In Defence of Lyrics as Literature

Bob_01_1200Tim Lloyd-Kinnings

As an English literature undergraduate, I have been fortunate enough to explore many aspects the written word. However, during this time an entire field has been left neglected, a goldmine of language and poetic expression left unexcavated. This is largely because it is debated whether it can be considered literature at all. I am, of course, talking about the untapped literary potential of the song lyric.

But see, that’s the thing – the ‘of course’ there doesn’t quite work. It isn’t obvious enough because the debate is too quiet. When you hear about untapped literary gold mines, you think of a new spotlight shone on an undervalued period, or a canonical shift causing the dawning realisation that we’ve overlooked a crucial author. But form? We’ve got form covered, right? We’ve got poetry, then we’ve got drama, then we’ve got prose, and we’ve even got pretty good at film. Surely there’s nothing we’ve left out? Ahh, the song lyric. The forgotten child of literature and music, omitted from the academic study of either.

In the ancient tradition of oral-storytelling, song was among the ways the story could be performed. If the story was sung rather than spoken, is it suddenly less legitimate? Similarly, are the songs that appear in Shakespeare’s plays much less worthy than the speech around them just because they’ve got a musical backdrop? Surely not. It’s telling that Shakespeare’s moniker is ‘the bard’ – a bard was not only a professional story teller, but a verse-maker and music composer too. It gets even more bizarre to think that when we study film, a form now very much accepted within the sphere of literature, we are encouraged to consider the music as part of the overall piece, yet we put music with verse and we don’t deem it as worthy of study. Somehow the music devalues it.

This is not to say that all lyrics should be considered literary – just as there is bad writing and poetry, there are bad lyrics. But it should have the opportunity to be considered so. A rough definition of poetry is ‘literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm’. When you take choice works from lyricists such as Thom Yorke of Radiohead, or Matthew Berninger of The National and see them written, they can easily fall within these parameters. Take ‘We were so under the brine / We were so vacant and kind’ from the National’s ‘This Is the Last Time’. When read off the page there are three beats per line, two dactyls followed by a final stress; the half-rhyme of ‘brine’ and ‘kind’ makes it essentially a rhyming couplet; the imagery being of ‘so under the brine’ is clearly ‘expressing an idea’ in a ‘distinctive style’, with the implicit suggestion of drowning and being seemingly an allusion to a relationship failing. This is poetry. The stresses can be changed by the performance and the musical backdrop, but this should be embraced as something else to excite us and talk about, like the score of a film, not something to discredit it.  

Happily, things are looking like they could be on the up for the song lyric. In 2016 Bob Dylan won the coveted Noble Prize for Literature. This was not without controversy – he himself did not acknowledge winning the award for a full 6 months. But it’s a step in the direction of the song lyric being taken more seriously academically, a sign of the debate getting louder. This is a good thing – there is gold there just waiting to be mined.

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