Townes Van Zandt
In the late ’60s, an idiosyncratic country singer named Townes Van Zandt wrote and recorded a song called “I’ll Be Here in the Morning.”
The song contains a simple message: the singer feels compelled to hit the road but promises not to leave their lover for at least one more night. The imaginary listener is incited to sleep soundly. “Close your eyes,” sings Van Zandt, “I’ll be here for a while.” This trite pledge of weak fidelity is all we get when we remove these words from the context of their music and read them on the page.
When we listen to Van Zandt sing those words, the message changes. We hear the refrain “for a while” imbued with one of the most melancholic tones available to the male register. As the semantic meaning of the lyrics clashes against the sombre vocals, we understand that the promise is empty. That promise is soon to be broken and the singer knows it.
This is just one example of how meaning can exist in a song that is unavailable to analyses wherein the relationships between music and lyric are not considered. For the meaning of the whole, which otherwise belies a reading of the part, is lost when we take the words in isolation.
It seems we are not all in agreement on this issue—perhaps some do not even want to agree. For isn’t popular music as transparent an art as art can be? Isn’t literature taught and song-writing enjoyed by regular people? Don’t we risk neutralizing our pleasure via over-explanation?
I do not subscribe to these cultural biases. I believe that further discussion of the matter can heighten rather than exhaust our enjoyment of an art form. That said, when critical practice dithers, my pleasure does tend to decrease.
Such is the case where poetry critics tackle the difficult arena of song by removing lyrics from their musical contexts. For a (somewhat) recent example, see Michael Lista’s treatment of the Joni Mitchell song “Both Sides, Now.” While Lista acknowledges the importance of the music to his pleasure of the song (he even compares two different recordings), he ignores any relationship between the verbal and non-verbal components of the song. Curiously, the article is subtitled, “Is this Poetry?” but it never actually confronts that question. Instead, it interrogates the lyrics in light of their poetic merit by resorting solely to poetic device in a consideration of value. Spoiler: it turns out that lyrics in isolation make for bad poetry. Don’t most?
Our discussion extends into all relationships between music and text, and further, into the synthesis of any two arts, and even into our ability to think through inter-art analogies.
I point this out to suggest that song writing warrants its own discourse. As a synthesis of words and music, it requires a hybrid criticism composed of both poetics and musicology, as well as an innovative ability to synthesize those respective languages.
And I point this out to inaugurate a month-long discussion on the creative synthesis of words and music and everything contained therein. That is, I’ll be gigging all month at The Town Crier as guest editor—soliciting critics, poetic musicians, musical poets, and cultural experts of all sorts. My challenge to these varied interlocutors is to develop, enact, or discuss the possibility of a hybrid criticism centred around the relationship between these two modes of artistic practice.
This topic is not merely pertinent to the pop and folk music scene, where it’s usually only broached casually by entertainment journalists. Our discussion extends into all relationships between music and text, and further, into the synthesis of any two arts, and even into our ability to think through inter-art analogies.
Doesn’t all literature, after all, contain a kind of music? Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote that “understanding a sentence is much more akin to understanding a theme in music than one may think.” Thus, there may be more and less musical kinds of literature but, ultimately, even the least musical writing still has music to it—even if it is poorly executed music. The worst song, after all, is yet a song.
Contrariwise, music has a written language, a notation that is transcribed. Music has sense, however abstract, which we might also discuss, even if it isn’t the ordinary semantic sense of words and phrases. Perhaps this is the kind of understanding Wittgenstein was getting at.
All this is to say that whether we realize it or not, we are always thinking through the music/word synthesis unconsciously. So, let’s bring this back to words and music functioning together in song—the point/counterpoint of our series. Permit me to review a few of these points if only as a way to initiate, delineate, and perhaps spark debate within the present conversation.
1. Are song lyrics poetry?
It seems to me to be self-evident (demonstrated, perhaps, by Townes Van Zandt) that we cannot simply identify song lyrics as identical to poetry and be done with the matter. While it’s easy to notice many similar features between the two arts, it is also easy to identify crucial differences. For one: lyrics are sung to a melody, whereas poetry is usually spoken or read.
All song lyrics have poetic aspects to them, but some lyrics seem much more poetic than others; all poems contain some music, but some seem more musical than others.
Thus, I consider it erroneous and irresponsible to strip lyrics from a song in order to analyze them as a poem. I take the position that the non-verbal part of a song is an essential part of what makes it work. Music and words are always irreducibly intertwined in some way. This is not to mention the poetics of the recording process involved in the creation of said music.
2. Are songs a kind of literature?
It would be easy to demonstrate via Nietzschean genealogy that the concept of serious literature (belles-lettres or high art, along with authorship) is not very old in a historical sense and is furthermore inseparable from the development of late capitalist mass production, but such a conversation has probably already happened.
The semantic/ontological debate concerning what it means to call something “literary” is important but probably not necessary to hybrid criticism. It is also possible that the insistence of theoretical categories could hinder our transcending them, since the hybrid exists in artistic practice but has not developed far in criticism. Since we can likely agree to the claim that song is an art form and that poetry is an art form, I suggest we work from there.
3. Aren’t lyrics sometimes subordinate to music and music sometimes subordinate to lyrics?
We can all imagine examples of particular songs or even genres of music that seem to fall on one side of this divide. Some song writers rely on more complex words to intensify their songs. Others write more complex music while suffering from melodramatic lyrics fraught with cliché.
Clearly, there is a good deal to sort out beyond my claim that song lyrics cannot be isolated as poetry. For example, are there occasions wherein either music or lyrics might be regarded as mere ornamentation? Are song lyrics merely bad poetry that require musical embellishment to justify the work of art?
While these questions help suggest the direction of our conversation, they also demonstrate that our scope remains difficult and complex. All song lyrics have poetic aspects to them, but some lyrics seem much more poetic than others; all poems contain some music, but some seem more musical than others. Some of these questions could be applied verbatim to poetics.
Furthermore, the artists themselves don’t help to clarify the matter. In Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre, for example, song lyrics and poetry sometimes seem interchangeable, sometimes not. Cohen has recorded spoken word versions of his own poetry accompanied by music: “To A Teacher” was published in The Spice-Box of Earth and recorded on the album Dear Heather. He has turned famous poems written by others into song: Lord Byron’s “So, We’ll Go No More A Roving” was made into a song on Dear Heather. He has adapted and modified the Federico García Lorca poem “Pequeño vals vienés” (Little Viennese Waltz) to become the lyrics of his song “Take this Waltz” on the album I’m Your Man. He has made his own poetry into song lyrics by adding to them or modifying them: “As the Mist Leaves No Scar,” from The Spice-Box of Earth, became the song “True Love Leaves No Traces” on the album Death of a Ladies’ Man. His second book of poetry, Parasites of Heaven, included many poems that would soon after be recorded as songs, including “Avalanche,” “The Master Song,” “Fingerprints,” “Suzanne,” and “Teachers.” At the very least, this work attests to a high degree of malleability.
Amid such complexity, we face other difficulties. Unlike more established critical practices, our hybrid criticism has not developed its unique terminology. Literary criticism employs terms such as image, narrative, meter, metaphor, and diction; whereas musical theory uses terms such as pitch, timbre, time, beat, rhythm, tone, and mode. In discussing hybrid art forms, it becomes tempting to discuss one in terms of the other by interchanging their respective terminology. When we do this, we must be careful to remain cognizant that we do not employ metaphor unintentionally or in a way that abstracts rather than clarifies an issue. In a seminal essay on music criticism, “The Grain of the Voice,” Roland Barthes points out that this paucity of terms can result in resorting to the poorest of linguistic categories, the adjectives, or what he calls the fatality of predication. Despite this risk, I’ll repeat my earlier suggestion that we must hone an innovative ability to synthesize those respective languages.
But what does it mean to take words seriously? Is it merely a matter of praise or does it entail a critical evaluation?
In drawing from the predecessors of this discussion, we must also be wary of biases. When Barthes points out that there is much in music that escapes transcription, he commits the reductive fallacy of associating the ineffable parts of music with the body and the discursive parts with the soul. Likewise, Theodor Adorno maintains an elitist attitude which belittles popular music. This might seem out of place for a Marxist cultural theorist, but Adorno’s identification of popular forms with the standardization of mass production and modern consumerism does seem to justify his position. But perhaps our necessity to consider inter-art analogies can provide a new critique of Adorno. Isn’t the sonnet, after all, as standardized a form as those of popular music?
While traditional musicology may provide a key resource for our critical discourse, with Adorno it tends to maintain an elitist attitude resulting in little prior study of popular song. It also tends to favour the objective of musical descriptions, such as those we identify with transcription and notation, which may be limiting for our purposes. Ancient and Renaissance musical theory, however, contained a hermeneutics of cultural codes wherein musical modes are associated with moods and affects. It is not impossible that the discovery of this and other outmoded practices could prove useful to hybrid critique.
The American poet Matthew Zapruder writes that song writers present their lyrics as poetry out of a desire “for the words they write to be taken seriously.” But what does it mean to take words seriously? Is it merely a matter of praise or does it entail a critical evaluation? Overlooking the cultural bias that literature is taught and song easily understood, Zapruder draws the important conclusion that it is “far more productive to ask how lyrics in songs relate to musical information.”
That is exactly the attitude that I hope to find embodied in this little experiment. Perhaps, then, rather than become overwhelmed by difficulties in terminology, by cultural biases, and the endless balance of relationships between lyrics and music within individual art works—perhaps we should respond to these challenges by critiquing creatively on a case by case basis, wherein new information on the relationship between words and music is gleaned from each analysis.