lyrical music

Giraffa camelopardalis

An emphasis on form produces a discourse specific to (and adequate to) the object—whether the object is a poem, a lyrical song, or an instrumental song.

We agree with Daniel Renton’s claim, in the first piece in this Town Crier series, that “song writing warrants its own discourse.” But we think that claim proceeds to beg the question: “As a synthesis of words and music, [songwriting] requires a hybrid criticism composed of both poetics and musicology, as well as an innovative ability to synthesize those respective languages.” If we understand the lyrical song as a chimera, the offspring of poem and instrumental song, we make a “hybrid criticism” the only logical prescription for a perceived critical crisis. Rather than focusing specifically on lyrical songs, that hybrid criticism will likely take its own development as its primary object, with poetics, musicology, poems, instrumental songs, and (finally) lyrical songs as secondary objects. The apparently new and open field of musicopoetics is already overpopulated.

What if, instead, we compare the lyrical song to the camelopardapparent synthesis of camel and leopardwhich we now call a giraffe? When Giraffa camelopardalis populations are in crisis, conservation efforts tend toward protecting and fostering those giraffes that already exist, of course, rather than toward developing Doctor Moreau-esque cross-breeding programs. In this formal sense, lyrical music is the simultaneity and interplay of words and music rather than the synthesis of two other arts. A formal analysis of a lyrical song leads to the development of critical language out of the practical language surrounding the lyrical song and its creation—and leads (inevitably, we think) to the theft and adaptation of useful terms from other practical and critical traditions, including those of poetry and instrumental music. While formal analysis may involve a kind of integration or amalgamation, it asks not What is it? but How does it work? This approach makes questions of judgment (Is it poetry? Is it music? Is it art? etc.) and programs of critical hybridization mostly irrelevant. It also acknowledges that any call for the creation of a specific kind of critical discourse will never be as innovative as an inventive, material praxis.

Formal analysis of lyrical music requires historical context.

Poetry and instrumental music can both be “read” aloud or silently; as semiotic systems, they are equally grounded in writing and sound. But in lyrical music, the basic elements are sound and silence. This has been true from the beginning of modern popular lyrical music, which burst on stage with the first mass-producible recording technology: the gramophone. Afro-Cuban Son, Mariachi, “Old time” Country, Flamenco, Samba, vocal jazz, and blues—all of these vernacular genres partook in the development of what we now understand as popular music, and all of them became “popular” (i.e., circulated beyond local spheres) when they were recorded during the first phonograph boom, between 1925 and 1930. Performers of these vernacular musics generally learned to play by ear (unlike classical musicians, trained to “read” music). And unlike instrumental recordings, vernacular recordings did not simply capture a live performance; instead, they were, for many listeners, the initial form of encounter.

… vernacular musics emerged, developed, and proliferated from the social and geographical margins—colonial ports, rural working poor, racialized communities, and so on.

Equally significant, the vernacular musics that coalesced (and continue to cross-pollinate) in popular songwriting did not emerge in global centres. Instead, as Michael Denning’s book Noise Uprising elaborates, vernacular musics emerged, developed, and proliferated from the social and geographical margins—colonial ports, rural working poor, racialized communities, and so on. Many of them—from blues to country to trova—create affects of exclusion, exploitation, and loneliness, not only lyrically but formally, too. Perhaps most readily apparent, early blues is defined by rhythmic percussive strumming (which creates patterns of sound and silence), and repetitive, often descending vocalized melodies defined by “blue” notes. Listen, for example, to Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads”; if we treat such a piece as a hybrid of lyric and music, we would have to admit that, poetically, it’s not all that interesting. Likewise, in terms of melody and musical form, it’s not as interesting as what was developing at the same historical moment in avant garde composition. But, understood as a sound object—something made up of highly distinct timbres, and a subtle and complex rhythmic language—it is unparallelled. Especially in its capacity to express (without representing) both presence and absence through patterns of sound and silence—both in sonic terms and in socio-political terms. This capacity is, surely, why early blues has had such a profound impact on genres and writers across the spectrum—from Carole King to Kurt Cobain.

The broader point is that, within its material history, it makes very little sense to frame popular songwriting as a hybrid art. From the beginning, modern popular songwriting has had its own forms and its own media; from electrical recording and the gramophone, to the LP, to the video-ization of music consumption—lyrical popular music is created not by merging poetry and music but through distinct aesthetic practices. Thus, while it may be tactically beneficial to borrow tools and terms from both poetics and musicology, to conceive of lyrical music criticism as a necessarily “hybrid” form is to forget the unique histories of its object.

A call for critical hybridization, in an online media ecology, is a call for one brand of synthesis (musicopoetics) to replace another brand of synthesis (the reading of lyrics as poetry).

In contemporary forms of social media, all artists and art forms are subjected to excerption and translation into the most shareable format: the textual quotation. This uniformizing process directly contributes to the reception of pop lyrics as a hybrid of poetry and music. Excerpted and circulated as lineated text (in tweets, in Facebook photo captions, as Instagram posts, on lyrics websites, etc.), pop lyrics resemble the most popular genres of poetry such that one reading practice appears to suffice for both. Yet, read back onto their “original” context of song recording, the lyrics appear as part of a greater, hybrid whole.

If lyrical music is a hybrid form simply because it is presently received as one—if appearance is truer than history—then isn’t it, more accurately, a hybrid of music and social media? Should there be a call, instead, for a hybridization of music criticism and social media criticism? Moreover, considering how dominant the Internet has become as the medium of cultural dissemination, shouldn’t all traditions of art criticism become subsets of media criticism, their shared proper object being The Great Digital Soup? But this is a synthesis-oriented approach to understanding: the tendency toward standardization of forms, compatibility of fields, and unification of knowledge into a Theory of Communication. Surely art and poetry still produce truths beyond mere communication. At the very least, the generative potential of art and poetry emerges from a capacity to unsettle knowledge and perception and to evade summation. In other words, as philosophers like Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière argue, the truth of art is its capacity to produce ruptures rather than syntheses, to create dissensus instead of consensus. Art criticism should follow such ruptures (always trailing behind) away from synthesis.

… shouldn’t all traditions of art criticism become subsets of media criticism, their shared proper object being The Great Digital Soup?

We think that poets’ resistance of synthesis is evident in their discomfort with critics’ deliberate, myopic mistreatment of pop lyrics as poetry. But in this media ecology characterized by excerption, criticism is most widely read when it takes the form of spectacle: the disagreeable, the controversial, and even the inflammatory. Nuanced criticism requires more context, and it requires us to stay with the object of critique rather than lashing at other targets (including other critics). Such criticism is not as widely circulated through excerption. It’s little wonder, then, that poetry critics’ crimes against pop lyrics appear to present a critical crisis. It’s also little wonder that poetry critics should want to commit those crimes. It’s for the shares.

A collage of formal analyses is a more egalitarian critical practice than hybridization.

A critic’s refusal to adjust their discourse to their object (figured in this Town Crier series as a refusal to hybridize) is a paradoxical insistence on the universality of their specialty. But if this insistence on universal specialty seems to reinforce the traditional academic model of the individual (artistic or scholarly) genius, so too does a call for a new hybrid poetic-musicological criticism. The genius critic, in the necessary performance of their expertise—the assertion of the universality of their tastes—leans toward comprehensiveness. They strive to appear as the definitive authority on the archive of their chosen critical tradition. Most calls for a new criticism, hybrid or otherwise, enact the “discovery” of a new, distinct object or territory out of which a new (and so nearly empty) archive may be made. And the smaller the archive, the easier one can become an authority on it.

Enacting the discovery of lyrical music as a territory for a new criticism requires erecting borders to keep out the poets. Even if you don’t know whether lyrics are poetry, you know that poetry, being poetry, is the proper domain of poets and poet-critics. But this treatment of poetics as appropriate only to the critique of poems—and not, say, the critique of language in all of its uses—is a ghettoization. If you can imagine a music critic as somewhat equipped to speak about musical sounds in whatever contexts they appear (in pop songs, in films, in advertisements, in architectural spaces, in ambient noises, in animal communications), then why imagine a poet-critic as unequipped to speak about language in forms other than poems? Is a mathematician equipped to speak about equational poetry? Is a physicist equipped to consult on a sci-fi film?

The real crisis of art criticisms is not a lack of coverage but the inherent crisis of authority. That is, the constant crisis of indefiniteness and incomprehension that necessitates the constant performance of expertise. Where hybridization offers the specialist in crisis the temporary comfort of terra incognita, an acceptance of the provisionality and limitation of critical authority requires a practice of critical collage. Each specialist art critic is a provisional expert in their own field and a non-authority on any given object (whether or not that object lies in their field); each critical approach is incomprehensive in scope but still aims at the truth of a work of art.

The real crisis of art criticisms is not a lack of coverage but the inherent crisis of authority.

Luckily, the material conditions for the mass excerption and hyper-circulation of artwork and art criticism, which bring the crisis of specialist authority to a head, are the same conditions that enable a different readerly approach to criticism. In the simplest terms, critical authority is destabilized by easy access to (and easier publication of) multiple reviews of the same artwork. Each specialist reviewer can been seen to contribute to a dissensus on a poem or song, to a non-synthesized cluster of readings.

Collaboration is a more ethical critical practice than hybridization.

Who stands to benefit most from the development of (or even the call to develop) a hybrid musicopoetic criticism for reviewing lyrical music? Instrumental music critics appear to have no skin in this game. Lyrical music critics, if they are incompetently or incompletely addressing lyrics, would benefit more from further development of their extant critical language (perhaps by stealing and adapting terms from poetics). It is poetry critics, in their more or less incompetent handling of the musical aspects of lyrical music, who would benefit most from this hybridization, particularly through the renewal of poetic criticism’s relevance and the broadening of its scope.

In other words—and this is self-evident—poets are those most invested in whether music lyrics are poetry (and whether poetry ‘is’ music). More poets want to hitch their work to the broad appeal of lyrical music than musicians want to “class up” their work by associating it with the rarified categories of poetry or, more generally, literature. Take, as an example of this disparity, the contrast between Dylan’s relative disinterest in receiving his Nobel Prize for Literature and the heated debates of poets (which these theses participate in) regarding the prize committee’s decision.

But questions around the interdisciplinary and the inter-generic—not only those surrounding the classification of song lyrics—are necessarily questions of community, and so we believe they are best answered by and through community. If a call for hybrid criticism replicates the fallacies of lone critical definitiveness, then collaborative criticism—in which, say, a pop music critic works with a poetry critic—might formally acknowledge the provisionality of critique and, more than likely, result in explicit and active destabilization of authority.

David Janzen is a writer and musician who has published academic and non-fiction work on concepts of crisis, political theory, and sound studies. He currently writes and performs music under the moniker Local Haunts. Andy Verboom, a former Town Crier guest editor, curated a series on conscientious conceptualism in April. His poetry chapbooks are Orthric Sonnets, Full Mondegreens, and Tower. David and Andy have written songs together, some of which will be released on the upcoming Local Haunts recording (2018).

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