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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

National Poetry Month, day twenty-seven

Are song lyrics also poetry?

This isn't quite as easy a question as it seems up front. Here's an interesting article on the subject, and a key point is this:

Words in a poem take place against the context of silence (or maybe an espresso maker, depending on the reading series), whereas, as musicians like Will Oldham and David Byrne have recently pointed out, lyrics take place in the context of a lot of deliberate musical information: melody, rhythm, instrumentation, the quality of the singer’'s voice, other qualities of the recording, etc. Without all that musical information, lyrics usually do not function as well, precisely because they were intentionally designed that way.

Song lyrics, then, should not be assessed as a whole outside of their intended musical context, at least according to this particular view. I'm somewhat sympathetic to this, but I also think that it's too easy to undervalue lyrics as well. I've been guilty of this in the past, to the point that many times, I've completely ignored lyrics in songs, in favor of the musical elements.

Lyrics, though, almost always use the same literary devices that poetry uses. Lyrics employ rhyme schemes; they can make use of literary allusion; they have rhythm -- in fact, they really must have rhythm (or meter). So...are song lyrics poetry? I'll say this: I think it's far easier to make the case that they are than it is that they are not.

Here are some that I like. These are taken from musicals, but I think the point can stand for any musical genre.

The Sadder by Wiser Girl For Me,
from The Music Man,
by Meredith Willson (YouTube)

No sweet and pure, angelic lass or me.
That kinda gal can spin a web you see
She trades on wholesome innocence galore.
But it's my independence that she's trading for
The only affirmative she will file
Refers to marching down the aisle.
No golden, glorious, gleaming pristine goddess--
No sir!
For no Diana do I play faun.
I can tell you that right now.
I snarl, I hiss: How can ignorance be compared to bliss?
I spark, I fizz for the lady who knows what time it is.
I cheer, I rave for the virtue I'm too late to save
The sadder-but-wiser girl for me.
No bright-eyed, blushing, breathless baby-doll baby
No sir.
That kinda child ties knots no sailor ever knew.
I prefer to take a chance on a more adult romance.
No dewy young miss
Who keeps resisting all the time she keeps insisting!
No wide-eyed, wholesome innocent female.
Why, she's the fisherman, I'm the fish you see?
I flinch, I shy, when the lass with the delicate air goes by
I smile, I grin, when the gal with a touch of sin walks in.
I hope, and I pray, for Hester to win just one more "A"
The sadder-but-wiser girl for me.
No giggling ice cream soda drinker out to hook you line and sinker
No honey brooded beaconing siren
I plug me ears and I grab my horns and I flee
I cheer and I boo at the puritan hearted aun jeune
I yearn, I long for the women who's pa says what went wrong
I root and I clap for the dame in the gown less evening strap
The sadder-but-wiser girl's the girl for me.
The sadder-but-wiser girl for me.

C'est Moi
from Camelot
by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (YouTube)

Camelot! Camelot!
In far-off France I heard your call.
Camelot! Camelot!
And here am I to give my all.
I know in my soul what you expect of me,
And all that and more I shall be.

A knight of the Table Round should be invincible,
Suceed where a less fantastic man would fail.
Climb a wall no one else can climb,
Cleave a dragon in record time,
Swim a moat in a coat of heavy iron mail.
No matter the pain, he ought to be unwinceable,
Impossible deeds should be his daily fare.
But where in the world
Is there in the world
A man so *extraordinaire*?

C'est moi! C'est moi, I'm forced to admit.
'Tis I, I humbly reply.
That mortal who
These marvels can do,
C'est moi, c'est moi, 'tis I.
I've never lost
In battle or game;
I'm simply the best by far.
When swords are crossed
'Tis always the same:
One blow and au revoir!
C'est moi! C'est moi! So adm'rably fit!
A French Prometheus unbound.
And here I stand, with valour untold,
Exeption'ly brave, amazingly bold,
To serve at the Table Round!

The soul of a knight should be a thing remarkable,
His heart and his mind as pure as morning dew.
With a will and a self-restraint
That's the envy of ev'ry saint
He could easily work a miracle or two.
To love and desire he ought to be unsparkable,
The ways of the flesh should offer no allure.
But where in the world
Is there in the world
A man so untouched and pure?
(C'est moi!)

C'est moi! C'est moi, I blush to disclose.
I'm far too noble to lie.
That man in whom
These qualities bloom,
C'est moi, c'est moi, 'tis I.
I've never strayed
From all I believe;
I'm blessed with an iron will.
Had I been made
The partner of Eve,
We'd be in Eden still.
C'est moi! C'est moi! The angels have chose
To fight their battles below,
And here I stand, as pure as a pray'r,
Incredibly clean, with virtue to spare,
The godliest man I know!
C'est moi!

The Last Night of the World
from Miss Saigon
by Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alain Boublil (YouTube)

Chris
In a place that won't let us feel
In a life where nothing seems real
I have found youI have found you

Kim
In a world that's moving too fast
In a world where nothing can last
I will hold you
I will hold you

Chris
Our lives will change, when tomorrow comes

Kim
Tonight our hearts drown the distant drums

Chris
And we have music, all right
Tearing the night

Both
A song
Played on a solo saxophone
A crazy sound
A lonely sound
A cry that tells us
Love goes on and on
Played on a solo saxophone
It's telling me
To hold you tight
And dance
Like it's the last night
Of the world

Chris
On the other side of the earth
There's a place where life still has worth
I will take you

Kim
I'll go with you

Chris
You won't believe all the tings you'll see
I know 'cause you'll see them all with me

Both
If we're together, that's when
We'll hear it again
A song
Played on a solo saxophone
A crazy sound
A lonely sound
A cry that tells us
Love goes on and on
Played on a solo saxophone
It's telling me
To hold you tight
And dance
Like it's the last night
Of the world

Kim
Dreams were all I ever knew

Chris
Dreams you won't need when I'm through

Both
Anywhere we may be
I will sing with you
A song

Both
So stay with me
And hold me tight
And dance
Like it's the last night of the world

Alexander Hamilton
from Hamilton
by Lin-Manuel Miranda (YouTube)

[BURR]
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a
Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence
Impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

[LAURENS]
The ten-dollar founding father without a father
Got a lot farther by working a lot harder
By being a lot smarter
By being a self-starter
By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a
Trading charter

[JEFFERSON]
And every day while slaves were being slaughtered and carted
Away across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up
Inside, he was longing for something to be a part of
The brother was ready to beg, steal, borrow, or barter

[MADISON]
Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned
Our man saw his future drip, dripping down the drain
Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain
And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain

[BURR]
Well, the word got around, they said, “This kid is insane, man”
Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland
“Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came, and
The world is gonna know your name. What’s your name, man?”

[HAMILTON]
Alexander Hamilton
My name is Alexander Hamilton
And there’s a million things I haven’t done
But just you wait, just you wait...

[ELIZA]
When he was ten his father split, full of it, debt-ridden
Two years later, see Alex and his mother bed-ridden
Half-dead sittin' in their own sick, the scent thick

[COMPANY]
And Alex got better but his mother went quick

[WASHINGTON]
Moved in with a cousin, the cousin committed suicide
Left him with nothin’ but ruined pride, something new inside
A voice saying

[WASHINGTON]
“You gotta fend for yourself.” [COMPANY]
“Alex, you gotta fend for yourself.”
[WASHINGTON]
He started retreatin’ and readin’ every treatise on the shelf

[BURR]
There would have been nothin’ left to do
For someone less astute
He woulda been dead or destitute
Without a cent of restitution
Started workin’, clerkin’ for his late mother’s landlord
Tradin’ sugar cane and rum and all the things he can’t afford
Scammin’ for every book he can get his hands on
Plannin’ for the future see him now as he stands on
The bow of a ship headed for a new land
In New York you can be a new man

[COMPANY]
In New York you can
Be a new man—
In New York you can
Be a new man—

[COMPANY]
Scammin’

Plannin’
Oooh...

[HAMILTON]
Just you wait!

Just you wait!

[COMPANY]
In New York you can be a new man—

[WOMEN]
In New York—

[MEN]
New York—

[HAMILTON]
Just you wait!

[COMPANY]
Alexander Hamilton

We are waiting in the wings for you

You could never back down
You never learned to take your time!

Oh, Alexander Hamilton

When America sings for you
Will they know what you overcame?
Will they know you rewrote the game?
The world will never be the same, oh

[BURR]
The ship is in the harbor now
See if you can spot him

Another immigrant
Comin’ up from the bottom

His enemies destroyed his rep
America forgot him [COMPANY]
Alexander Hamilton

Waiting in the wings for you

You never learned to take your time!

Oh, Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton…
America sings for you
Will they know what you overcame?
Will they know you rewrote the game?
The world will never be the same, oh

[MEN]
Just you wait

[COMPANY]
Just you wait

[MULLIGAN/MADISON & LAFAYETTE/JEFFERSON]
We fought with him

[LAURENS/PHILIP]
Me? I died for him

[WASHINGTON]
Me? I trusted him

[ELIZA & ANGELICA & PEGGY/MARIA]
Me? I loved him

[BURR]
And me? I’m the damn fool that shot him

[COMPANY]
There’s a million things I haven’t done
But just you wait!

[BURR]
What’s your name, man?

[COMPANY]
Alexander Hamilton!


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