replied with something along the lines of “Well…we’re a rock band. This is our job. What else would we do?” and they went on to talk about the old bluesmen and jazzmen who were their inspirations, who worked on into their old ages without even a fraction of the financial rewards the Stones had reaped.

    And yet, the Stones do remain (even for me, who counts them among my favorites, and at their peak possibly the greatest rock and roll band of all time) a bit of a punchline, for continuing to soldier on and put out work that is nowhere near their peak. There IS something beautiful about quitting while you are ahead.

    New Order (or a version of them, since New Order sans P. Hook aren’t really NO, IMO) are working on a new album – again, one of my all-time favorites, the best disco band of the eighties not named Chic, and hugely influential in electronic/dance music culture, which is to say pop music as a whole – and yet to my ears, they haven’t made a fully-worthwhile album since 1989. That is a LONG time to coast, and dilute a legacy.

    From that same era and scene, Robert Smith was one of the best, most versatile songwriters of the eighties (and no slouch as a guitarist or producer either, and a distinctive voice), but now he’s just Fat Bob, continuing to slather on the makeup and hairspray and play another round of the same to depressed teenagers of all ages.

    What he is now, obscures the recognition of what he was, and therefore denies him the widespread respect he should be accorded.

    It kind of took Brian Wilson vanishing on us for a while, for everyone to realize the full extent of his genius.

    Maybe the whole idea of “legacy” (and it being “tarnishable”) is bullshit, I don’t know. When an older band continues to (or reunites to) put out vital work, it still seems like the exception rather than the rule, though it does seem more common than it used to be.Report

    • Avatar Roland Dodds says:

      @glyph I agree with a lot of what you said. When you mentioned legacy, it got me thinking about my own job and passions. Would I be expected to stop simply when I am no longer at my prime? Obviously my work (teaching) is a bit different than a rock band, but its also true that there is not an expectation that I should stop working even if my mind and body slows, making me less energetic and dynamic.

      Unlike a wealthy rock band, I could be fired if my work really becomes unacceptable however.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        I think it helps for me when an artist continues to create new work, even if that work isn’t up to par in the public’s (or my) estimation. There does seem something more admirable when a band DOES have new material to play – even if that’s not what people came to hear, or their “best” work – than if they are simply endlessly-performing the same material that made them famous in the first place. I do award points for “effort”, is what I’m saying.

        And of course, some artists seem to be able to operate at a level near their peak for a long, long time (or come back to it later, after years in the wilderness).

      • Avatar aarondavid says:

        Well, a wealthy rock band kinda does get fired. But as they are self employed it just looks different. The stages get smaller, tickets get cheaper, etc. Much like an architect who’s designs are out of date, they can still work but with diminishing returns. If they are wealthy they can take it in stride and create new music that no one cares about, and play it alongside the old chestnuts which bring out the fans old and new. If they aren’t wealthy, well they seem to just chug along playing county fairs and nostalgia shows. Very few of them have any sort of fall back careers, and if they do the rest of the band doesn’t.

        For many of these people, the worst thing would be for no one to care anymore, an empty performance venue.Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


          I went to the Salsaulito Art Fair and the headline musical act was Men without Hats. It was rather strange (yet amusing) to see all these middle-aged wealthy Marinites rush to the stage when the band began playing The Safety Dance.

          I wonder which bands from today will be playing those fairs when I am middle-aged.Report

          • Avatar aarondavid says:

            Heh. Men Without Hats… I was a junior high kid when they came out.

            I am tempted to level some snark about which bands it would be, but the reality is it will be bands that I like. I kinda think much of the folk revival stuff will end up that way, but EDM shows will just be some dude emailing a set list to a PA system.

            I do hope that all bands that alternate spelling with caps and lowercase letters end up busking. But that is just bitterness at the spellings of youth.Report

  7. Avatar crash says:

    I recently saw Joe Ely at a small venue. He was in the Flatlanders with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, and he’s released many solo albums, starting in the 70s. Kind of a godfather of Texas alt-country. His first two solo albums have seen heavy play in my house over the last 20 years, and I am familiar with his later stuff as well, though not as much. Most fans of his would agree that the 2 albums from the 70s are absolute classics, whereas the 80s, 90s, 2000s stuff is… well I hate to say “worse”, because it makes me sound like a jerk.

    I was a little apprehensive about the show. Would he seem pathetic, like an old man who just won’t let it go? Will his voice be shot? Is he mailing it in for the money?

    It was the best show I’ve ever seen, by far. My partner said the same thing, and she barely knew him before the show. His voice was incredible. It sounded like it did on the 70s albums–better, even. It was just Joe and a kick-ass accordion player. I’m not sure how, but those two managed to rock out HARD on some songs. The sound on the fast ones was driving and propulsive. (He did open for the Clash back in the day; he’s got rock chops.) I think his past flamenco training helped, sometimes it was like he was playing lead and rhythm at the same time. He was half-sitting, half-leaning on a stool. He didn’t try to act “young.”

    I was amazed at how much he still seemed to care about putting on a good show. He played a good mix of the old and the new. He covered Robert Earl Keen, the Magnetic Fields, Butch Hancock. He was clearly enjoying himself. I think he’s 68 or so? Almost every song was as good or better than the studio version. That is rare in my experience, for even a few songs, let alone the whole set list.

    Anyway–I’ve haven’t see the Stones or Dylan etc. recently so I can’t speak to how they are aging. I would be afraid they wouldn’t live up to the albums I know and love. But I know it’s possible for an older artist to put on a fantastic show.

    I think some artists just age better material-wise as well. I mean, The Who as old men might sound ridiculous talking about dying before they get old. 70-year old Stones might sound.. I don’t know, weird, singing about drugs and rocking out and whatnot. But Joe Ely’s songs are often kind of wise and wistful, even the early songs, and they sound perfectly appropriate coming from a guy pushing 70.

    A couple links:

    (apparently I don’t know how to insert links)Report

    • Avatar Glyph says:

      I saw Leonard Cohen a few years back. He was in his 70s at the time, and he BROUGHT IT.

      But he was *always* sort of an “old man”, wasn’t he?Report

    • Avatar Krogerfoot says:

      Living in Austin, which I think Ely does, is a good thing. The musical environment there is immensely varied and deep, with highly committed musicians and audiences of all ages. In a city with only a handful of places to play and a culture where live music is not something post-teenagers tolerate, being a musician can be excruciating, even as a hobby.Report

  8. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    Playing at my local fair this year: Heart, Cheap Trick, Peter Frampton, and Pat Benetar.

    I’m kind of stoked.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      Cheap Trick was my very first concert ever! Talk about grey bands…

      I wonder how many of the original Rick, Bun E., Robin and Tom boys are even still in the band.Report

      • Avatar veronica d says:

        Heh. #sameReport

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Bun E. has been out since 2010. Rick Nielsen’s kid plays drums for them now.

        God I wish that Albini re-recording of In Color would come out. The tracks I heard rocked.Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

          I have not heard of this.Report

          • Avatar Glyph says:

            The short version, is that the band never liked the way In Color was produced. It just sounds a little…thin and loses some of their power.

            Steve Albini is a big Cheap Trick fan, oddly enough, and in 1997 or 1998, got together with them and re-recorded part or all of the album; over the years, the band has claimed it was finished/coming out, but it never has. Some unofficial mp3s were floating around for a while, and they sound like you’d expect – super-melodic Cheap Trick songs, but with drums that absolutely slam and a murkier, garagier feel. It’s excellent:


            • Avatar Krogerfoot says:

              Man, I wish “listen” weren’t an intransitive verb, because I so want to modify it with an intensifying adverbial phrase to describe how badly I wish to listen to that mix. I would hear the shit outta that. Fuckin grammar—how does it work?

              Cheap Trick achieved massive success and won nearly universal acclaim from critics, fans, and fellow musicians, and you could still argue that they deserved more.Report

              • Avatar Glyph says:

                Yeah, when I was growing up they were the rare band that it seemed like all the musical tribes at least respected.

                I checked my library, and last year I must have gotten itchy and obtained, as far as I can tell, the whole thing.

                Of course, there’s no way to know for sure if it’s all ‘real’ (and in any case they may be unfinished versions, plus they are just 128kbps mp3s),’s pretty darn good.Report

              • Avatar krogerfoot says:

                I would not complain if you wanted to share the shit outta that shit.Report

            • Avatar krogerfoot says:

              Another impossible-to-write post assignment idea for your consideration: Great songs by great groups’ non-primary songwriters. Call them “Borises” from “Boris the Spider,” or Harrisons or Sprouts. Robin Zander’s “I Can’t Take It,” a late minor hit, is a kind of Platonic idea of a perfect pop song, with a video that supplies the CT dark weirdness otherwise missing from the lyrics.Report