Recently one of my friends posted this video on their Facebook wall and it immediately caught my attention. I wasn’t disappointed. It was a peach.
The YouTube comment section, ever the breeding ground for considered debate and intellectual discussion, seems to have entirely missed the delightful tongue-in-cheek style of this interview. One commenter even went as far as to condemn the ‘Liberal Pseudo-Intellectualism’ that they deemed prevalent in academic studies, suggesting that this video is seriously suggesting that Ke$ha’s lyrics are worthy of being deemed as poetry. Although this simply isn’t the case, the video does raise an interesting point of discussion: is music, especially of the popular variety, worthy of the mantle of ‘poetry’ and deserving of a place in the ‘literary canon’?
The debate is hardly a new one. Eminent literary critic and scholar Christopher Ricks notoriously analysed the lyrics of Bob Dylan at book-length, Giles Foden also assessed the lyrical quality of Eminem’s verse for the Guardian here and several musicians have dabbled in writing their own poetry (Jim Morrison and Leonard Cohen have both had volumes of their poetry published and the lyrics of ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ were evidently a poem written by Axl Rose for his then girlfriend). However, these acknowledgements of the artistic merits of music within the academy are few and far between, so is this enough for them to be accepted?
Many would say no. Although, there is always a reticence to allow relatively ‘low-culture’ to be mentioned in the same breath as the ‘big three’ of drama, poetry and prose fiction. A similar attitude was held in the early to mid 20th Century towards cinema as a medium for art, although few would argue that many of the best examples of narratives and writing have come to us in the form of films; the direction and writing of Hitchcock, Kubrick and even Tarantino have revolutionised modern concepts of story-telling through a visual medium and have, as such, come to be regarded as works of art. So why shouldn’t music be afforded the same credit? As mentioned by Mr Muldoon in the aforementioned clip (albeit somewhat dismissively), music tends to cover many of the big themes that are covered by literature; love, hate, betrayal, mortality, war and sociological problems to just name a few and although it tends to be a briefer overlook of these subjects, in certain cases at least it treats them with as much artistic merit, if not more, as some modern poetry.
The big reason, for me at least, that it should at least be discussed as a genre of art is the accessibility factor. Moving away from the Modernist-notion of elitist literature, music is a more available, more immediate medium for the vast majority of listeners. Of course, people should strive to read poetry and that there should be standards upheld for what is considered as ‘literary’ but just because something is not esoteric does not mean that it should be dismissed artistically. In fact, much of the most inventive, creative and aesthetically enjoyable use of language has come from lyrical music and it has been used as medium for social commentary and political commentary in a broad sense too.
Take, for example, Ian Curtis’: ‘Existence well what does it matter?/ I exist on the best terms I can./ The past is now part of my future,/ The present is well out of hand’ (Heart and Soul), Thom Yorke’s: ‘We’re not scaremongering/ This is really happening, happening’ (Idioteque) or even Alex Turner’s: ‘Don’t get me wrong though, there’s boys in bands/And kids who like to scrap with pool cues in their hands/ And just cause he’s had a couple o’ cans/ He thinks it’s alright to act like a dickhead’ (A Certain Romance). Lyrics are also used by musical artist’s to criticise other genre’s within their medium that they deem to be poorer. A brilliant example of this comes from Tyler the Creator’s ‘Yonkers’: “And stab Bruno Mars in his god-damn oesophagus”. (This may just be my distaste at Bruno Mars brand of music shining through.)
Additionally, music telling a narrative transcends song and is perhaps much more applicable to complete albums; the Strokes first album ‘Is This It’, which is brilliantly subversive of the celebrity culture and the mass hype that the band were subjected too before they had released it, can be listened to as a complete narrative, as can the apocalyptic tone of many of Arcade Fire’s albums, most notably ‘The Suburbs’.
As was touched on in the last episode of Stephen Fry’s brilliant ‘Planet Word’ in a discussion with Richard Curtis (although I thoroughly disagree with his use of Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’ as an example), many of the great poems of the ‘canon’ are lyrics in that they are meant to be sung (Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s ‘Lyrical Ballads’ being the obviously examples here) as well as the fact that much of Blues and Jazz music has roots in the oral tradition of slave life and this further points to the idea that music has a rightful place amongst poetry. The simple fact of the matter is that musical lyrics carry much more resonance than the more typical poetry as they are much more widely understood and recognisable and as such, carry much more resonance than a poem that is technically crafted better (perhaps Mr Muldoon could take note: despite the fact your poetry is crafted magnificently, the meaning is often much less profound and less concise than say, Messers Lennon, Dylan and Simon). Just because it was written to be sung is no reason to dismiss it and it does not make it any less poetry than a sonnet or a villanelle. So does Ke$ha deserve a place alongside the Bard? Well, no. But that doesn’t mean that music doesn’t.