Arrangements, bare songs, and idioms

Arrangements often nail down aspects of a song’s meaning which are productively ambiguous in the song itself. An arrangement can take a complex song, which can be heard in any number of ways, and tell the listener to hear the song in particular way, to focus on certain resonances and ignore others. An arrangement can dramatically simplify or even obscure a song’s meaning. 
In this performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire”, Judy Collins and her band make a decision to arrange the song as a gospel number – if you’re not convinced, listen to the piano part. This arrangement has a few effects on the way the song comes across:
  1. A spiritual/religious interpretation of the song’s lyrics is foregrounded over an interpersonal/relationship interpretation. In the first B section (“If I have been unkind…”), the speaker could be justifying himself to a lover, or asking forgiveness of a supreme being; the gospel interpretation puts a heavy thumb on the scales.
  2. The performance starts to overwhelm the song, making it more difficult to listen to the lyrics. This softens the blow of some of the more surprising images in the song (“a baby, stillborn”; “a pretty woman standing in her darkened door”).
  3. The meaning of the song’s lyrics may even be mingled, for the listener, with the meaning of the gospel standards the arrangement suggests. While this kind of interpretation – enhancing or changing the meaning of a song through an unexpected arrangement – can be wonderful, I’m not sure that it works that way here.
Here’s Collins, followed by a version of the song Cohen performed in 1979:
For me, the Cohen version allows the song to mean more – to express more ideas, to resonate in more different directions. It allows us to hear the song. Perhaps that is an obvious observation, but I thought this was a particularly clear example of what I mean by listening for a bare song. The arrangement doesn’t have to be acoustic or minimal for the song to be heard, but an idiomatic arrangement – one that strives to ensure a song is heard as part of an established idiom – has the potential to limit the meaning of a song by priming listeners to only hear a limited range of themes or ideas.
This is a problem for most popular forms of music, because idiom or genre is an important part of any record’s sales strategy. Fitting songs into an idiom dramatically effects the way they are heard and makes it easy for the listener to ignore surprising or unwelcome ideas. Think of “Born in the USA” or “YMCA” – these songs might be subversive for sneaking unwelcome narratives into pop culture, but they became hits because the meaning of the underlying songs are themselves subverted by the resonances introduced by their accessible arrangements.
The idea of idiomatic and non-idiomatic arrangements is derived from Derek Bailey’s concept of idiomatic and non-idiomatic improvisation, though he would certainly object that, in his use of the word, all of these arrangements are equally, which is to say completely, idiomatic.