The problem with lyrics

The problem with lyrics

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Reading and reviewing poetry and lyrics are natural extensions of reading and reviewing novels and non-fiction. And, though I find poetry hard to read, sometimes I accidently read a poem and without warning it really hits me. Like a hand out of thin air that reaches out and pokes me right in the chest, hard. I write poetry because sometimes what I want to see is easier to say in a poem than in a long description.

Why am I still plagued by random bit of poetry of random lines from songs in my head years after I first hear or read them? What is it in poetry that makes it connect with me? I was looking for answers and think I have found some.

Postmodernism – what’s that, hey?

So, to begin at the beginning, as Dylan Thomas said in the melodious prose-poem conceived as a “play for voices”, his famous Under Milk Wood. What I’m about to explain is my form of Postmodernist analysis of poetry and lyrics. Postmodernism is apparently what it is. I learned this at university but never realized what it had to do with actual writing and actual life. Now I get it. Let’s not go into what Postmodernism is or isn’t, or analyze the theory of the theory. I want to analyze poetry – and by extension, lyrics, to explain what it is and how it works, and why it touches me, or doesn’t.

  1. First, when critiquing or reviewing poetry, you look at the context. This is not close reading where you only look at the words, and their exact meaning. You look at what it is, how foes it fit into the genre, how does it fit into the author’s collection of work. Is this a debut work, or the work of an amateur, or a professional published poet?
  2. Second, you look at the theme, which will often be linked to the form. Is there one theme, or also a sub-theme. Are there many themes, and are they linked? Is it a “uniform” collection or unit, and have the poems been well grouped or merely flung together. Is it in the form of a cycle and is there continuity? You need to look for a pattern or shared thematical markers amongst the poems. For instance, all the poems in a collection might have a domestic theme, and some of the poems might depict this theme better than others. You need to point out which poems are these, and which poems are a blatant or over-strong attempt to manipulate the reader’s emotions.
  3. Third, you look at form and its elements – how is the poem structured. This is easier since one can put a name to a form, even if it means counting syllables. Elements are the specific things the poet does within a certain form. For instance, it can be a quatrain (four-line verse) containing the element assonance (Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds to create internal rhyming within phrases or sentences) or alliteration or consonance or all three, or more. Then you have to ask, is this element consistently applied, is it effective, in other words, does it strengthen or convey the meaning, does it fit the theme, and how well was it done.

How to ID a poem

Specific poetic forms have been developed by many cultures. In more developed, closed or “received” poetic forms, the rhyming scheme, meter and other elements of a poem are based on sets of rules, ranging from the relatively loose rules that govern the construction of an elegy to the highly formalized structure of the ghazal or villanelle.

Here are some common forms of poetry widely used across a number of languages:

  • Sonnet
  • Quatrain
  • Tanka
  • Haiku
  • Ode
  • Free form
  • Prose poem

Other elements that define the form of a poem are discussed here:

When it comes to elements of form, poets have many elements they can incorporate, and it is the skill with which a poet can do this that makes a poem good, or not.

OK, so far so good. Now try to apply this structural analysis to a Hip-hop classic. And some readers might think – aw, nuts. This is a bad idea.

How to analyze lyrics

Lyrics are a specific genre of poetry. There are actual handbooks on how to rap, how to rhyme and how to do Hip-hop songwriting (check out, and often the criticisms are along the lines of this one, from The New York Times, which said that these writers (often academics or established reviewers) want to “legitimize rap by setting it in a canonical context, but aren’t we past the point of justifying it? No one is really still debating whether Hip-hop is a bona fide art form. In his tone of unwarranted protectiveness, he seems to forget that Hip-hop now earns highbrow props worldwide. After three decades, it doesn’t require a defense attorney.” (Baz Dreisinger, Def Poetry, New York Times, September 8, 2009)

Is it the right thing to do?

Yes, but to my mind, analyzing Hip-hop means that I DO think of it as a “bone fide art form” worth analyzing and – importantly – able to stand up to critical analysis. I am not defending it, I’m saying that’s what it IS. People might say this makes Hip-hop look like it’s part of the “reviled status quo” – I’m saying, right, it is part of the status quo, and has been since it got started in the 1970s. Hey, that’s more than 40 years ago.

It’s like graffiti – it may have been anti-establishment, illegal “art” long ago, but now Banksy is famous and rich, and graffiti has also become art. Yes, tagging is still ugly and gang-related, but part of the movement has also been mainstreamed – for better or worse. Same for Hip-hop and rap – might have started as a small neighbourhood youth movement, now it is BIG money, BIG recording contracts, BIG art, a MUCH higher standard of excellence to aim for. So high, you can even study how to do it.

Applying poetry analysis to lyrics – De La Soul for example

De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising album cover
De La Soul, 3 Feet High and Rising album cover

I learned a lot from trying to apply classic poetical analysis to Hip-hop lyrics. The song, Tread Water by De La Soul, that I’ve loved since the first time I heard it, stood up surprisingly well to the dissection – looking at it in minute detail and taking it apart, syllable by syllable. But more importantly, now I know WHY I have always loved it. Now, it makes sense. Now I understand what De La Soul were doing, even if they were doing it instinctively. Now, I really, really love it. I learned that my snobbish, academic attitude towards Hip-hop and rap was just plain wrong.

My ears have been opened, literally and figuratively.

The legendary group behind the “DAISY” movement, De La Soul, represented the witty, smart side of rap in a world where gangster rap was becoming the in-thing. With unique style and a flow that was always spot-on, the group found success that continues to this day; the group rapping in the Gorillaz track Feel Good, Inc. is De La Soul.

From Long Island, NY, they began as a part of Native Tongues, along with A Tribe Called Quest and Jungle Brothers. The first single from De La Soul, and consequently the first single from their debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising is Tread Water. The single, which was released in 1988 (oooh, more than 10 years ago!), also features the songs Jenifa (Taught Me), as well as some other B-sides that never made it to the final version of the album.

The hit on the album, Potholes in my lawn, heavily samples the War song Magic Mountain.

It also uses the famous yodeling and jaw harp on Parliament’s Little Ole Country Boy. OK, I like Potholes In My Lawn a lot, since I do in fact, have potholes in my lawn and I think it’s a witty song.

But this analysis is about Tread Water which sampled the soul base rhythm from People’s Choice, I likes to do it, but speeded up and with a break in the rhythm in the last 2 lines of the 2nd verse, for instance.

Go listen to both songs, it is really interesting how they are the same, but yet, totally different.

Tread Water lyrics

Here are the lyrics to the song, in full:

I was walking on the water when I saw a crocodile
He had daisies in his hat, so I stopped him for a while
He delivered me a message, a massage to soothe my stage
What it was was more then plug-up dosage
More than DAISY age
Conversation drew a rule,
Which the crowd will roar by millions
Mr. Crocodile said, ‘Dove, you must look
For now the villains try to hold you underwater
But one thing we all must heed
Sony Walkmans keep us walking
De La Soul can help you breathe when you tread water’

As I walked along my journey,
I thought ‘What have I just learned?’
In a flash I saw commotion
There was movement in these ferns
Silently the silence came, was it the end of my world?
I shouted out in fear, ‘Who’s there?’
‘It’s me,’ said Mr. Squirrel
‘I’ve searched for you all over, now you’re found,
No time to waste. We must find the Preacher Man,
We must find the P.A. Mase. All my population’s dying,
And we’re all in tune to doom.
Like the Daisy, I need water
I need chesnuts to consume.’
‘Mr. Squirrel,’ I said, ‘I’m sorry,
But the problem can’t be solved
If there’s no one here to help, and no one to get involved
Always look to the positive and never drop your head
For the water will engulf us if we do not dare to tread
So let’s tread water’

Now one weary day I woke, my alarm said ‘Plug time’s up’
Filled my bath up with the water, gargled with my gargle cup
As I bathed I felt a presence, and I’m sort of ticklish
I looked down and then around and I heard,
‘Hi! I’m Mr Fish. How do you do? As for me,
I’m in tip-top shape today, cause my water’s clean
And no-one’s menu says Fresh Fish Filet
See I look past all my worries, which is something you must do
Though you’re fed up, throw your head up
With this advice ffrom me to you
And that’s to tread water’

As my day went unexplained, time was finding nothing fun
As I walked along the sidewalk, I heard,
‘Psst, excuse me, Plug One.’
From my Soul, De La that is, I hollered
‘Yes, are you talking to me?’
‘No alarm meant,’ he said, ‘Let me introduce myself.
I’m Mr Monkey.’
‘Mr Monkey, I pledge you slap of five,
Now how does your problem meet?’
He said, ‘My bananas are at their ripest, but they all
Stand at three feet. My swinging hand is bandaged up.
Could you help me with this chore?’
I brought him down to the Native shop
And bought him copies of the De La score
Which assisted well in his elevation
Now all bananas is at his grasp
He decided with this accomplished,
He would put me on to the path
He to my to live by the Inner Sound, y’all
Which would bring me health in showbiz
Then to use them, not abuse them
And then in the words that got me to ’em
And that is to tread water

Putting theory into practice

Now, the trick is to analyze THIS. To see review the question, go here.

To go directly to the analysis, go here.

First, I discuss the approach to the song, then I apply the analysis.