Culture Wars: Waxing lyrical
How can pop music be likened to poetry, asks Louis Ryan, when you can't even hear the words?
The decision by the Poetry Society to organise events in celebration of the pop lyric this coming year (starting in October) raises once again the old issue of poetry v pop, conveniently personified by the comparison between John Keats and Bob Dylan. This could be a welcome development, provided (but this is a big proviso) that it subjects the pop lyric to genuine scrutiny rather than supine flattery.
Examining the pop lyric we are faced with an initial difficulty: should we look at it 'on the page', in isolation from the song, or can the two only be assessed as a unity? This question points to a broader distinction between 'poetry proper' and the song lyric.
Poetry, like most art forms, seeks full realisation and wholeness in and of itself. The song lyric belongs to that peculiar class of art forms which is best served by a certain incompletion, so that it is consummated only when joined to the music of the song. The songwriter must be judged on the final product, not on the lyrics taken in isolation, and this is true for classical as well as for any other kind of music. Words which look flat, lame or even embarrassing on paper can come alive in the song in ways which sometimes defy analysis. Setting great poetry to music, on the other hand, poses the problem of trying to add to perfection.
We can dispose of the stereotypical Keats/Dylan match-up with the simple observation that it does not compare like with like. Keats was a great poet, Dylan is - or perhaps we should say 'was' - a gifted songwriter: two related but essentially distinct art forms. The fact that they can be pitted against each other (albeit tongue-in-cheek a lot of the time) says more about the agenda of today's cultural ideologists than about the intrinsic merits of these disparate figures.
One obvious difference between poetry and pop lyrics is their relationship with an audience. Pop music is peculiarly responsive to the changing moods and tastes of its audience, and changes in the style of pop lyrics are a good barometer of this interaction.
Song lyrics in the early days of rock'n'roll tended to conform to the criterion of 'singability'. The song had to be singable not just for the performer but also for his or her listeners. In this respect much pop music of the 1950s and 60s continued a long tradition of popular song; anybody who has had the dubious privilege of getting mixed up in Irish sing-songs, for example, where republican ballads are interspersed with maudlin renditions of Elvis' Love Me Tender and such like, will get the picture.
The singability of the pop song imposed certain constraints on the lyrics. It meant they generally had to make sense, they had to be fairly simple, and they had to achieve a certain quality, if only because people will rarely go to the trouble of memorising crap. The largely spontaneous process of memorising pop song lyrics brought with it an implicit judgement, one that asked of each new song the question: is this - literally - memorable?
The development of pop music since at least the mid-1960s is a story of the decline of singability, and hence of memorability. The loosening of the old constraints has, in some instances, enabled pop music and the pop lyric to develop in new directions. But it has also allowed for a slackening of lyric writing, as the singer's words will not be listened to with any great attention, or even distinctly heard. The development of denser sound textures from the late 1960s accommodated this tendency. With the old four- or eight-track recordings the singer's voice remained relatively exposed, and so the words he or she sung were quite easily identified. More recently, lyrics have tended to be just one more element in a highly produced texture.
Techno music takes this tendency to its logical conclusion: here the lyrics are reduced to the soundbite, which is then repeated and distorted obsessively. Even 'lyrics-driven' forms like rap seem to follow the soundbite approach: the recurrent 'hook' or chorus line - the memorable bit - is isolated from a mass of words which function more as sound texture rather than as lyrics in the old sense, so that the words convey primarily attitude or pose rather than meaning.
Closely associated with these tendencies is the decline of singers' diction. Diction is not about 'speaking proper' but about projecting the voice and getting your message across. The development of the microphone and of PA systems has made it possible for singers to mumble and slur to entire football stadiums. This has obvious consequences for the audience's relationship to the words that are being sung.
Bring these tendencies together and we arrive at a paradox. The status of the word in pop music today is, by and large, exceptionally low, from the point of view both of musicians and of the audience. Yet it is just at this time that the culture industry chooses to pump up the pop lyric to something approximating real poetry. This would suggest an agenda driven by considerations external to pop music itself - the promotion of 'popular culture' (actually in most cases just mass entertainment) as a valid alternative to real art.
In fact, the distinction between genuine popular culture and mere mass entertainment can be drawn with some precision by looking at the way people relate to song lyrics. In real popular culture, people typically can stand up and sing whole songs - not least because the words are worth remembering. In our contemporary world of mass entertainment, people can usually only replicate the adenoidal wheeze of a much-dinned chorus line. If you want more than that, then it's back to the printed text on your CD, assuming there is one. Reference to such texts, however, is liable to confirm one's worst impressions about the standard of most pop lyrics today. Maybe there is something to be said for unintelligible diction...
Reproduced from LM issue 124, October 1999