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Songs As Poetry

September 20, 2011

At one time in my life I watched a lot of film.  I still enjoy them, but I’ve had to cut back significantly.  Yet I can still distinguish a film from a movie.  One of my favorite actors is Christian Bale.  In negotiating for “Terminator Salvation”, he read the script and didn’t like it.  It was The Terminator, so obviously it was going to be full of action-packed scenes and special effects.  He sent the script back and gave them an ultimatum.  If the script can’t be read aloud in an empty room, and it not be reasonably compelling, he wasn’t going to do a movie with a mediocre plot and dialogue overshadowed by action and special effects.

We all know the mediocrity of many southern gospel lyrics.  Half of them are cheesy or non-impacting, both lyrically and musically.  Here’s a thought provoking concept…what if we treated the songs to our lyrics like that (as diagnosed above).  If it can’t be read as a poetry piece, without music, and and neglect to be gripping or feel an immediate connection…should you record it?  Certainly there will be differences in tastes, yet the concept is still relevant.  Music/Lyrics is an art of its own and shouldn’t be entirely separated.  But does a beautiful musical arrangement add to or cover up bad lyrics or a bad lyrical concept?

I don’t think it does.  Personally, I think it could become Chuckie Cheese on steroids.  Let me hear from you.  Would love to know your opinion.

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14 Comments
  1. dbmurray permalink

    It’s two different things.

    With music, the lyrics and melody are partners. With poetry, the meter can be all over the place, but with music, there should be some degree of regular rhythms.

    Poetry doesn’t bear much in the way of repetition, but music can tolerate…perhaps even requires…some sort of “hook” to make the song stick.

    Besides, if the lyrics are so “good” they can stand alone as poetry, does it really need a melody at all?

    All that being said, though, if a song lyric read aloud comes across as notably stupid, a re-write might be in order. Just don’t forget that lyrics aren’t required to be as clever as poetry in order to be effective…in fact, some of the most effective lyrics set to music would be fairly simple poems…couplets at best.

  2. David Mac permalink

    Short answer, “NO”.

    Perhaps an illustration may elucidate; and also show the premise in operation?

    It would seem that the well-known combo of W&G Gaither, as music writers and lyricists, practise something similar. Gloria is well known for her “recitiations”, which [while a little hackneyed and welltrodden in parts nowadays] do seem to serve as a sounding board for the ideas if not the actual lyrics of their songs.

    Which may be why, in their heyday, they produced a stream of memorable and rememberable Christian Songs? It is arguable that the embellishment of some of their songs, by the stellar performers like Phelps and English, have actually clouded the “read in an empty room” quality of some lyric.

    It is possible to marvel at the control and pitch of David Phelp’s virtuoso performance and lose the impact of the actual words:

    “But when my Lord bought freedom/ With the blood of His redemption/ His cross [big breath David] stamped, pardonned on my very soul”

    A couplet which – maybe to shift the litmus test FNR – could be threaded into any quality sermon from any fundamental pulpit in the English speaking world.

    Maybe for the purposes of SGM, that is a better test? I fancy a few come-lately lyrics would grade a resounding fail!

  3. You’re right. I’ve grumbled about this for… well, forever. Except I use the concept of song lyrics as poetry just to prod writers to come up something meaningful, something with correct grammar, and something that avoids those cliches that fall like a THUD. I’m no Bill or Gloria, but I at least try to do those things when I write. Twila Paris has been my main influence, probably.

    However, it is a pleasure when I encounter a lyric by the likes of Andrew Peterson or Rich Mullins that positively sings off the page with no music whatsoever. That, I can’t expect of anybody, particularly in southern gospel. I can only try to point people to admire an example like that in the hope that it will have a good influence. It seems like there can be a failure to recognize what makes a truly GREAT lyric because of narrow categories and not much exposure to poetry and literature as a whole.

    • Observe, an example:

      There is no road to bear me from my sorrow
      No healing that is deeper than this hurt
      My heart is gone away across the water
      To the bright, undying shores beyond the world

      When I sail from havens grey
      Caught up on the wind and blown away
      I will close my eyes on the Shadowlands
      And bid goodbye to all my friends
      The parting is the price, it is the price that I must pay
      To sail beyond the arms of the havens grey

      And even though you know your heart is breaking
      For a little longer still you must be whole
      To love the life that’s given for the taking
      And to give the love the living’s given for
      And let it lead you to those shores

      When you sail from havens grey
      Caught up on the wind and blown away
      Close your eyes on the Shadowlands
      And bid goodbye to all your friends
      And sail from havens grey
      Caught up on the wind and blown away
      You’ll bid goodbye to all your friends
      And close your eyes on the shadowlands
      I know you will open them again in the endless day
      Of a love that dawns beyond the havens grey

      So follow the road through the rain
      Down from the door where it began
      Out of the rain, into the sun
      Follow it on and on and on

      Keep to the road through the rain
      Is there a there and back again?
      Out of the rain, into the sun
      Follow it on and on and on
      Follow it on and on and on
      Follow it on and on and on and on

      The parting is the price, it is the price that I must pay
      To harbor far beyond the havens grey

      • DisneyGator permalink

        Return of the King?

      • Good guess. It’s inspired by the _Lord of the Rings_, but it’s actually a song by Andrew Peterson. He’s an amazing artist. I believe Ben Shive may actually have penned the lyrics on this one, though Andrew is a highly gifted lyricist himself.

  4. quartet-man permalink

    Just yesterday I heard a song that I was able to fill in the lyrics for (without having heard it before) due to the predictability of what the rhyme was going to be. There are still good writers out there, but not all. Often I think the tempo & music reach someone and the lyrics are an afterthought if that. Yes, many times the arrangement makes a song better. Sometimes it makes a good song better and supplements it, other times it is overproduced to hide the shortcomings and inadequacies of the song itself.

    • How can the lyrics be an after-thought if we’re trying to communicate a message in our songs?

      • quartet-man permalink

        Well, that sort of depends on the motivation of the artists. Are they looking simply for a catch song, a song that will entertain or go over well, or a chart song at the expense of the message, or are they looking to communicate first. I will be the first to admit that it can be hard to listen to a song with great lyrics if the tune or performance is bad. In cases like that, I would just prefer to read the lyrics. So, having songs that meet all of that is the best.

      • I can certainly go with you there. Some of my favorite secular musicians of all-time, Sting, Dave Matthews, Chic Corea, Kenny Kirkland, Steve Perry, McCartney, Bob Dylan were often criticized for some of the lyrical content. But their musical abilities can certainly overshadow a lot of that. And because it’s secular music, we don’t have to worry about whether or not a song is theologically correct. Because I see music as an art, and lyric as an art, I don’t mind if the lyrics don’t jump out at me all the time if the music is creative enough. And I don’t think I’d mind if the lyrical content was incredible and the music more plain vanilla. But certainly, our first reaction is to the music. Not that it takes precedence, but it does become harder to find music/lyrics completely compatible with a lot of cheesy stuff going around.

      • All good points. Incidentally I do like some of those guys, particularly Sting, although I’m sure you could find stuff in all their catalogues that a Christian probably wouldn’t want to have on his ipod… e.g. Sting’s “Tomorrow We’ll See.” I watched him set that up live by discussing how he felt like it would be violating his writer’s conscience or something not to tell that particular story. Piffle. But he’s a heathen so what do you expect…?

  5. DisneyGator permalink

    Does this mean we have to go purchase black plastic rimmed glasses and pretend to like Jazz?

  6. justmyopinion permalink

    I think the two key points here are message and communication. If you have a great message (lyrics) and poor communication (music/performer), the song isn’t living up to its full potential. But if you have great communication without a great message, what’s the point? If David Phelps gets on stage and belts the most amazing version of the alphabet song you’ve ever heard, what are you going to take away from it? Probably the fact that he’s an incredible singer, but nothing that points back to God. The music should be a supplement to an already complete message, allowing the artist to deliver the message more effectively, but not a replacement for lyrics that are lacking.

    To sum up my opinion, if you’re a Christian artist getting up on a stage, you should have something to say. There should be a distinct message you’re trying to communicate through every song. If you’re only getting up to sing or entertain, you might as well sing secular music, you’d probably make more money there anyway.

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