Friday, 12 June 2015

NOTE ON POP LYRICS

Tom Ewing is very kind about that Oasis book I wrote last year. But as I let him know on Twitter, the absence of lyrics was a legal rather than a formal innovation—the original ms contained a fair few block quotations and such, which I had to remove when the band’s management denied permission for usage.

I was pretty gutted when the person at Sony came back with a no. However, from a writerly perspective it was fun to come up with paraphrases to insert in lieu of the actual quotations, and I think they actually made for much smoother and more integrated prose.

One of the original ideas for the book was to try to close-read the lyrics as you might poetry. My academic training has been partly in Ricardian practical crit, New Criticism, Leavisism, etc, so in a sense that was just the technical apparatus I had at my disposal. Also, although I’m fully aware that poetry and pop lyrics are qualitatively different beasts, one of the book’s arguments (reflected in its method) is that pop lyrics can be as resonant as literary works, especially when they somehow manage to condense, reflect and even shape popular consciousness—as Oasis lyrics clearly did. It seemed to me that Noel Gallagher had been unfairly singled out for poor lyric writing, in light of the obvious force and timeliness of his best lines, and given that the vast majority of pop lyrics are spontaneous and messy creations, which is anyway part of the point.

So I really think the lyric issue is at the heart of the whole Oasis narrative, and indeed of readings of pop in general. The best pop criticism has to find a way of acknowledging the patent absurdity of using discursive language to analyse emphatically non-discursive, non-readerly linguistic fragments, while also trying to hold on to the fact that these fragments are integral to why songs do or don’t work.

On a side note, it’s actually quite an interesting sub-area, the legal side of quoting pop lyrics. As I understand it, ‘fair use’ of prose in a critical work is relatively relaxed, but use of poetry much more stringent (you can only quote 20 lines in one article, and then non-consecutively, or something like that). And for pop lyrics there’s another turn of the screw—you have to pay huge sums for use of even one or two lines. On the one hand it’s ridiculous that lyrics are worth more than poetry, given the concentrated labour that goes into writing a poem (compared with eg. Kurt Cobain reputedly writing almost the entire lyric sheet for Bleach in the van on the way to the studio). But then I guess this proves the argument about the much greater capaciousness and collective resonance of a good pop phrase—‘verbal graffiti’ is the term I use in the Oasis book.

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