Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Lack of Need for Words

A long time ago, at summer camp, someone discussed the topic of "should we think of song lyrics as poetry?" I like song lyrics, I like poetry, but, much to my surprise, I decided that, no, we shouldn't think of song lyrics as poetry. This isn't to argue that song lyrics cannot be effective poetry, but I feel like this is something totally irrelevant to whether or not they are effective song lyrics.

Recently, I've been thinking of this because I've found myself with the CD Firebrand by a capella filk group Sassafrass. When I get new music, I always listen to it, many times, because I tend not to be able to successfully evaluate my attitude towards a song until I've heard it many times. I was a little biased against "Firebrand" for irrelevant personal reasons, but now that I've listened to it a few times, I think that I am legitimately not too fond of this CD. Oh, sure, I get songs from it stuck in my head, but you get songs from anything stuck in your head if you listen to them enough. I can't imagine ever thinking that I want to put on a song from this CD to listen to in the future, however, or even thinking about it much after I stop listening to it.

I'm reasonably sure that the CD doesn't work for me for a pretty simple reason - I don't particularly care for this kind of music ("folk in style with Renaissance elements"). On the just-linked website, the group gives some fairly valid reasons for their lack of interest in doing the more typical pop-based a capella songs, which I totally understand, but I'm just more interested in that type of a capella. I'm not good enough at dancing about architecture to explain my taste, but I'm conscious enough to be aware of it. So this is music that fundamentally bores me, and that would be why I'm not so fond of the CD.

But I'm also interested in my reaction to the lyrics. The lyrics, mostly written by the group itself, are not your standard pop-style lyrics, either (as to be expected from a filk group). And, to my mind, at least, they seem to be particularly poetic lyrics - often narrative poetry, going into great detail on various stories, but sometimes more lyric poetry. What makes me feel this way? Hard to say (I'm not an expert on writing about poetry, either - even in my academic studies, I'm pretty much a narrative girl rather than a form girl), but I think it's the sheer complexity of the lyrics. Listening to the song isn't enough to get all of the meaning out of it - you simply need to read the lyrics to follow along (and I feel like I'm missing a lot from those songs where the group hasn't published lyrics on their website yet). It takes time to process them (an exception would be "A Proper Mermaid Tale", which has clever, funny lyrics that are simple enough that you can probably get the joke just from listening to the song).

Some of these poetic lyrics aren't particularly interesting, good or bad. So "Toys for Big Kids" has lyrics definitely more complicated than those of most songs I listen to, but, ultimately, I think they're pretty disposable. I wouldn't be interested in this poem, but I wouldn't hate it, either. Some of them are a little worse, like "Somebody Will," which seems irritatingly preachy - I wouldn't want to read that poem.

But the one that interests me the most is "Fall", because I actually really like these lyrics. Of course, I would - they're revisionist Christian mythology lyrics, and I'm pretty much a sucker for revisionist Christian mythology. I really like the lyrics as a poem, and the fact that I like them does improve the song, in the sense that, when this song comes on, I kind of want to listen to it, to hear the story again. As a poem, these lyrics are at least as good, if not better, than Kevin Barnes' lyrics to "The Repudiated Immortals," a song which, similarly, seems to have something to do with revisionist Christian mythology.

Now, if you read over the latter, you'll notice the definite difference between Sassafrass and of Montreal. "Fall" really does tell a story. It's a narrative poem. "The Repudiated Immortals" seems more like an abstract painting - a couple of lines that gesture at a deeper meaning. I don't really know what the scenario behind the lines is; I just have a sense of a couple of scenes. I'm not sure how you'd evaluate it as a poem, without music. You might not look at it twice. But the music for "The Repudiated Immortals" is much more appealing to me than the music for "Fall," and that makes a difference. The music and the lyrics for this song really work together in a way that I'm unable to perceive them doing in "Fall" - the sketchiness of the lyrics means that the music is able to fill in the holes, and the lyrics add the slightest dash of representationality to the music, and it's just much more powerful (for me) than the combination of music and lyrics in "Fall."

So that's why I'm not interested so much in evaluating song lyrics as poetry - because, for me, the best song lyrics combine with the music to create an aesthetic experience that would be lesser with either part left out (my favorite example here is Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts' "Call Me Call Me," with lyrics by Tim Jensen - I once had a major epiphany in part caused by the combination of music and lyrics in this song). I think it's awesome that Sassafrass could write a really good poem, like "Fall," and I respect them for that, but, as lyrics go, I'd take "The Repudiated Immortals" any time!


Lonin said...

hmm, you know, i was just thinking... it doesn't take much effort or insight, from a song, to extract the lyrics to the song as a separate artistic entity, right? so, this is the chain of reasoning i'm developing out of what you've been saying here: "The Repudiated Immortals", the song, is greater than "Fall", the song (and i agree, i really like that song). but "Fall", the song, has to be at least as good as "Fall", the poem, because it contains it with a minimum of disguise. nevertheless, "Fall" the poem is a great poem. the seemingly inescapable conclusion: songs are a greater form of art than poetry.

how, pray tell, do we get out of this?? (can we get out of it from "Listening to the song isn't enough to get all of the meaning out of it - you simply need to read the lyrics to follow along"? but that seems like temporary solution at best, no?)

also, you know... i don't know if this is the best forum for it, but, i am curious how you came across the Sassafrass CD originally (and what the "irrelevant personal reasons" were, even, although this almost *certainly* isn't the forum for *that*...!)

Grace Mulligan said...

Huh. I tend to think that you have to evaluate artworks as gestalts. Thus, you can't simply tease out one aspect of a work of art, say, "this is awesome," and come to the conclusion that the entire thing lives up to the awesomeness of that aspect. I mean, for example. . . imagine someone were to take "Adonais" and set it to music, and the music was "My Humps." I love "Adonais," but I think it inescapable that a setting of "Adonais" to the tune of "My Humps" would not be as great as "Adonais," despite incorporating "Adonais."

I don't experience different art forms in the same way, and I don't evaluate them in the same way. For example, although there are elements of appreciation of both form and content to my evaluation of both music and poetry, I tend to care more about content in poetry and form in music. Probably most of my favorite songs have "meanings" which I feel I understand and appreciate, but some don't, and I still think them better than songs that have "meanings" I appreciate more but much less appealing song. On the other hand, I can't really imagine liking a work of poetry that didn't have an appealing meaning to me, even though, given two poems that both have appealing meanings, sure, I'll like the one with the superior form better. In consequence, because I judge poetry in a different way from how I judge music, I don't think that I can use the criterion I use to determine if a poem is good to determine if a song that makes use of that poem is good.

In other words, your chain of reasoning doesn't work for me, because I just can't imagine saying, "This song is really good poetry, therefore it has to be a good song." This may be because I have a very instinctive way of evaluating art; I don't reason through in order to make evaluations but rather make an evaluation first and only after reason through what the reason for the evaluation was. If you look at the lyrics to "Fall" and those to SMiLE's "Butterfly," it seems obvious that "Fall" is by far the better poetry, but I would say that there's no question that "Butterfly" is the song I prefer (your milage may vary depending on your musical tastes).

Answer to your other question forthcoming via e-mail.