Pharrell knows his falsetto is number one. But how about the lyrics?
The fourth in a series on music lyrics. Read Jessica Bebenek’s entry here, Peter Norman’s here, and Kevin Hardcastle’s here.
Now that I mention it, is Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” stuck in your head? And when you engage that funky fairy in your mind’s ear, does it sing in words? Does it hum the tune? Does it hum the tune once through while on the second the hums blur into words, maybe just at the end of the line: “Uh-uh-uh-uh-to get some”? Do the words even matter, or are they just placeholders for the groove?
I’d argue that they do matter. Just take the last verse of the chorus:
We’re up all night to the sun.
We’re up all night to get some.
We’re up all night for good fun.
We’re up all night to get lucky.
Pretty simple poetry from Daft Punk here, but extremely effective. The first three lines lull you into the irresistible groove with the comfort of repetition and perfect rhyme. Then, following the formal poet’s rule of thumb—repeat to set up variance—they break from the scheme on the final line with a jarring, but only slightly, end-phrase: “luck” shares the “u” sound of the proceeding lines, but the “ck” comes out of left field, and they add another syllable, and another new sound, with the “y.” The first three lines end on iambs, making the fourth a trochaic substitution. This shift brings us out of the lull it follows, while reawakening us to the music it accompanies.
It’s not surprising, then, that it is from this phrase that the song gathers its title. It’s the lyrical lynchpin, and it might well be the repetition of that last line, which follows the above quotation, that you fixate on when the song of this passing summer worms itself into your brain.
Or is it your brainstem? It’s primal after all. Which brings us to Sir John Betjeman. Near his statue in St. Pancras Square in London, there’s a quotation: “Imprisoned in a cage of sound/ Even the trivial seems profound.” It’s from a short poem called “Uffington,” and it perfectly captures the role lyrics so often play in songs. Who could forget how Rebecca Black’s “Friday” had such profound musical effects despite these lyrics: “kickin’ in the back seat/ Sittin’ in the front/ Gotta make my mind up/ Which seat should I take?”
You can hold your head high, Sir John; your ideals are being upheld.
Seriously, though, this does happen. “Get Lucky” is the most profound song of the summer we’ve had for a while—although you could argue for “We Found Love” to be right up there—and you could also argue that the song’s content—sex—is about as profound as subject matter gets. But even in that case, it’s not the lyrics that carry the profundity. Instead, they remain relatively trivial, piggybacking on the groove, giving it a name, and directing our ears to its implicit, bodily message.
The resulting effect is so common to us, yet we hardly have a vocabulary with which to discuss it. In these same pages, Peter Norman has put it this way: “unremarkable lyrics combine with the music to create a poetic effect. But then what the hell is a ‘poetic effect?’” Maybe it doesn’t matter, maybe we just know the effect when we hear it and that’s all we need.
But the matter brings up an interesting question: how do these elemental forces work in poetry released from Betjaman’s “cage of sound?” Assuming that Norman’s “poetic effect” has something to do with creating Betjaman’s “profound,” is its realization any less mysterious when the line is stripped of melody’s free ticket? When the line is forced to utilize its complete tool-set in its quest for “poetic effect,” is the (possibly) resulting profundity any easier to trace?
I doubt it, and thank god. Music may give its lyrics heft they would lack on their own, but take the music away and the poetry must replace the mystery of that combination on its own. As someone who came to poetry through song lyrics, I must say: what a marvelous space to fill.