‘The Poetry of Pop’, Stretches the Definition of Pop Generously

Adam Bradley's The Poetry of Pop works for what it obviously wants to be, a primer on American popular music.

The Poetry of Pop
Adam Bradley
Yale University Press
August 2019 (paperback)

The lyricism (or lack thereof) within pop music has had to define itself for those too quick to write it off as something not worth studying. From such classics as Gene Vincent’s “Be Bop a Lula” and Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” in the 1950s through to Justin Bieber’s “Baby”, (to name just a few random pop hits), the “emptiness” of a pop song has always made its “literary substance” suspect.

Do such pop songs (and the titles mentioned here can be interchangeable with most pop hits) have authentic links to a poetic expression? What pop music is legitimately poetic? Before
Bob Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize caused a furor as to whether or not the oral tradition of ballads could be seen as poetic, the question was already there: Is Pop music (its lyrics, music, and vocal delivery) poetic?

Adam Bradley’s 2017 book,
The Poetry of Pop (reissued in paperback from Yale University Press), embraces and stretches to defend some material (especially his canon of mainly American males) as poetic. This approach, however, makes the book a sometimes exhausting reading experience. Bradley does, at least, consider consider the cultural identity of the Pop star:

“I play a game in my undergraduate courses that I call Black, White, or Prince?.. .I might start by playing thirty seconds from a well-known artist for whole coding a racial identity will be easy- say, Taylor Swift… The exercise… consciously traffics in stereotype… problematic with a purpose… the racialization of voice.”

It’s a compelling approach to understanding the poetics of Pop music, and it stretches the definition of pop generously, including folk, rock and rap. Clearly, the “pop” in the title means “popular” music, and the umbrella that casts, more than simply the genre, “pop music”. What is “pop music”? Bradley defines it as “…inclusive, multiracial, and global in its appeal.” Those who solely listen to and examine “rock music” as its become today, without considering the nature of pop music and its many forms, will only be listening through one ear bud. Unfortunately, he doesn’t expand his considerations much beyond the Western borders.

The ideas as posited here are equal parts ambitious and audacious. In Part I, Bradley proposes a reason and means by which to analyze song lyrics as poetry. Part II looks at several key forms of pop music, and Part III examines the poetic functions. Bradley’s claim that the text offers “…the tools to unlock the particulars of language in song lyrics…” is supported by an informed and at times humorous approach to the subject matter. Those who might fear this is a text whose purpose is to “…dignify or defend pop lyrics…” should rest easy, for the most part, because Bradley understands this material is not sacred text. He writes:

“…My goal…is to open points of entry for those who wish to engage deeply and analytically with forms of language and sound that we often uncritically consume as entertainment.”

This is a critical text that requires literary analysis and close listening, if you will. Whether or not all the chosen examples are worthy of consideration is another issue that the reader will have to work out on their own terms. What works best is both Bradley’s knowledge and confidence as he finishes the Introduction and opens the floor for debate. “Singers’ and songwriters’ conscious creations in language, music, and performance affect us intellectually and emotionally. Their craft is the true poetry of pop.” It’s from this launching pad that we start considering “Lyric and Song”.

Bradley works well with form as he starts this section. Pop songs are formed from “…unseen acts of lyric craft…every lyric will steal a moment…” He welcomes informed experts such as neuroscientists Daniel J. Levitin and Oliver Sacks to consider the power of some lyrics as “automatic speech”, that is; the necessity to connect by any means necessary.

The reader might feel as if Bradley is going around in circles, however, as he notes that his purpose will be to examine what makes pop songs meaningful and beautiful, structurally and sonically. Read closely, listen closely to the songs he’s writing about, and then do it again. That’s the point Bradley plays it out through the course of The Poetry of Pop.

“Reading song lyrics is not the same as reading into song lyrics.” How do we do this? How do we pace the words on the page without any hint from musical accompaniment? When Bradley notes that pop music is often “…the product of creative people with little or no formal training,” we might feel taken aback. Is that generally true? He quotes Elvis Costello, who’s always good for a sound bite: “You don’t really need musical notation for rock and roll. I always said it was all hand signals and threats.”

It’s difficult to transcribe a song, he continues, considering its dual identity as language and sound. He writes: “…the beauty of certain songs will intensify, while the beauty of others will diminish in the gaze of the reading eye.” The formal structure of verse/chorus/verse used to include a bridge that would offer a break in the regular formula, but many pop songs today dismiss the bridge altogether in favor of a hook-laden chorus.

Bradley concedes that most of us are more comfortable with listening to a song rather than reading lyrics. Poetic songwriters are well-versed (if you will) in the idea of obstruction. Bradley writes that some songs “…ask to be experienced in isolated moments, musical phrases, and inflections…appreciated when only partly understood…” More important, in this chapter about listening, is Bradley’s idea that song lyrics are “…memorable because of their distance and their difference from conversation.”

He takes us through Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” and Minnie Ripperton’s “Loving You” as songs which — when appreciated as listeners — artistically substitute lyrics with vocal phrases and inflections and, as a result, created their own sense of poetry. “Entire songs sometimes function as experiments in figurative language,” he writes, and examples (such as the Beatles’ “Across The Universe”) are numerous.

There’s no question that rhythm certainly matters in sound and text. The only issue is how. For Bradley, there is “…the rhythm of the music, the rhythm of the lyric language, and the rhythm of that language to the music.” It is quantifiable (the meter of the composition) and ineffable (the performer’s interpretations.) Song lyrics work best when pressurized, compressed and filtered through an ideal rhythmic structure.

Bradley’s arguments are logical and fascinating. Rhythm can alienate. It begins in our bodies. It “…carries culturally coded meanings specific to communities of the music’s origin.” The drum always served as a prelude to battle or a celebration of conquest. There is always the claim that lyrics are subordinate to music, and few instances prove that point better than “Scrambled Eggs”, Paul McCartney’s original version of his 1965 Beatles hit “Yesterday”: “The final lyrics McCartney wrote clarify the emotion already present in the melody.”

How do we rhyme? Why do we rhyme? For Bradley, rhyme is related to pattern and its “…specific expression in recorded song.” It’s also the greatest creative restraint against a songwriter. We expect rhyme. We are conditioned to rhyme as a necessity, a completion of the song’s objective.

At Chapter Six, “Figurative Language”, we consider simile and metaphor. We have to understand how “…certain words or phrases from song lyrics end up lodged in our head or tattooed on our bodies.” Even the reader resistant to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” will appreciate Bradley’s examination of its abstractions. Listen to the way Roberta Flack re-shaped “Killing Me Softly” by featuring the chorus at the beginning. Hear the the power of repetition in the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “All You Need Is Love” and alliteration in Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping”.

Bradley’s “Voice” chapter considers “…what happens to song lyrics once singers breathe life into them in recorded performances.” Singing is organic, fragile, powerful, and elusive. He touches slightly on the idea that jazz greats like Lester Young and Miles Davis “sang” through their instruments, and how some vocalists (James Brown, Michael Jackson, Biggie Smalls) were best known for signature ad-libs. He quotes novelist Jonathan Lethem, who reflects that we “…judge pre-rock singing by how perfectly the lyric is served…We judge popular vocals since 1956 by what the singer unearths that the song itself never quite could.”

Bradley considers the spoken word interludes popular with such artists as The Ink Spots in the 1930s in songs like “My Prayer” and “If I Didn’t Care”. The songs remain emotionally resonant today because “…they provided a model upon which later artists would craft more subtle effects using vocal contrast.”

“Style” logically builds on the arguments of form and function in lyrics as poetry. Forms are patterned and they create style. As seen and heard (but not always felt), style is the “…means through which listeners experience the poetics of pop.” It’s not genre so much as the visible demonstration of patterns. Genres and styles are based on many elements: race, religion, class, and gender. Prince, Kool and The Gang, John Legend and others are a few examples of artists whose style was such that it transcended white America’s limited racial expectations, to put it lightly.

Bradley touches on Eminem’s rapid-fire delivery, on Santana enlisting Rob Thomas to create the smash 1999 hit “Smooth”. Of Nicki Minaj, Bradley writes: “She understands that to write a hit song that crosses divides of genre and geography almost always requires a chorus comprised of words that express themselves in clear terms.” An entire book could have been written from the section “Style and Cover Song”, especially the reasons Bradley suggests that artists record them:

“To capitalize on something that’s already proven to be popular…To preserve or to regain something we’re losing or have lost…to reimagine a song that on its own seems unresolved.”

Listen to Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, or Dylan’s performance of Don Henley’s “End of the Innocence”, and the distinct nature of the cover style is revealed. Bradley considers copyright issues, cross-genre covers, and the fact that the strength of the original source is always strong enough to handle the changes.

Bradley considers “Story” through great examples: Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue”, (“…presenting the past and present at the same time”), Joni Mitchell’s “The Last Time I Saw Richard”, and Otis Redding’s first-person narrative “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay”. There’s the clear narrative arc of The Eagles’ “Hotel California” and Eminem’s “Stan”. Bradley writes of the latter that the song’s narrative and emotional payoff came at the end of the song, whereas Tom Petty’s “American Girl” ended in “…both semantic and emotive irreconcilability.” How do we hear narratives? From The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me?” to the Kinks’ “Art Lover”, we perceive the song differently when we listen to the dark lyrics.

There are story songs (from Harry Chapin and Bruce Springsteen), but such examples as Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” are conspicuous in their absence. Persona songs, from Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” to Talking Heads’ (David Byrne) “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” add extra texture to Bradley’s argument. In his conclusion, Bradley suggests that we read pop songs like poems and sing poems like pop songs. “Popular music is in a continual process of renovation and rebirth,” he writes, and he concludes with more advice:

“Read song lyrics to reconnect with the pleasures of rhythm and rhyme…to illuminate the complex and shifting relationships that lyrics establish with their music and their performance…read song lyrics because you want to write better about songs.”

The Poetry of Pop ends with a rich appendix of song lists and suggestions to match chapter headings. There are “Eleven songs adapted from poems”, “A playlist for poetry lovers”, “Twenty songs without rhyme”, a long section in which poets pick “Song Lyrics worth reading”, and other lists, like “Fifteen Lyrics that effectively rhyme ‘moon’ with ‘June'”. Lyrics published on record album sleeves or replicated in six-point font inside cassette cases were either cherished by the poetry fans among us or discarded by those just listening for the beat. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and a handful of other singer-songwriters found their lyrics published as books, while others just floated in the atmosphere.

Adam Bradley’s The Poetry of Pop is parts academic, parts literary, and breezy. It’s a deep consideration that should engage the serious student and curious fan of popular music. Still, the question of the literature of Pop should have also warranted some discussion. The greatest poetry, after all, is inextricably linked with a prose literary tradition. This is a strong launching pad towards understanding the function of poetry in the pop music tradition, but Bradley fails to embrace the legacy and effects of poetic pop around the world.

The work is racially diverse, but literally and figuratively it’s just black and white and almost exclusively focused on pop music from the United States. Perhaps Bradley will be looking at the universe of pop in a future volume. The Poetry of Pop works for what it obviously wants to be, a primer on American popular music, but it’s only the “toes”, if you will, of the comparably huge footprint this style of poetic expression has left on the world stage.

RATING 7 / 10