Don’t ask a poet about songwriting. Poetry is ripe to be lyrics, they’ll say.
Au contraire. Not many poets are writing lyrical pieces. In fact about 80% of what I come across on poetry sites is free verse, no meter, no rhyme, and varied line lengths. Just a stream of consciousness right to the written page, or should I say, screen. As they used to say on American Bandstand, “You can’t dance to it.”
Before going on, let me make the point that rap, hip-hop and “slam poetry” are exempt from this discussion, since they are usually written to be performed.
Neither can you say that all successful lyricists are poets. Songs are written for the masses to enjoy, repeat, sing along with, recall when in a silent elevator, and eventually hear in a supermarket. That means common-speak and cliché’s, overuse of phrases and imperfect rhymes (such as “time” and “buy,” or “street” and “scream”). For fun, I just Googled “lyrics I still love you” and got 53,900,000 results, literally.
But, as the exception can prove the rule, some lyricists are wonderful poets. A few years ago I saw Kris Kristofferson, the songwriter of countless hits for a great many recording artists through the years, being interviewed on a TV talk show. He was asked whether a singer ever changed the words to one of his songs. I could tell he was still irritated as he spoke about Janis Joplin’s rendition of one of his favorite’s, “Me and Bobby McGee.” Joplin was a close friend and lover, and it was speculated that Kristofferson wrote the song about her.
Interestingly, he didn’t know she had recorded the song until after her death. The source of irritation was the first verse, in which he wrote, “With them windshield wipers slapping’ time Bobby clappin’ hands we finally sang up every song that driver knew.” Joplin changed what he considered very clever lyrics to, “Windshield wipers slapping’ time, I’s holdin’ Bobby’s hand in mine, we sang every song that driver knew.”
Another legendary songwriter, Carole King, wrote poetic lyrics. Here are the first two verses of “Tapestry”:
My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue
An everlasting vision of the ever-changing view
A wondrous woven magic in bits of blue and gold
A tapestry to feel and see, impossible to hold
Once amid the soft silver sadness in the sky
There came a man of fortune, a drifter passing by
He wore a torn and tattered cloth around his leathered hide
And a coat of many colors, yellow-green on either side
Most pop and country songs, however, don’t live up to poetic standards. For example, from none other than Madonna:
I don’t like cities, but I like New York
Other places make me feel like a dork
Los Angeles is for people who sleep
Paris and London, Baby you can keep
Other cities always make me mad
Other places always make me sad
No other city ever made me glad except New York
I love New York [X3]
If you don’t like my attitude, then you can F off
Just go to Texas, isn’t that where they golf
New York is not for little pussies who scream
If you can’t stand the heat, then get off my street [repeat]
I shouldn’t even have to mention “I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred. There are many websites dedicated to preserving the world’s worst lyrics, and you’d be surprised that from Elton John to Sade, Bob Marley to Beyonce, almost all artists make at least one of the lists.
Poets, take heart.