Re: “That’s A Bad Lyric And You Know It”- Thinking About Value in Pop Lyrics


Eleanor Friedberger


Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino

I have some sympathy with this piece on the NPR music blog (by James Toth), since I too care a lot about lyrics within pop music, and I’m grateful to Toth for making me think more about the question of how we think about lyrics in pop today. I think the analysis is limited, though, in its treatment as an unaccountable oversight what is actually a highly developed and historically-conditioned ideological-aesthetic stance.  Toth complains that

a person taking a survey of several leading print and online publications might be forgiven for concluding that a song’s words are no longer a measure of its failures or successes, but an arbitrary component unworthy of serious discussion. Albums instead seem to be judged on a criterion of attitude, atmosphere and that nebulous catchall imprecisely referred to as “production.”

What would have been worth explaining, and thinking more about, is the degree to which post-Robert Christgau/ Ellen Willis/ Lester Bangs/ Greil Marcus pop/rock criticism (that is, something like Village Voice criticism as opposed to Rolling Stone criticism, in the 70s/80s context– at some point in the 1990s, the strands merged) defined itself significantly according to the tenet that the pop lyric must not be understood as poetry but as words-accompanying-sound. Christgau articulated this position in his 1967 piece “Rock Lyrics Are Poetry (Maybe).”

Perhaps you are one of those people who plays every new LP with the treble way up and the bass way down so you can ferret out all the secret symbolic meanings right away. Personally I think that spoils the fun, and I suspect any record that permits you to do that isn’t fulfilling its first function, which pertains to music, or, more generally, noise.

It is by creating a mood that asks “Why should this mean anything?” that the so-called rock poets can really write poetry–poetry that not only says something, but says it as only rock music can. For once Marshall McLuhan’s terminology tells us something: rock lyrics are a cool medium. Go ahead and mumble. Drown the voices in guitars. If somebody really wants to know what you’re saying, he’ll take the trouble, and in that trouble lies your art.

Christgau influentially argued that the worst rock lyricists were those who, like Paul Simon (Christgau actually later became a big Simon fan, FWIW), create highly-crafted, self-consciously poetic lyrics, as in

Simon’s supposed masterpiece, “The Dangling Conversation,” which uses all the devices you learn about in English class–alliteration, alternating concretion and abstraction, even the use of images from poetry itself, a favorite ploy of poets who don’t know much of anything else–to mourn wistfully about the classic plight of self-conscious man, his Inability to Communicate.

Christgau made the case here (and in all his subsequent writing) that the greatest rock/ pop lyricists were those who managed to create just the right compelling, memorable, weird, charismatic combination of language, sound, and noise. Like the New York Dolls’ David Johansen, or Lou Reed, or Patti Smith.  Their lyrics might or might not be “poetic”, but in tandem with their bands’ often-abrasive sounds, they became an autonomous art, rather than imitation poetry.  Bob Dylan was a truly great rock poet, but this was not because his lyrics functioned as poetry on the page, but because of a completely different alchemy that occurred in the performed and recorded musical song; “Once upon a time you dressed so fine/ Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?” wasn’t in fact great poetry, but in Dylan’s timbre and with Al Kooper’s organ, Mike Bloomfield’s guitar, etc., it became unforgettable.  Same for David Johansen’s “Something must’ve happened over Manhattan.”  Or Lou Reed’s “I’ll be your mirror/ reflect what you are/ in case you don’t know.” And so on.

This position subsequently allowed hip critics to defend disco and seemingly “vapid” pop music against “rockist” Rolling Stone canonizing-type critics in the 1970s and 80s who tended to defend “well-crafted,” “lyrically-complex”, yet boring music in a singer-songwriter tradition (James Taylor, say) and to woefully under-rate the most exciting contemporary music in which lyrics were often minimalist and intentionally simple or even “stupid” (punk rock, Funkadelic, etc).  So, the argument gets extended to, say, the Ramones: “Beat on the brat/ Beat on the brat/ Beat on the brat with a baseball brat/ Oh yeah.”  Or Chic: “Good times/ These are such good times.”

What gets tricky here is to consider the difference, if there is one, between an effectively demotic/ colloquial lyric, on the one hand (a lyric that is good without being “poetic”), and on the other, a lyric that perhaps has no particular value on its own, but that works effectively within a great song.  So, is the Chic line itself “good”?  Or does it kind of not matter?  (I would argue that almost always, the lyric does matter, but that a strong lyric defines its own context and conditions for assessment.)

In any case, hip modern pop music criticism came to see as perhaps the worst possible critical error the knee-jerk, “rockist,” former-English-major tendency to approach pop music as lyrics that happen to be put to music.  Looking back, we were all very embarrassed to see some of the boring, over-crafted singer-songwriter dreck that was praised to the skies in the early Rolling Stone guides, while truly innovative, ground-breaking music was often dismissed as primitive or dumb.

So a critical de-emphasizing of pop lyrics became strongly linked with the championing of punk and disco and a denigration or at least down-grading of folk & rock singer-songwriters.

One could take a sociological perspective here to think about a disciplinary tension between literary analysis as taught in English and literature departments, vs. more musical or musicological analysis.  The average pop music critic was much more likely to be a former English major than a music student (or a musician), and he or she came to be a bit embarrassed about any analysis that invited the accusation of treating pop recordings as primarily verbal– precisely because that was what often came most naturally.  (I’m speaking partly out of personal experience here…)

I do think Toth has a good point that this “anti-poetic” perspective on lyrics has by now become so absolutely dominant within pop music criticism that it has, arguably, gone too far, to the point that a more old-fashioned, important American pop tradition of intelligently crafted lyricism, in the Tin Pan Alley or Cole Porter mode, say, tends to be under-rated.  Toth is right, I think, that “intelligence” and craft in lyrics sometimes is a good thing, that sometimes verbal “stupidity” and vapidity offers nothing beyond its surface, and that pop music today could probably use a greater degree of lyrical craft.

But, Toth should do more to acknowledge the context and historical development of the current critical stance.   And to admit that there is no way properly to evaluate pop lyrics purely on the page or as text. He implies that Eleanor Friedberger’s line “Today was perfection — the axis of bliss/ I was calm in your arms waiting for the kiss that never came” is self-evidently superior to Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino’s “And I don’t know why/ The sun’s in the sky.”

But it is pointless to argue over that without consideration of the context of the songs’ music, noise and attitude.  Since if either of these lines say anything at all, they say them as only pop music can.

2 thoughts on “Re: “That’s A Bad Lyric And You Know It”- Thinking About Value in Pop Lyrics”

  1. Good piece, Ivan! I didn’t know about that Christgau essay but I can still recall the delight I once took in his ridicule of Jackson Browne’s word choices in “The Pretender.” There’s a very good argument against taking song lyrics as poetry in Simon Frith’s “Performing Rites.” But lately I have found myself admiring the world play in Kasey Musgraves’ “Merry Go Round” and Brandy Clark’s “Stripes.”

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