Lyrics vs. Poetry

keaton2901a1.jpgKatie Houston

I like to work with headphones in and soft melodies playing out. In fact, as I gaze over most study spaces on campus, it appears that most people, like me, also like to work listening to music. You see the occasional tapping of the foot while reading or mouthing along to words when solving problems. Yet I wonder how many people are actually, actively, listening to the songs that accompanying their academic endeavours.

Not so long ago, I was working whilst listening to 22, A Million by Bon Iver (great album, please listen). One of my favourite songs, “8 (circle)” came on, and for some reason, I stopped my work and actually listened. If you have ever heard any of Bon Iver’s work, you probably know that frontman Justin Vernon’s voice has an elusive, almost ethereal quality to it that can often make it somewhat difficult to decipher. So rather than the reading I should have been doing, I googled the lyrics.

I was struck, that whilst reading them alongto the song, it was like reading poetry. Free verse. Erratic rhyme scheme. Something easily studied in seminars. And that got me thinking. What is it about songs that situate them in a different realm to poetry? Why do people complain about poetry’s difficulty, vow not to read it, and then stick their headphones in and listen to song after song?

As I was reading along to the lyrics I couldn’t help but ask myself the same question over again: are songs a more artistically complete form than poems?

Firstly, we must distinguish between a poem and a song with the main difference being the music. Does music provide a context that words alone cannot? Does it provide a tone, or an emotion, or rhythm pattern that we might not otherwise have heard in our own readings? Listening to Keaton Henson’s “The Pugilist” with the pitch rising before the most heartfelt lyrics of the song, or the playful beats in Haim’s “Want You Back” subverting the meaning of the lyrics, or the vocal variations in Childish Gambino’s “California” reflecting the the protagonist’s naive fantasies, surely add adimension to the art that we would miss if the lyrics were just written on thepage.

Bon Iver’s lyrics (along with so many millions more) are available of genius, a website that allows people to comment on what they think the meaning of them are. Where songs are shunned in academia, genius allows for an global close reading of lyrics, an international seminar. For music artists, their albums are a collected works, for music listeners, their playlists are their own personal anthology. Is it time that we give songs the literary praise they deserve?

Bon Iver, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, August 2010...Photo by D.L. Anderson..

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