Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Metaphors in Popular Music

A lot of my students, when asked whether or not poetry is necessary, respond with the idea that it is, if only for entertainment value. When prompted to go further, they argue that song lyrics are a form of poetry, and that music is entertainment. The discussion moves from there, and usually I prompt them to come to class armed with lyrics they feel are poetry. Inevitably, the ones that seem to be most poetic--rich in rhythm, metaphor, lyricism, etc.--are those of rap songs, often underground rap songs. Pop songs tend to be trite, at best, and despite lectures on imagery vs. abstraction, students defend them with thoughts like "well, you have to understand what she means. It's like interpretation."

That being said, to slam all pop lyrics as trite and unpoetic would be unfair. For example, Paul Simon greens me with envy every time I hear the opening line of "Graceland":

"The Mississippi Delta was shining like a national guitar"

which he later follows up with "My traveling companions are ghosts in empty pockets."

These two lines, in a song concerning a pilgrimage to Elvis's home and a search for community and redemption, are poignant.

or what about R.E.M.'s tribute to Kurt Cobain, "Let Me In," which begins:

"All those stars slip down like butter/and promises to keep."

The double vehicle of that simile, surreal and heartbroken at the same time, is another jealous moment for me as a writer. Also, the allusion to Patti Smith should not go unmentioned, either.

So, what are some other really excellent metaphors or similes (not just brilliant imagery) from pop music (not rap...that should probably be a different post topic) and why do you feel that they are particularly poignant. How do the vehicles of these figures illuminate the tenor in some way, or establish a particular tone that works even with out being sung or with musical accompaniment?


Geoffrey A. Landis said...

Well, I'll make a nomination for worst use of metaphor, and/or imagery, Bruce Springsteen. Guy can't stick to the same metaphor for two lines running.
"Can't light a fire, can't light a fire without a spark.
This gun's for hire, even if it's just dancing in the dark."

pottygok said...

Well, I think what Bruce is shooting for is that he wants to light a fire (probably metaphorical, as in his other songs "Fire" or "I'm On Fire") but can't because no one will invite his "spark" (i.e. nobody wants to bang him). Then, of course, he mixes the metaphor with western cliches, implying that not only is his gun for hire (sexual metaphor) but then returns to his original thought of being alone, in the dark.

pottygok said...

Okay, so I've been digging and doing research, and I wonder if metaphors in music tend to center around one thing, include Springsteen's entry above: sex.

I've been listening to back episodes of Matt the Cat's "Juke in the Back," and I've noticed that if one takes and object and can make it about sex, no matter how ludicrous or blatant the metaphor, and puts a halfway decent beat behind it, the record magically is a hit. Oh, and metaphors about larger women--even better.

I wonder if that should be a separate post--what are great sex metaphors in poems and music? Or great sex poems in general.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

Well, one of my favorites is John Lennon's "While my guitar gently weeps," and that's not about sex, I don't think. Or if you're going for simile, there's "like a bridge over troubled waters" (well, maybe you could build a case that it really is about sex on that fact that the next line is "I will lay me down.")
--how about "You ain't nothing but a hound dog, crying all the time. You ain't never caught a rabbit, and you ain't no friend of mine."?

pottygok said...

First of, While My Guitar Gently Weeps is Harrison's song, not Lennon's. And it's an excellent use of personification.

I think Paul Simon has a ton of great similes and metaphors. Bridge over troubled water is a good one (and no, not sexual).

Leiber and Stoller's "Hound Dog" is certainly sexually tinged, especially the Big Mama Thornton version, which is a little more raunchy than Elvis's cleaned up RCA version.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

Really? Amazing; it seemed so quintessentially Lennon.

For a bizarrely continued metaphor, I've always liked Ladies love outlaws like babies love stray dogs. Ladies touch babies like a banker touches gold. Outlaws touch ladies somewhere deep down in their soul."

(actually, I'd always heard that second line as " a bad man touches gold," a line which google tells me is incorrect, but I like my version much better; it continues the metaphor instead of branching out.)


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau