Poetry and Music: Should Lyrics be Taught as Poetry?
One of the more interesting discussions in modern literature is whether song lyrics should be considered as poetry. Historically, there was not necessarily a distinction between songs and literature, as bards used music to help convey literary ideas, whether in the form of songs, spoken verse, or even stories that may have been set to music. However, modern society has differentiated song lyrics from poetry, and has done so in a manner that may be very dismissive of the meaning in song lyrics. Song lyrics are considered to be merely a part of popular culture, while poetry is considered an art form. However, the reality is that song lyrics can engage in the same in-depth level of storytelling and focus on the same issues as poetry. The poem "The Supremes" by Cornelius Eady discusses the topic of bullying in schools, and it does so from the perspective of the bullies. The singer-songwriter may have released the most famous song about bullying, "Mean," which approaches the topic of bullying from the perspective of the victim. When one examines the two works, one sees that they both use literary devices to help convey their messages.
Eady begins his poem with a metaphor, "We were born to be gray" (1). This use of figurative imagery allows the audience to know, from the beginning, that the narrator of the poem does not believe that he is exceptional in a significant way. Instead, he views himself as gray, which may mean dreary, but it also may mean average. How to interpret this usage of the word gray becomes clearer as one progresses through the poem, but the audience is given an immediate warning that the narrator does not consider his group of people exceptional, a contrast to the poem's title.
Eady's poem uses a repetitive introduction for two stanzas in the poem, each describing a different aspect of bullying. First, he states, "A long scream. We did what we could, / And all we could do was / Turn on each other. How the fat kids suffered! / Not even being jolly could save them" (Eady, 5-8). This long scream seems to refer to the internal suffering of the bullies, who, struggling to find their own way in the world, then turn that rage outwards towards their victims. Thus, the scream becomes a metaphor for the inner turmoil and angst suffered by the people who would then become the tormentors.
However, the same introduction also appears to reference physical pain, "A long scream. We snapped butts in the showers" (Eady, 18). While the actual pain from a snapped butt may not have produced a scream, the use of that introduction to describe what the bullies did to their victims helps display the way that bullying transfers the bully's unhappiness to the victim. However, the phrase has layered meanings and seems to imply that the bully does not rid himself of the feelings by aggressing against others. Instead, it appears that Eady is reinforcing the idea that with every act of bullying, the narrator is simply reinforcing his pre-existing feelings of being locked into a life and a pattern that he does not like, and, over time, simply accepting that he was born into that life. The message appears to be that every act of bullying takes the bully further and further away from self-will and the power of self-determination; all meanings that are not overtly discussed in the poem.
On its surface, Taylor Swift's song is more superficial than Eady's poem. However, it is important to note that Swift does employ many of the same literary techniques that Eady uses in his poetry. For example, Swift uses imagery in her song as well, though she employs similes rather than metaphor. The first lines of her...
With this imagery, she is challenging the notion of language being not harmful. Instead, she is making it clear that words can cause damage, and she reinforces that with the line "You have knocked me off my feet again" (Swift, 3). This suggests that the bully's words have hit her so hard that it has caused her to stumble, presumably figuratively.
However, whether or not the stumbling or the use of violence, in general, is purely figurative is a subjective question to be answered by each individual person in the audience. After all, bullying frequently combines verbal violence with actual physical violence. Therefore, it is easy to look at Swift's use of physically violent imagery as a simple way to layer meanings in the song. On the one hand, she could simply be referring to the fact that the bullying words have a significant negative impact on the narrator, like violence would have. On the other hand, she may be illustrating the fact that verbal violence often paves the way to physical violence. In fact, one interpretation of the song is not just that the narrator is addressing a bully, but actually an abusive partner, where it very common for verbal degradation to precede the use of violence.
Interestingly enough, Swift also seems to view bullies as mediocre. However, rather than describing them simply as "gray" (Eady, 1), Swift uses words to paint an image of the bully in her song. "And I can see you years from now in a bar / Talking over a football game / With that same big loud opinion / But nobody's listening / Washed up and ranting about the same old bitter things / Drunk and grumbling on about how I can't sing" (Swift, 32-37). In just a few lines, Taylor paints an image of a person who has passed his prime and has become completely irrelevant and mediocre.
Examining the two works side-by-side, it becomes clear that songwriters use many of the same techniques as poets when crafting their songs. By examining a song and a poem that tackle the same topic, it becomes clear that the authors each use a number of literary techniques to use the limited words in a poem or song lyrics to paint a portrait, so that they are able to effectively relate an entire story using far fewer words than they would use in prose to create the same story. In fact, that may be where poetry and song lyrics are the most similar; they are able to tell a story or convey a feeling in a concise way, not only because they are, generally sparse, but because the words chosen by the artists serve multiple functions.
In fact, looking at the words to the poem and to the song, one of the observations a person might make is that, if one removed the refrain from a song's lyrics, it might be impossible for a person who had not previously heard a song to determine whether the lyrics were a song or a poem. Moreover, there are some genres of music that are almost indistinguishable from poetry: is the divide between spoken word lyrics in rap and hip-hop music and the way that poets use dead space and rhythm in spoken word really significant? Only the most pedantic of people would suggest that there really is a difference. On the contrary, it seems clear that poetry moves naturally into the spoken word, which moves naturally into rap, which moves naturally into lyrics that are sung.
Because it seems clear that songwriters employ the same literary techniques that poets use in writing their poetry, lyrics should be taught as poems alongside traditional poetry. However, it is important to keep in mind that, just as there are different levels of competency, proficiency, and greatness among traditional poets, there are also different levels of competency, proficiency, and even greatness among lyricists. Some songs, like some poems, may be straightforward expressions capturing a single moment or a single emotion. Other songs may be deeply thoughtful. Therefore, while lyrics should be taught as poems alongside traditional poetry, it is critical to keep in mind that, just as not all poetry has layered meanings and complex language, not all lyrics will be appropriate subjects for serious scholars.
Eady, Cornelius. The Supremes. Name of Textbook. Ed. Editor's Name(s). City of Publication: Publisher, Year. 361-362. Print.
Swift, Taylor. "Mean." Speak Now. Big Machine, 2010. CD.
Appendix A: Lyrics to "Mean" by Taylor Swift
You, with your words like knives
And swords and weapons that you use against me
You have knocked me off my feet again
Got me feeling like I'm nothing
You, with your voice like nails on a chalkboard
Calling me out when I'm wounded
You picking on the weaker man
You can take me down with just one single blow
But you don't know, what you don't know
Someday, I'll be living in a big ol' city
And all you're ever gonna be is mean
Someday I'll be big enough…
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