There’s lyrics — and then there’s lyrics

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james taylor metal of honor
James Taylor receiving Medal of Freedom from President Obama.

With the announcement of the awarding of the Medal of Freedom to James Taylor, among others, we think of the difference between song lyrics and, well, lyrics. The difference, that is, between pop song lyrics and lyrical poetry.

From “Something in the Way She Moves,” for example, we have:

It isn’t what she’s got to say but how she thinks and where she’s been.
To me, the words are nice, the way they sound.
I like to hear them best that way, it doesn’t much matter what they mean.
She says them mostly just to calm me down.

No, it doesn’t much matter what these words say, it’s Taylor’s mellifluous baritone that calms us down and that we appreciate. He could be humming diddly-piddly, and we’d still like the results.

It’s unfair, of course, to judge a pop singer mostly by the quality of his lyrics. And in truth, Taylor’s lyrics are not always piffle and not always bad. But what passes for poetry, or song, in the popular mind is not what poetry, and song, are capable of.

I was thinking of this theme the other day, humming a Gershwin love song (“How Long Has This Been Going On?”):

Oh, I feel that I could melt;
Into Heaven I’m hurled!
I know how Columbus felt,
Finding another world.

Again, it’s not mainly the lyrics we are hooked by, though gods know Ira Gershwin could spin out some very clever words (the old classical New York jazz standards that Woody Allen loves). It’s George Gershwin’s music, as sung by greats like Ella Fitzgerald, that mesmerizes us and brings us back, again and again, to tunes that summarize and transcend their era.

And then, while I was humming the Gershwins, Keats’ song popped into my head — the corresponding and concluding lines about discovery in his sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” And he’s talking here about discovering Homer through an English translation!

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
   When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
   He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
   Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Written in 1816, this poem is the first fully mature poem by Keats, who hoped to “be among the English poets when I die,” and who, by virtue of his astonishing achievement by age 25, when he died of tuberculosis, has in fact ascended into this pantheon.
Imagine writing about reading as if it were an act of heroic discovery, not pain, not drudgery, the way too many kids today, in the pop-music-saturated world, think about reading. To approach a text, for gods’ sakes, “with a wild surmise”! To look each other in the eyes, not like lovers in a pop song but like conquistadores, who before they arrived here, at the summit of discovery, had no idea in the world that such a world existed.


4 thoughts on “There’s lyrics — and then there’s lyrics

  1. Ok, but as you say, it’s his mellifluous baritone that calms us, and perhaps his guitar and combo accompaniment. With the popular song, those that are best of the medium, we have music, voice and lyric. With Keats we have only one, albeit very brilliant, pony to ride. To compare the two on the basis of lyric alone is decidedly unfair as two-thirds of the offering of the popular song is left out.

    1. I agree, Phil. The musical whole is certainly more complex than the lyrics alone. The problem is that we know song lyrics, even trashy song lyrics, but don’t know poetry. We can hum a tune and get it stuck in our head, but can we recite a poem? Used to be, back in the school day, we had to memorize poems. I remember this as a task in Catholic high school, and whereas we might have resented it then the wonderful words stuck in our heads, like tribal memory. At that point, we could’ve been ancient Greeks or Hebrews, listening to the songs of our tribe. The half-life of pop lyrics is pretty short, I imagine, unless you’re talking Gershwin or Porter or one of those clever old boys. (Do they make songs like that anymore? Well, that’s another question.) It might be worthwhile, for young and old, to shove aside the pop songs every once in a while in favor of something more verbally deep and complex, in other words, to ride those brilliant ponies you reference. Git up, cowboys!

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