What does a song mean?
A couple of issues to deal with on our way to an answer. First, unlike a poem or a tune, the songs we will be dealing with are words and music, and the two parts will interact in interesting ways. Second--and here we have to negotiate something like what Goodman and Wollheim are after in applying the "token/type" distinction to works of art--the songs we will be dealing with exist not as simply words set to composed music, but as performances of these songs. Third, these performances do not exist in some vacuum, but are enmeshed within a cultural context. All three of these issues will necessarily impact the meaning of a song.
Take the example of a song, "Hurt," written by Trent Reznor. Reznor--as Nine Inch Nails--has performed this song numerous times, starting with the version recorded on his 1994 album The Downward Spiral. In every case, it has (roughly?) the same meaning: it is an expression of despair, a cry for help. It is as harrowing an expression as one can imagine of aggression turned inward, a slow-burn wail of depression and self-hatred. This is the sound of nihilism, and--after the fury of the album that has preceded it--it seems to directly call up T.S. Eliot: "This is the way the world ends/This is the way the world ends/This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper."
This song, "Hurt," was covered by Johnny Cash on his final (prehumous) album, 2002's America IV: The Man Comes Around. Cash's "Hurt" is about old age and death. It is about living long enough to see all of your friends (and your wife) die, your body start to fail you, and turning to welcome your own death as one might greet an old friend. It is as harrowing an expression as one can imagine of the ravages of old age, and the grief of having loved and lost. Listening to it, one perhaps is reminded of Robert Frost: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep/But I have promises to keep/And miles to go before I sleep/And miles to go before I sleep."
Other examples could be given, of course, of covers of songs that mean something very different than the original. But in many cases, we are tempted to attribute the difference to a change in words, music, or both--think, for example, of the huge difference a change in pronoun makes between The Brains' "Money Changes Everything" and Cyndi Lauper's cover. Or how a change in orchestration and tempo (not to mention gender) changes the meaning of Eminem's "'97 Bonnie and Clyde" when it was covered by Tori Amos on Strange Little Girls. But with "Hurt," the lyrics, the melody, and even the tempo are the same in Cash's version as they are in the version by Nine Inch Nails. But a difference in performer and performance can take an identical lyric and melody and endow it with a very different meaning. It's not just what is being said and how, but who is saying it--another notable example here might be the difference between Brinsley Schwarz's (ironic) tune "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" and Elvis Costello's (earnest) cover of the same. This seems to pave the way for a side-discussion of the performer's authenticity, etc...
...But furthermore, as Greil Marcus has on more than one occasion pointed out, the meaning of a song injected by the performer is also prone to a certain slippage. Take the example of Bruce Springsteen, from Marcus's 1985 article "Alone and Foresaken" (originally published in Artforum, but reprinted in In The Fascist Bathroom):
If many of his songs are about people who have been turned into objects of history, the songs were still written to remind a listener that those people could have been, should still be, subjects. Yet just as every record made today that is not patently aimed at the mainstream is a "novelty"--that is, an aphorism, a sterile oddity--Springsteen's music, like Madonna's or Michael Jackson's or "We Are the World," is, among other things, a vast, grand, utterly coherent world-historical thesis: the thesis of the popular mechanics of domination. This is not the thesis Springsteen plays, but the thesis he plays out: what he says is subsumed into a celebration of his ability to say it.In other words, in order to confront the meaning of music, we must confront both the cultural context, and the music's own conditions of production. That is to say, we are forced to consider what Adorno and Horkheimer have called "the culture industry." This will be the starting point for my next prelude.
When Springsteen plays in a coliseum filled with sixty thousand people, what is at stake is not the size of the audience, but the intensity of its desire to be confirmed as an audience. When Springsteen sings about dispossession in contemporary America, when he violates the ruling political fantasies of the nation, there are many in the audience who do not believe a word he says, and many more who will never, not even in their most private thoughts, live out a word he sings. Yet not one single person says no. When, between songs, Springsteen speaks even more eloquently (and, without the comforts and supports of music, far more riskily) about dispossession in contemporary America, there is respectful silence. That silence--the absorption of a pop moment that is also a deflection of its content--is the enemy: the silence is an affirmation that the structure of the event has contained, has swallowed, its contents.