Pop music is more than lyrics on a page
I once heard a distinguished American poet quote a Lady Gaga lyric as an example of perfect iambic pentameter. “I want your psycho, your vertigo schtick” – ten syllables, five feet of metre; he wasn’t wrong. I was sitting in a classroom in New York City, and the poet was leading a course on prosody, which is the study of poetic metre but might also concern itself, to quote Ezra Pound, with “the articulation of the total sound of a poem”. Gaga’s line was from her 2009 single ‘Bad Romance’, one of the songs that launched her on a trajectory towards superstardom. She would become, for a time, the most famous contemporary pop musician in the world.
“I want your psycho, your vertigo schtick.” What is the line doing, apart from keeping the metre? I want: the very bedrock of pop music. Pop music is about many things, but it is mostly about the things that we might want to do with our bodies: playing, dancing, singing, sex of all sorts. Skin and sweat and noises. The repeated “o” of psycho and vertigo is a sound that might be pleasure, might be pain, might be both at once. It’s the sadism of Alfred Hitchcock, who took pleasure in making his beautiful blondes – Janet Leigh in Psycho, Kim Novak in Vertigo – suffer violent deaths. Lady Gaga was a blonde, and she placed herself in this lineage: beauty, danger, tragedy etc. The superstar’s schtick. As she sang she savoured the phonemes of schtick.
But ‘Bad Romance’ proved most effective when language broke down – when phonemes, set free from meaning, bloomed across the song like a rash. “Rah-rah-ah-ah-ah, ro-mah-ro-mah-mah,” sang Gaga, repeatedly. Pop music is about what we feel more than what we say, what goes unsaid, what can’t be spoken. I want. “Rah-rah-ah-ah-ah” put Gaga at the edge of language, right where Little Richard was when he shouted, “A-wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom.”
Poetry and pop lyrics are forms that share a fascination with language as a material: how can you push it around, or break it apart? And what might that sound like? Through attention to rhythm, and through devices such as rhyme, alliteration, consonance and dissonance (these two latter terms also describe harmonic functions within music), the poet produces an array of sensory effects. Language becomes sound, pulse, colour and texture. Pound again: “Some musicians have the faculty of invention, rhythmic, melodic. Likewise some poets.” Poetry is the literary form that comes closest to music, but literature isn’t music, and pop lyrics aren’t poetry.
To be fair to my aforementioned teacher, the American poet, I think he knew all this. We shared a fascination with Lady Gaga and a deep dislike of Bob Dylan, or, to be more accurate, a dislike of what Dylan had come to represent: pop music as canon-building, as the reverence of institutions. Once, in that same classroom, we had an argument with another poet, who was determined to convince us that Dylan should be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. That was in 2009.
This past October, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Plenty of people were made happy by the announcement, but others were disgruntled: why should a pop star be given the Nobel Prize? Underlying such criticism is the assumption that pop music is a lesser form than literature: less serious, less substantial, less deserving of reward or analysis. I was annoyed when Dylan was awarded the Nobel, but my annoyance sprang from an opposite source. I wondered what literature had done to deserve pop music. How is literature, with its hierarchies of genre and judgement, its snobberies and exclusions, worthy of annexing pop to its territory?
I don’t hate literature, honestly. (I wouldn’t be a writer if that were so.) But I do resent efforts, no matter how well intentioned, to make pop music fit the criteria of an entirely different art form. “[Dylan] can be read and should be read,” commented the Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, in an interview after she announced the winner of this year’s prize. Well, no. Literature should be read. If you want to give Dylan his due, he should be listened to. Listen for the melodies, the vocal timbre and expression, the rhythmic interplay of voice and instruments: all of the things that make lyrics an element of music, not something that can be considered separately from it. I can scarcely think of anything more joyless than reading a lyric sheet as if it were a book.
Judging a lyric by its coherence as a written text – the Nobel Prize website cites a long list of printed Dylan works, beginning with the Bob Dylan Song Book (1965), before mentioning any audio recordings – is a poor way of assessing its effect. There is no less useful move in an argument over the worth of any popular musician, Dylan included, than to quote their lyrics out of context, purposely ignoring the musical setting. “Get sick, get well / Hang around a ink well.” Of course it reads like rubbish on the page.
‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, from which the above quote is taken, is as good an example as any in Dylan’s catalogue of a song that had an enormous cultural impact not because the words were separate to the music but because the lyrics functioned as part of a larger artefact. Musically, the song borrowed a lot from Chuck Berry’s 1956 single ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and a bit from Dylan’s hero Woody Guthrie. A big part of Dylan’s significance in the ’60s was his amalgamation of rock and folk styles, and ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ was the sound of this. It was the opening track to his album Bringing It All Back Home (1965), which was the first that he recorded using electric guitar.
Some listeners felt that Dylan’s switch from acoustic to amplified instruments was a betrayal. Folk was the music of the people, authentic and political, while rock and pop were the sound of vulgar commercialisation, or so the argument went. But folk enthusiasts faced a problem: commercial music forms were the more genuinely popular. Dylan grasped this. The effectiveness of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ had everything to do with the swaggering, gutsy arrangement and Dylan’s mordant vocal; if folk music was defined by its wholeheartedness, then this was something else, and it sounded much cheekier.
Dylan also recognised the visual potency of pop culture. ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ was one of the first songs to be accompanied by a promotional film clip, shot in black and white by the documentarian DA Pennebaker, who used it as the opening sequence for his tour film about Dylan, Don’t Look Back, released in 1967. Dylan stands in an alleyway, holding up cue cards to the camera, and on the cue cards are handwritten fragments of the song’s lyrics, along with some deliberate misdirections. It’s funny because of the gap between what we hear and what we read, with the cue cards – “Bed, But”, “Man Whole” – making absurd snippets out of what, in song form, is an unbroken diatribe. And then there is Dylan’s deadpan expression, his natty waistcoat, his nimbus of bohemian curls: oh yes, he understood the power of an image.
I’m not convinced that awarding Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature does anything to expand the parameters of literature. Instead, I think that by dragging Dylan into the realm of the literary, by emphasising lyrics as a writing and reading practice rather than a verbal and musical one, we lose what is interesting about him as a performer, and what is compelling about pop music as a whole.
Judgements regarding literary worth and posterity tend to assume that what is valuable about literature are those qualities in it that cannot be wholly measured by the marketplace, and this is good and right. But pop music is an art form that depends upon commodification. There’s no getting around that. It relies on mass distribution and advertising (and, decreasingly, on mass manufacture), on the association between buyer and seller, and on the allure of the star system, which is a key part of what is being bought and sold.
Some of the most evocative, transformative and brilliant pop musicians have addressed the tensions between art and commerce in their work. (Dylan certainly has.) But the tension is inherent to the form, uniquely so. Not even cinema, which is expensive and cumbersome to make and to distribute, and has therefore often been tied to the fortunes of commercial studios, is quite so enmeshed with the existence of consumer capitalism. Indeed, sophisticated systems for cinematic production have existed outside of capitalist economies – Soviet Russian cinema is the paradigmatic example. But pop music? Pop music trades in the effects produced by consumer capitalism: alienation from our labour, estrangement from our desires, isolation from any real sense of community. Literature (or cinema) might make subjects out of these conditions, but can and does function without them. Not so pop music. This is the form’s power, and its limitation.
When I lived in New York, I came to love the various ways in which pop music shaped the collective life of the city, attuning its inhabitants to one another. It meant that eight million of us were sharing a cultural location, alongside a physical one. From my tiny bedroom that faced onto a busy Brooklyn street, I could pick out the hit songs and about-to-be-hits by the regularity with which I heard them being played from passing cars. ‘Bad Romance’ was one of them. The song was unusual, in the context of an American musical landscape that had weathered more than 30 years of hip-hop’s loping rhythms, for sounding so stiff. It had no funk at all. The song’s rigid beat and grimy, synthesised bassline created a mood that was industrial, almost android. This strange impression was only heightened by the song’s video clip, in which Lady Gaga and her dancers emerged from coffin-like pods, like a cluster of aliens.
In October 2009, when ‘Bad Romance’ was released, the unemployment rate in the US hit 10.1%, the highest in decades. Hopelessness was in the air. “I want your ugly, I want your disease,” sang Gaga. Like all truly effective pop stars, she both mirrored an existing social mood and modelled a refutation of it. In her songs, malfunction and inadequacy were cherished. Her fans took to calling themselves “little monsters”, which suggested a negation of prevailing systems but also a robust, fighting appetite. I want.
How tedious it is, then, when pop stars descend to the level of politicians, costuming themselves in the approbation of institutional power. Political endorsements, knighthoods, Nobel Prizes: just say no. There was Gaga, speechifying for Hillary Clinton on the final night of the US presidential campaign. “Hillary Clinton is made of steel,” she said, which might make an interesting line in a song, but fell flat as a real-world observation of Clinton’s character. Politics is remote and abstract, in so far as the machinations of power feel like something that we have little or no ability to alter. But pop music holds out the promise – an elusive, illusory promise – of transformation, and of transcendence, through means of total delight.
In April the world lost Prince, pop’s foremost utopian. I miss Prince. I miss his fabulousness, his way of being in the world, which was never only for himself alone, because every song he wrote was also an invitation: Move with me towards joy. I miss his sensational beauty, his ski-slope cheekbones and hazel eyes and black hair piled up, his pert waist and perfect arse, the greatest arse in the history of pop music. How ridiculous that anyone should be so beautiful, and how wonderful that he let the world share in it.
I miss the abundance of his musical gift, which he refused to measure against any common schedule. There were songs upon songs and albums upon albums, thousands of concerts, hundreds of afterparties where he played through the night and into the dawn. I miss his playfulness. Nothing was ruled out for being too silly, not zebra-stripe bikini briefs or funk about Batman or the notion of purple rain. The secret of play is to commit to it, and then it isn’t silly anymore, it’s truthful. I miss his commitment to every performance as if moment by moment it mattered wholly, for that moment. He could make time feel entirely present: not passing, not past, but there. Here. And anything could happen here, including the end of time. I miss his eschatology.
There are so many Prince songs concerning judgement days, including some of his best-loved: ‘1999’, ‘Sign ‘O’ the Times’, even ‘When Doves Cry’, which takes place on the brink of a commingled ecstasy and loss. “Animals strike curious poses,” Prince sang, summoning a portent in the distinctive, robotic tones that he often reserved for the verses of his songs. Prince is regarded as a consummate funk musician, and he was, but the groove of his dominant ’80s recordings is strangely impliable, the Linn drum machines he favoured on albums like 1999 (1982) and Purple Rain (1984) fixing the arrangements to a grid. Within the shelter of the grid he could go crazy, and did. Lady Gaga learned a lot from Prince.
The stakes are raised in ‘When Doves Cry’ at around the three-minute mark, when the multi-tracked vocals start to pile in on each other, and robot-Prince is pitted against another articulation of himself. “Why do we scream at each other?” he asks, but on a separate vocal track he is screaming, that cry-moan-squeal thing he did that conveyed both perfect pleasure and terrible pain. And so the vagaries of desire surface and resurface in pop music, and desire can’t always be put into words, any more than can love, rage or heartbreak. It doesn’t mean these things can’t be heard.
Prince was a great lyricist, because he understood the points at which words fail. “I can take you out there and hit this guitar for you,” he told a Rolling Stone journalist in 2014, “and what you’ll hear is sex. You will hear something where you’d run out of adjectives, like you do when you meet the finest woman.” Desire was holy in his songs, a form of worship; he sang and played as if sex were a way to steal back time, to exist in the present always, to end estrangement forever. Sex was play, and play the opposite of work: ‘Raspberry Beret’ is a fantasy of shirking a job in order to have sex. I used to work in a shop, and my workmate and I would wait until it was nearly 6 pm and the shop was closing to put Prince on the stereo. Sex o’clock, we’d joke. And then we’d dance around the counter. We went to see Prince play on a work night, once. We were so tired the next day.
Like a poet, Prince had his lexicon. Baby and sky and forgive and rain. Car and ride. Kiss and come. “To” was 2 and “you” was u, decades in advance of text messaging. I think he chose the abbreviations because they suggested both interchangeability and intimacy: he was singing to anyone, he was singing 2 u. They also made words into visual symbols, floating through the songs. Stevie Wonder: “Prince’s music was so picturesque that even I could see it.” For a time, Prince changed his name to something that was literally unsayable, a “Love Symbol” that pointed to all directions on the sexual compass. Free. That was another of his favourite words. He was both exuberantly heterosexual and lushly queer: fluid, strange and ungovernable.
The song that follows ‘When Doves Cry’ on Purple Rain is ‘I Would Die 4 U’. Prince sings as Prince, and Prince sings as Christ. “I’m your messiah and you’re the reason why.” In his songs, erotic and religious devotion were the twinned sources of his ever-renewing delight. Both were a means of suspending time. The song is potentially infinite; the arrangement has no real end point.
After Prince died, I listened to ‘I Would Die 4 U’ on a loop. The first four verses are sung on the same note, with no accompanying instruments but the bass and drum machine, hi-hats quivering. During the choruses, the other Prince kicks in, shrieking, begging, being pulled asunder. “I would die 4 u / Darling if u want me 2.” He always asked permission, and it’s hard to overstate just how sexy that could be. He sang of surrender, not of conquest, of mutual and equal pleasure, not of domination, his voice breaking over the words like he was coming, or like he was going. It was the way he sang it.