Songs are powerhouses of meaning and expression, which explains their enormous social and cultural significance in both mainstream and underground contexts. Combining words and music, songs are potent carriers of messages. The interplay of sound and sense spawns a poetic whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Understanding these dynamics gives us a new appreciation of songs as an artistic medium, which exploits the reciprocal relationship between music and lyrics to create an impact that is simultaneously emotional and cerebral. This opens a fascinating window into the human mind and explains (at least in part) why songs mean so much to so many people.
“[T]here can be little doubt that in the union of Poetry with Music in its popular sense, we shall find the widest field for the Poetic development.” – Edgar Allan Poe (1)
“Blend noise and words and save the world.” – Steven Patrick Morrissey (2)
Songs are more than the sum of their parts. When the music and the lyrics successfully conspire to form a greater whole, something precious emerges, something that deeply enriches our individual and collective lives. According to Greg Bennick, one of the artists I interviewed for my book The Poetry of Punk: The Meaning behind Punk Rock and Hardcore Lyrics (3), “poetry makes you feel as if you just had a slice of humanity injected into your brain, and songs do too” (4). The punk rock legend Henry Rollins agreed by adding, “It’s a great form for distillation and impact, that’s for sure” (4).
What makes songs so potent? The short answer is: the combination of music and lyrics. When I put the question to the musician and psychologist Dan Yemin, best known for his bands Lifetime, Kid Dynamite, and Paint It Black, he offered the following explanation
[L]anguage, at the first contact, impacts us on an intellectual level. And music, at first, impacts us on a visceral level, at the level of the gut, the deep emotional level. The lower parts of the brain are [like] animal instincts, and the top of the brain is more of our cerebral cortex where the intellect takes place, and I think the combination of attacking both parts of the brain simultaneously [has] a very powerful impact. (4)
The synergic relationship between a song’s music and lyrics is reciprocal and involves trade-offs. This particularly applies to musical genres that place special emphasis on lyrical content. Punk rock is such a genre. In the words of Chris Hannah from the punk band Propagandhi, whose lyrics speak to human and animal rights issues:
[I]t’s kind of an equal give-and-take with both [the music and the lyrics]; at least when we’re trying to put a song together, it feels like there’s equal emphasis on trying to make the music as interesting as we want it to be and still trying to get the lyrics to say what we really want them to say. Sometimes you sacrifice a bit of the way you had lyrics written out to get them into some music you like, and sometimes you edit the music to make sure a particular way of saying something fits into a song. (4)
This snippet from my telephone interview with Hannah (4) suggests that the music and the lyrics compete in a zero-sum game. In fact, however, these trade-offs are positive-sum. Consider, by analogy, commercial trade: when people exchange goods, money, or services, they each get something in return worth more to them than what they’ve relinquished. The result is an increase in total value (positive-sum). (Theft, by contrast, is zero-sum: the thief’s gain is the victim’s loss.) Likewise, lyrics benefit from the music’s emotional content while enriching the music with semantic content. As a result, the song, as a whole, gains in potency.
This brings me to what I like to call the economy of songs. Economics is about the allocation of scarce resources which have alternative uses. “Resources tend to flow to their most valued uses,” explains economist Thomas Sowell; and “[s]carcity simply means that there is not enough to satisfy everyone’s desires” (5). The songwriter is, essentially, faced with a scarcity of time and space and has to decide how best to allocate these resources (recall Hannah’s comment). Because in most genres of popular music, songs tend to fall short of the four-minute mark. What’s more, lyrics must mesh with the rhythm and flow of the music – they must be songly. This imposes severe limitations on verse length and word choice.
These limitations, inherent in the format itself, can make it difficult for lyricists to convey complex messages in their songs. By analogy, sports cars are designed for speed and driving pleasure at the expense of cargo capacity. This explains why Hannah, whose lyrics address social and political issues, believes that music is “definitely not the best vehicle for ideas”; however, “[i]t’s the one that’s worked for us” (4). I asked other lyricists about their experiences. “It’s not about limitations, actually,” said Brian D. of the hardcore punk band Catharsis. “The musical context gives a lot more potential. It opens a lot more dimensions that the writing can benefit from.” He elaborated:
[C]oming from the perspective of being an author, when you put words together on paper, words can only do what they do by themselves as abstract entities. Everybody brings their own associations. You can actually do a lot more as a lyricist than you can do as a writer, because you get to not only pick the words but create an aesthetic context in which they are presented. (4)
Greg Bennick, best known as the singer of the hardcore punk band Trial, concurs with this view. In his opinion, “the limitations are a bonus when you’re writing a song”
[E]verything you can possibly pack in has to fit in […] those time parameters. So, that’s a limitation if you look at it from one perspective, but it’s also this beautiful challenge from another perspective. Can I really say everything I want to say, for example, in a song like [Trial’s] “One Step Away” about violence? What are my feelings about violence, and what’s the psychology behind violence? Can I say all of that in two and a half minutes? [T]he challenge is immense at times, because you want to refine what you’re writing so that it’s as potent as it can possibly be; at least that’s my process, to just try and make every single thing as potent as it can possibly be, and that’s the challenge based on time. (4)
This is where poetry comes in. Classical poetic devices, such as metaphor, allow lyricists to say more with fewer words, to condense their message, aestheticize it, and thereby make the lyrics “pack a punch more,” as punk icon Jello Biafra, the original singer of the Dead Kennedys, put it in our interview. “Every word counts” (4). The 1979 Dead Kennedys song “California Über Alles,” for example, contains the metaphorical lyric “Serpent’s egg’s already hatched” (6): a Shakespeare reference. In Julius Caesar, plotting against the Roman emperor, Brutus says, “And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg,/Which, hatch’d, would as his kind grow mischievous/And kill him in the shell” (7). Such intertextuality further expands the lyric’s scope of meaning without adding a single word.
The reason poetry lends itself to music is its inherent “musicality.” In poetry, sound (rhyme, alliteration, and other phonetic devices) and rhythm (poetic meter) play a central role, since poetic meaning arises from the interplay of form and content. Also, poetry demands conciseness, not necessarily in the sense of shortness, but rather in the sense of condensity: There can be no superfluous words or syllables. Poems are like songs in this regard, which is why poetic language lends itself to song lyrics. Bennick provides an example from his own work:
The opening lines of [the Trial song] “Reflections” could have been “there’s a considerable amount of garbage, trash, and detritus left over from people all over the place wherever you go”; but “the records of humanity have been strewn across the land” fits more concisely, and it’s also something that’s just in very few words that you can carry with you and see everywhere you go, rather than remembering this long, more literal piece of text. It’s more poetic to say it in a more concise way. (4)
At this point, can we claim that song lyrics are poetry? No, says Lars Eckstein, author of Reading Song Lyrics. The literary scholar argues that “while the voice in poetry is generally perceived as an internalized one encoded in the medium of writing, the voice of lyrics is by definition external.” Thus, song lyrics “cannot be perceived outside of the context of their vocal (and musical) actualisation – i.e. their performance” (8). In short, lyrics are written to be sung rather than read. “Stripped of sound,” agrees British singer Morrissey, “the lyrics of most pop songs are artful dribble”; “they merely fit well beside the dexterity of voice and instrument” (2).
While there is merit to Eckstein’s distinction between internal and external performance, I disagree with his conclusion that song lyrics are not poetry. The immanent, self-performing poetic voice of a song lyric may be drowned out by the external performance, but that does not imply that it ceases to exist once vocalization commences. Eckstein, however, argues that because song lyrics are written to be performed by an external voice, they are not poetry, as the voice of poetry is by definition internal. But I would contend that lyrics have a poetic life of their own, independent of vocalization. After all, they exhibit the formal features of poetry and, in many cases, make sense without musical accompaniment. In fact, there are numerous examples where the vocals “destroy” the poetry immanent in the scripted lyrics; there are, for instance, death and black metal songs whose lyrics are highly poetic but, due to the extreme vocal styles utilized in these genres, sonically incomprehensible. Furthermore, poetry, in its original form, was not read in solitude but often set to music (for example, melic poetry in Ancient Greece). So, the fact that song lyrics are “doubly encoded, as both verbal and musical referents,” as Eckstein puts it (8), does not mean that they don’t also exist as poetry in their own right. Nor does the fact that the musical performance is the lyrics’ raison d’être negate their poetry. After all, freshness of ideas and verbal inventiveness are key ingredients in both poems and song lyrics.
The synergy between the music and the lyrics is made possible by vocalization: the sonic actualization of the lyrics by a singer. Indeed, the vocals are the only real connection between the music and the lyrics. But that’s not all they are. When we listen to a song, explains ethno-musicologist Simon Frith, we hear “three things at once,” namely “words, which appear to give songs an independent source of semantic meaning; rhetoric, words being used in a special, musical way, a way which draws attention to features and problems of speech; and voices, words being spoken or sung in human tones which are themselves ‘meaningful,’ signs of persons and personality” (9).
Vocalization adds a whole other layer of meaning to the lyrics, manipulating them in interesting ways. In our interview, Brian D. provided an example, the song “Penetration” by Iggy and the Stooges: “On paper it’s a little bit risqué, you know, but Iggy Pop hissing and moaning and yowling and whispering ‘penetrate me’ over and over on that last Stooges record is an obscene and intense experience that you can’t just do by writing” (4).
Being potent carriers of social messages and cultural meanings, songs deserve to be taken seriously as a form of artistic expression. The awarding of the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature to Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions” certainly marked a shift in the public perception of songs. According to the literary critic Sara Danius, Dylan is “a great poet in the great English tradition [and] deserves to be read as a poet.” This confirms that song lyrics are, in some sense, a form of poetry. It also recognizes their enormous socio-cultural significance as a literary art form. What it ignores, however, is that much of a lyric’s expressive power derives from its synergy with the music. To fully comprehend and appreciate a song’s social and individual impact, it is therefore necessary to consider it as a poetic whole and to examine, or at least pay attention to, the different ways in which the music and the lyrics, sound and sense, engage in the production of meaning. Not only does this increase our understanding of cultural production; it also opens a window into the human mind – how we process and appreciate songs, and how we communicate through them.
Listening to a recorded song, it is often the vocals that draw us in. We relate to them in ways that are different from the rest of the music. Drenched in emotion, they are the only innately human sounds on the recording. However, vocals also carry semantic meaning, which puts them right at the heart of the powerful synergy between the music and the lyrics – the poetry of song.
- Poe, E.A., “The poetic principle”, 1850.
- Morrissey, S.P., “Autobiography”, 2013.
- Ambrosch, G., “The poetry of punk: the meaning behind punk rock and hardcore lyrics”, 2018.
- Ambrosch, G., “Punk matters: interviews with punk artists and activists”, 2019.
- Sowell, T., “Basic economics: a citizen’s guide to the economy”, 2000.
- Dead Kennedys, “California über alles”, 1979.
- Shakespeare, W., “Julius Caesar”, 1599.
- Eckstein, L., “Reading song lyrics,” 2010.
- Frith, S., “Performing rites: evaluating popular music”, 1996.