songwriting

Daniel Kincade Renton offers his final thoughts on this month’s discussion of songwriting critique.

Our contributors this month have offered a productive and nuanced multi-part conversation about the criticism of songwriting (or of lyrical song, as one article put it), and how it might be something new, different, or greater than the sum of either music or literary criticism individually. The articles come in a pleasing variety of forms. They often agree and sometimes argue, but I believe they have all responded to my call uniquely and brilliantly.

In my interview with Marc di Saverio, we learn how vital music is to poetry. The fact that di Saverio believes music in poetry to be truly music, and not merely a metaphorical use of the word, suggests that the language of musicology might be fruitfully taken up by poetics, or possibly taken up in a more serious light. Perhaps di Saverio’s most pressing concern is that poets and critics alike should never lose sight of musicality lest they lose sight of the essence of poetry. He also warns that over-analyzing might jeopardize some part of the essential magic of experiencing of a poem.

Rather than hybridity, E Martin Nolan describes lyrical song criticism as a dialogue or a dance, one that is nonetheless unified. The “parts” he considers to be communing, however, aren’t poetics and musicology; they are any aspects we might name that make up the song: the music, the voices, the language, the meaning. When Nolan writes, “you can’t fixate on a static sense of meaning,” it is because we have to let the experience of the song dictate our creative critical response to it, not merely force a set of jargon terms onto our reading of a song. Once Nolan has articulated this position, we get to see his poetics in action with an informative analysis of the interaction between words and music in T.I.’s “I Believe.”

At this juncture, I’d like to thank E Martin Nolan for not only contributing his song review to this series but also for helping to shape the direction of my introduction as well as my call to contributors by directing my attention to two of his past Town Crier articles: “Bob Dylan, Dionne Brand, Louise Carson and the Written-sung Word” and “Lyrics Inside a Cage of Sound: Sir John Betjeman on Daft Punk.”

Jade Wallace’s characters in dialogue give us a bit of tongue-in-cheek prodding, which cautions against taking distinctive aesthetic categories too seriously. If it is “reductive to give poetry and music no substance beyond ‘not not poetry’ and ‘not not music’,” then perhaps it is also reductive to give lyric song no substance beyond either “part poetry” or “part music.” The wonderful advantage about pitting a critic character—intent on maintaining genres and categories—against a poet character—who claims, “[i]t’s my job as a poet to confound you as often as possible so you don’t continue to believe that definitions that exclude the margins are satisfactory”—is that Wallace doesn’t end up excommunicating either side. And perhaps that’s the only possible way to find a “law that is capable of reform and art that does not exclude anything or anyone from its universe-ranging gaze.”

Ed Smith’s “A Primer on Musicology for Literary Critics” provides an overview of the musical terms: melody, harmony, timbre, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, and form for the uninitiated. Simultaneously, Smith paints an illuminating depiction of music as tension and release, which suggests a simple model from which to draw analogies to devices in literary analysis. Such a primer is not meant as an exhaustive treatise on music theory or even songwriting criticism, but we hope it has the potential to give someone interested in musical study a head start or perhaps just ignite the imagination of someone looking to discuss the play of words and music. That is, Smith isn’t as much suggesting this is the only way for a literary critic to go about analyzing lyrical song but contributing a musician’s hypothetical part to a potential collaboration with a literary critic.

The ‘parts’ he considers to be communing, however, aren’t poetics and musicology; they are any aspects we might name that make up the song: the music, the voices, the language, the meaning.

Andrew Brooks considers how dramatic an effect is achieved by musical affects even when music is accompanied by words. Here we see that the subliminal force of something as seemingly innocuous as a key change can completely alter one’s experience of a song. As Brooks points out, one similarity that poetry shares with music is that they both contain deeper formal structures, of which we might not require any knowledge for the enjoyment of the work, but which are indispensable to its creation. This consideration of form leads Brooks to take a firm line on the hierarchy of words to music in song: “The song is music-intensive. If the music captures our attention, if it can elicit our emotional response, the song will be successful as a song almost without regard to the quality of the lyrics. The words are a passive presence.” The claim makes me wonder to what extent it might apply to the most poetic of lyricists. That is, even where a musical structure might seem less complex, the emotional power of that music might be intense and more immediate than the words.

Joseph Andre Thomas expands on Brooks’s hierarchy between words and music by showing us that song can be successful even when the intended meaning of its lyrics clashes with the emotional feel of the music. Sometimes such a disagreement can be used to create a particular meaningful effect. As Thomas writes, “this dissonance can add a striking dimension to a song, an ironical tension between the verbal and non-verbal.” In other cases—as we learn about Steve Winwood’s “Valerie” and its EDM homage “Call On Me” by Eric Prydz—the music and lyrics just seem disparate. Nonetheless, the song can work because—at least in these cases—“words are simply less important to music than to poetry.” At least as regards popularity and sales, these two songs can be argued to be successful despite losing touch with the intention of the lyrics. What is most surprising to me about this article is how Thomas demonstrates that analyses of what might be considered “bad music,” or at least a guilty pleasure, can yield such fascinating and informative analyses.

You may have already noticed some of what I’m highlighting about the other articles responds to David Janzen and Andy Verboom’s insightful quarrel with the assumptions in my introduction. This is not because I am eager to argue my position against theirs but because I agree strongly with their assertion from Badiou and Rancière that “the truth of art is its capacity to produce ruptures rather than syntheses, to create dissensus instead of consensus.” Or, rather, I would endorse the benefits of dissensus along with consensus.

Against the claim that ‘musicopoetics is already overpopulated,’ I would call for its endless and infinite population.

But I have become fully convinced by Janzen and Verboom’s argument that it is misleading or reductive to call lyrical song merely a synthesis of music and literature—or to call songwriting criticism merely a synthesis of musicology and poetics. And I’m so convinced that I’ll suggest we take this critique even further. Against the claim that “musicopoetics is already overpopulated,” I would call for its endless and infinite population. For if we rephrase the synthesis of words and music to now be the “simultaneity and interplay” of words and music, aren’t we still drawing our references only from these two discourses? (After all, our critical language cannot come from the vacuum of a creative genius. And don’t many of the terms Janzen and Verboom apply—rhythmic percussive strumming, descending vocalized melodies, highly distinct timbres—inevitably involve a “theft and adaptation” from musicology?) I may be wrong, but it seems to me that both of our arguments call for an extension of these discourses rather than a mere reformulation of them. How else would we present a rigorous account of historical context?

The reason that I call for an endless overpopulation of the field—a polyphony—is that relying on the terminology of one or more discourses in whatever way we apply them risks obscuring aspects of an art that are essential but beyond the literacy of whatever discourses we apply. To witness this, we have merely to consider how essential the recording engineer is to the crafting of a song. Why, for example, has no one in our series considered the importance of terms like attack, ambience, chorusing, compression, distortion, decay, envelope, flanging, gain, gating, level, limiting, mix, overdub, panning, pre-production, punch in, or tape echo? And why not go further? Why not describe songwriting via analogue, using terms employed in say architecture or painting or international economic trade? As Jade Wallace’s poet character suggests, “I only want us to be able to consider a choir of vacuums. Or a chorus of mushrooms.”

This last point is probably less of a disagreement with Janzen and Verboom than an endorsement of their final claim that “collaborative criticism […] might formally acknowledge the provisionality of critique and, more than likely, result in explicit and active destabilization of authority.” The only thing that worries me about endorsing collaboration as a more appropriate option is that it risks regressively figuring critic-subject as an absolutely singular entity, unable to think through two discourses at once. Doesn’t the craft of songwriting itself defy this stance? Isn’t creativity sometimes called a conversation between the conscious and the subconscious, let alone two art forms? But we could probably run an entirely new series of critical articles on this question of subjectivity.

Why not describe songwriting via analogue, using terms employed in say architecture or painting or international economic trade?

While I question collaboration as the only possibility, I fully endorse the claim that it might usefully destabilize authority. I’ll even forward the suggestion that our whole series be best read as one long conversation in the spirit of collaboration—perhaps especially where discord has emerged—and I hope that Janzen and Verboom would agree. In that spirit, let’s move on to our final contributor.

Jenny Berkel’s anecdotal description of how the songwriting process works for someone who composes music and also writes poetry gave us a firsthand account of how a creative artist is able to think through two discourses at once: “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.” While I now admit to the limitations of regarding songwriting as hybrid, Berkel’s account of the creative process reminds me why I was interested in how such a simultaneity might work. Perhaps then, part of the lyric song critic’s job is to investigate this simultaneity—and what better means through which to do so than by listening to actual musicians such as Smith and Berkel?

In response to Andrew Brooks and Joseph Andre Thomas’s claims that words are always secondary to music in lyric song, Berkel reminds us that “different songs are meant to do different things. Some songs are written to express or reflect, while some are written to entertain.” The difference noted here is that some songs are intended to entertain and generate sales while others “move the human spirit and, in their articulation of human experience, help to shape the world.” It is these latter qualities, notes Berkel, that ensure an artwork’s survival.

Having come to the end of my tenure as guest editor, I will conclude by offering my enormous thanks to all contributors for what I believe to be an overwhelmingly successful series. Huge thanks as well to the Town Crier for hosting us and providing a forum in which to make these innovative theses public; I hope that your readers found the topic as enlightening as I have. Given the very real possibility that we have all here and now witnessed a gargantuan change of the face of song criticism forever, I leave you with these salutations: until next time, rawk on duderinos.

Daniel Kincade Renton has been published in journals and anthologies such as Prism International, Hazlitt, CV2, Hamilton Arts & Letters, The Fiddlehead, The Malahat Review, The Fish Quill Poetry Boat 2010-2013, and Sifted: A Collection of Work by Participants at the Banff Centre Writers’ Studio, 2011. His poem, “Sundowning,” was shortlisted for the Basil Bunting award in the UK and won honourable mention for the Margaret Reid Poetry Contest in the US. Since 2014, he has been host and curator of Common Readings at the Belljar Café in Toronto, Ontario. His debut chapbook, Milk Teeth, was published by Frog Hollow Press in late 2015. 

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