Seven Songs, Seven Literary Devices — Celebrating the Poetics of Songwriting
So this article idea started with a recent trip to Seattle (yep, for the AWP Conference). During the trip, I heard the 90s classic “Lump” by The Presidents of the United States of America no less than 4 times! Considering the song is not on regular rotation on any radio station anywhere these days, I thought that was a fairly interesting coincidence, and by the third time I heard it, I actually started to listen to the lyrics.
Lump lingered last in line for brainsAnd the ones she got were sorta rotten and insaneSmall thing's so sad that birds could landIs lump fast asleep or rockin' out with the band
It occurred to my word nerd brain that these were pretty good examples of the poetic literary devices alliteration and assonance. Then I started thinking about how song lyrics are just another form of literature that employ many of the same tropes and tools used by poets and other writers.
In this article, I will explore some well-known literary concepts as they appear in songs. Of course, for each concept there are thousands of possible examples, and you will probably get a pretty good idea of my musical tastes by the end of it, but it's just for fun.
Ok, so I can probably include every song ever written here, as metaphor is a very common trope used in writing of all kinds to convey an idea on multiple levels. In fact, many songs are really just one long metaphor.
That said, I recently heard a song with a lyric that reminded me of the famous Ezra Pound micro poem:
In a Station of the MetroThe apparition of these faces in the crowd;Petals on a wet, black bough.
That line comes from the song “Trance Manual” by John Vanderslice. It uses a similar style of juxtaposition metaphor.
Oh dressed like thatYou are a flag of a dangerous nation.
While they may not be one-for-one comparisons—(i.e. Pound's comparison is more visual and Vanderslice's is more conceptual, I mean, what does “the flag of a dangerous nation” look like?)—but they carry the same method of weighting one idea against another to make a point—and make it very quickly.
Giving human voice to objects and animals is a very common part of many poems and songs. However, when I think of songs that include personification as a major component, Ben Gibbard's relatively recent ode to the Smith Tower in Seattle called “Teardrop Windows” comes to mind. The whole song is written from the point of view of the building—once the tallest building in the West, now dwarfed by nearly every other building in the city (and in every other city).
Teardrop windows crying in the skyHe is all alone and wondering whyIvory white, but feeling kind of blue'cause there's no one there to share the viewThere's too many vacanciesHe's been feeling oh so empty...When the sun sets over the SoundHe just goes to sleepBuilt and boast as the tallest on the coastHe was once the city's only toastIn old post cards, was positioned as the starHe was looked up to with fond regardBut in 1962, the needle made its big debutAnd everybody forgot, what it outgrewHe wonders where the workers arewho once filled every floorThe elevators operate,but don't much anymore..., anymore..., anymore...Teardrop windows crying in the skyHow the years have quickly passed him byGleaming white against the deepest baby blueHe is lonely just like me and youCause there's too many vacanciesHe's been feeling oh so empty...When the sun sets over the SoundHe just goes to sleepThere's too many vacanciesHe's been feeling oh so empty...When the maid they turn out the lightsHe just goes to sleep
The irony of the word “onomatopoeia” is that it is not an example of what it describes—words that sounds like what they describe. For example, “boom,” “ding”, “bark”, etc. are all examples of onomatopoetic words. British rapper M.I.A. has a great example of onomatopoeia in her song “Paper Planes." The words aren't exactly spoken in the song, rather she inserts sound effects, but it works so well and reminds me how music and poetry can blend to create a layered experience.
All I wanna do is (BANG BANG BANG BANG )And a,((KACHENG)) and take your moneyAll I wanna do is(BANG BANG BANG BANG )And a, (KACHENG) and take your money
4) Dramatic Monologue
In poetics, a dramatic monologue is an extended, one-sided conversation by a speaker or character. According to American literary critic M.H. Abrams, a dramatic monologue in poetry should contain three key elements:
- A single person, who is patently not the poet, utters the speech that makes up the whole of the poem, in a specific situation at a critical moment.
- This person addresses and interacts with one or more other people; but we know of the auditors' presence, and what they say and do, only from clues in the discourse of the single speaker.
- The main principle controlling the poet's choice and formulation of what the lyric speaker says is to reveal to the reader, in a way that enhances its interest, the speaker's temperament and character.
One of my very favorite dramatic monologues in the English language is “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning, in which the haughty Duke admits to having his last wife killed because she smiled at someone besides him. It's lovely and creepy and it sticks with you.
In contemporary music, the best example I can think of is the hilarious almost spoken-word Hump Day Anthem “Business Time” by Flight of the Concords. It has, as you might imagine, a completely different tone (and ending) than Browning's poem, but in some ways they echo each other. One is the tragic story of a woman owned by a ruthless and jealous husband, and the other is an all-too-true characterization of sex and love between modern couples who are settled with each other. It's also very, very funny.
Girl, tonight we're gonna make love. You know how I know? Because it's Wednesday. And Wednesday night is the night that we usually make love. Monday night is my night to cook. Tuesday night we go and visit your mother, but Wednesday night we make sweet, weekly love. It's when everything is just right. There's nothing good on TV. You haven't had your after-work social sports team practice so you're not too tired. Oh boy...it's all on. You lean in and say something sexy like, "I might go to bed I've got work in the morning." I know what you're trying to say girl. You're trying to say, "Oh, yeah. It's business time. It's business time."It's business.It's business time.I know what you're trying to say you're trying to say it's time for business it's business time. Ooh!It's business.It's business time.Then we're in the bathroom, brushing our teeth. That's all part of the foreplay. I love foreplay...a-Chicka-chicka, a-chicka-chicka, a-chicka-chickow-ow-oww!Then you sort out the recycling. That isn't part of the foreplay process but it is still very important. Next thing you know we're in the bedroom. You're wearing that baggy old ugly t-shirt you got from your work several years ago. Mmm, you know the one, baby...with the curry stain. Oww!I remove my clothes very, very clumsily, tripping sensuously over my pants. Now I'm naked, except for my socks, and you know when I'm down to just my socks what time it is...It's business.It's business time.You know when I'm down to my socks it's time for business that's why they call it business socks.It's business.It's business time.Oh.Ooh, makin' love.Makin' love for...Makin' love for two...Makin' love for two...minutes.When it's with me, girl, you only need two minutes, because I'm so intense. You say something like, "Is that it?" I know what you're trying to say. You're trying to say, "Aww yeah, that's it." Then you tell me you want some more. Well, I'm not surprised. But I'm quite sleepy.It's business.It's business time.Business hours are over, baby.It's business.It's business time.
5) Point of View
I know, I know. You hate the song, but the recent radio darling by Gotye called “Somebody That I Used to Know” is a good example of a song where two or more points of view are presented. The first few stanzas are sung by the male character lamenting how his ex just cut him off after their breakup. Then the ex chimes in with her own story of how the boyfriend “screwed her over” and didn't live up to his promise to not get “hung up on someone that [he] used to know.” It's a great example of a story told by two sides.
However, my favorite he said/she said song is “Don't You Want Me” by Human League. Let's review:
You were workin' as a waitress in a cocktail barWhen I met youI picked you out, I shook you up and turned you aroundTurned you into someone newNow five years later on you've got the world at your feetSuccess has been so easy for youBut don't forget, it's me who put you where you are nowAnd I can put you back down too.
But then she rebutted:
I was working as a waitress in a cocktail barThat much is trueBut even then I knew I'd find a much better placeEither with or without youThe five years we have had have been such good timesI still love youBut now I think it's time I live my life on my ownI guess it's just what I must do
Well, she told him!
Ok, let's sing the rest together..”Don't you want me, baby? Don't you want me, ooh ooh?”
So cliché may not be a “literary concept” as much as it a crutch (oops, is that a cliché, too?) However, some poems and songs lean on common cliches to make an argument that will be understood by a wide audience. In popular music (of any genre), cliches are easy to find. I don't have a problem with a modest use of cliches when used to create understanding, but sometimes, it goes too far.
Case in point. The song “Roar” by Katy Perry contains at least six cliches just in the first stanza:
I used to bite my tongue and hold my breathScared to rock the boat and make a messSo I sat quietly, agreed politelyI guess that I forgot I had a choiceI let you push me past the breaking pointI stood for nothing, so I fell for everything
By the end, I counted 18 (maybe more) horrible cliches. It's so bad that if you made it a drinking game, you'd be looking for a barf bag by the time Ms. Perry sings,
Now I'm floating like a butterflyStinging like a bee I earned my stripesI went from zero, to my own hero
Kanye West sees colors when he hears music. (Of course, you do, Kanye, of course you do...)
He's not alone, though, many “creative types” claim to have synaesthesia, a neurological condition that causes a person to see color when they hear music, see certain numbers or letters, or perceive certain times/days/weeks/months etc. Both Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Nabokov reported having synaesthesia.
As a literary device, synaesthesia can add depth and mysticism to your writing by conjoining multiple senses. A classic example of syneasthetic elements in a poem is Dante's “Divine Comedy,” in which he says they went “back to the region where the sun is silent.” He combines the sound (or lack of sound) with the image of the sun.
In the song “Bold as Love,” Jimi Hendrix sings a rainbow of synaesthetic images. Take this section from the third stanza of the song.
My red is so confident that he flashes trophies of war,and ribbons of euphoriaOrange is young, full of daring,But very unsteady for the first go roundMy yellow in this case is not so mellowIn fact I'm trying to say it's frightened like me
Care to weigh in?
Of course you do! I had to stop this article somewhere. There are many, many examples of these devices in song as well as other devices such as ode, setting, plot, rhyme, etc. But if you'd like to add your songs to this list, I'd love to hear them!
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