Jenny Berkel by Colin Medley
When I was 21, I wrote my first song in a giant and nearly empty apartment in downtown Winnipeg. I grew up singing and writing poetry, but it wasn’t until I was alone in that echoing apartment that I realized I could do both things at once. Since that realization, I have spent countless hours hunched over a desk with a guitar and a pen. As a songwriter and a listener, the poetic capacity of lyrics is often on my mind.
Of course, not all genres or songwriters prioritize lyrics. For some, lyrics are more of a necessary embellishment or ornamentation. Different songs are meant to do different things. Some songs are written to express or reflect, while some are written to entertain. These days, many songs are written specifically to make money. In the mainstream pop market, lyrics average at a third grade reading level. I don’t pretend that every song has to be a lyrical masterpiece in order to be great. But I do believe that the best songs—the ones that will keep living long after their writers have disappeared—are the ones that share literary qualities. I think of classic songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen, or more modern versions such as Kendrick Lamar and Toronto’s The Weather Station. Like poems, their songs have the power to entrance audiences and demand close attention. They are measured by their artistic merit and craftsmanship, without regard for their marketability or popularity. They move the human spirit and, in their articulation of human experience, help to shape the world.
However, song lyrics remain fundamentally different from poems. We cannot hold the lyrics of our finest songwriters up against the poems of our finest poets and deem them equivalent or comparable. Separated from their music, lyrics feel deflated. It is true that some songs can be read as poems, but it is rare. Lyrics are meant to be sung; the melody adds meaning to the words and the words add meaning to the melody. If we are to think of songwriting as a form of literature—and I think we can—we must begin to recognize the different constraints and tools that are used by songwriters. When I sit down to write a song, my brain and body face different challenges than when I sit down to write a poem. The two share literary devices, yet they veer off and exist in a world of their own. The best songwriters are poets, but the best songs are not necessarily poems.
In order to properly critique the literary quality of songs, we need to acknowledge their literary elements. The greatest lyricists follow poetic footsteps: they are carving out their own distinctive voice, using rich metaphor and imagery, playing with patterns, and using poetic devices like alliteration and rhyme. There are many similarities between the two, but there are many differences as well. Lyricists work within different constraints than poets. The lyric is inextricably tied to the melody and shape of the song. Diction and syntax become flexible and fluid in song. The perfect word choice on paper might not be the right fit when sung. Words need to belong with the notes and feeling of the song. Many notes and moments in songs necessitate open vowels and soft consonants; for example, song lines often need to end with open sounding words. Imagine a big chorus ending with a hard stop (t, d, p, b, k, g)—it would impede on the flow of the song. Furthermore, sentence structure might need to be tweaked to fit the melody line. Indeed, in songs, the melody always reigns supreme. If the melody rings true, the lyric should be moulded to fit within it.
Importantly, there is also the immediacy and tangibility of songs. Music does not require close attention to affect audiences. We can encounter it passively and still be impacted. Music enters the body without consent. One need not understand the lyrics in order to feel the weight of the song. When I put on Nina Simone’s version of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” I feel the ache of the lyrics without even hearing them. Her voice and the melody both carry the lyrical content within themselves. Poems, however, cannot usually be passively absorbed. They require attention and effort in order to be understood. Even when read aloud, the dense language generally requires active listening in order to fully feel its impact.
Lyrics, on the other hand, are meant to be heard rather than read. There is a performative element attached to songs that does not necessarily exist in poetry. While the recording process (much like the printing press) has forever changed the way we interact with music, the performative element is still a fundamental part of music. A song is affected by the voice singing it, the instrumentation behind it, the mood of the singer, the feeling in the room, and much more. There is an ephemeral and ever-transforming quality to it. The songwriter can change the song from night to night. The song can be sung by somebody else and be given an entirely different energy. Songs are physical: they live in the present and in the body. The songwriter, therefore, works with a different point of impact than the poet. If the songwriter is to connect with their audience lyrically, their lyrics must be more accessible and transparent than poems. This does not disqualify traditional literary techniques from being used in songs, but it does alter them. Some of the greatest songs are also the simplest.
If we are to critique songs for their literary value, we must carefully consider the interplay between text, sound, and meaning. We can isolate and analyze them individually, but if we are to perceive their full significance and discuss their literary value, we need to critique them as an intertwined unit. When I sit down to write a song, I think about my voice, my intentions, the theme, the melody, and the words all at once. The lyrics are crafted within the context of these other elements. We can and should critically evaluate the artistic merit of lyrics; however, we cannot and should not separate them from the song. Lyrics should be evaluated for their poetic and literary value as songs, not as poems.
Jenny Berkel is a singer-songwriter and poet from rural Ontario. In between playing concerts across the globe, she studies at the University of Western Ontario. Her most recent album, Pale Moon Kid (Pheromone Recordings) was released in April 2016. Described by Exclaim! magazine as “a smouldering sound to behold” and “acutely poetic,” the album is lush and lyrically compelling.