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Hearing The ‘Poetry Of Pop’

The poetry of Top 40 classic hits, from “Shake it Off” to “Hey Jude.”

Pop music is irresistible. That’s what makes it popular. My guest today says it’s also poetry. Not every time.  Not every song. But the lyrics within the music work on us. Sometimes powerfully. Sometimes subtly. And often in a tradition of poetic rhythm that stretches from Beowulf to Biggie Smalls. From Cole Porter to Bob Dylan and Taylor Swift and Pharrell. This hour On Point, the poetry of pop music. — Tom Ashbrook


Adam Bradley, professor of English and founding director of the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Author of the new book, “The Poetry of Pop.” Also author of “The Anthology of Rap,” “Book of Rhymes” and “Ralph Ellison in Progress.”

From Tom’s Reading List

The Wall Street Journal: Why We Love “Hey Jude” and “M.I.L.F. $” — “Pop lyrics are clearly related to poetry. Lyrics have meter and rhythm; usually they rhyme. Like teenagers, lyrics sound casual but are very often rigidly conventional. Lyrics resemble parents, too, for the modern song lyric descends from folk music and lyric verse. And though almost all pop music is shallow, cynical and commercially standardized, we often experience it as poetic—as expressing our deepest, most sincere emotions.”

Denver Post: “The Poetry of Pop,” or how to fall in love with the Top 40 all over again — “Semester after semester, an exceedingly difficult challenge plays out between literature teachers and their students: How do you make kids care about what some dead poet wrote about a wet red wheelbarrow?”

Pacific Standard: Is Poetry Poised for a Renaissance? — “In a world of 140-character bites of provocation and inner thoughts laid bare, does poetry stand a fighting chance? Fewer Americans are reading poetry than ever before — a 2013 government report based on nationwide surveys found that the number of people who read at least one work of poetry a year dropped 45 percent between 2002 and 2012. Writers like Michael Dirda, Andrew Solomon, and Jonathan Franzen have blamed electronic media, which isn’t going away any time soon, for the decline of literary culture.”

Read An Excerpt Of “The Poetry of Pop” By Adam Bradley




Playlist Analysis By Adam Bradley

Ed Sheeran – “Shape of You”:  “Sometimes what I like to do is just go through and look at the number one song this week because it natural place to end to rip from the headlines.

Bob Dylan – “Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall”: “Dylan is a posterchild for the poetry of pop which makes him easy to defend. This song displays some of the things we come to associate with poetry in terms of its structure, and the almost biblical approach he takes, the way his whole performance style shines a spotlight on the lyric so you can understand what he’s saying.”

Taylor Swift – “Shake It Off”: “This is a song by a committee as opposed to the lone troubadour of Dylan. It embodies the new song writing sensibility that has a hook every six seconds and there is a lot of cool stuff to talk about the sophistication of a disposable possible.”

Cole Porter – “Anything Goes”: “I wanted to go far back and connect with one stream of the book and say that the book is in a constant present moment because the book connects across decades. This older song is in keeping with some contemporary writing in the hip-hop culture featuring braggadocio and pop culture references.”

Paul McCartney — “Hey Jude”: “I don’t write about this one in the book but I wish I had. It combines the Dylan-esque attention to the poetry of the page combined with the more contemporary producer driven forgetting of the lyrics in the second half of the song. It illustrates something really profound about the shift going on that would manifest itself in contemporary music that introduces moments of difference. If I had come across that structure before I would have without a doubt written on it.”

Pharrell Williams – “Happy”: “Everyone loves it, one of those ear worms that demonstrates the elemental quality of rhythm as it manifests itself in the music and the lyric and the not quite matching up. The rhythmic derivation makes it more appealing than if it followed typical rhythm and lyric sequencing. The shift in the sequencing is what makes it so danceable. There is also the creating of metaphors; “Room without a roof” meaning that opens up an interpretive space that once you unleash a metaphor there is a capacity for others to interpret it as needed.”

Idina Menzel – “Let It Go”: “I spent a tremendous amount of time listening to kids music because I am raising two girls and I learned so much in listening to them listen to music. I listened to that ‘Frozen’ soundtrack so much because it allowed me to think about these big questions in a place with pretty refined lyric writing and if they had been given to a pop artists it would have been a number one hit on its own. I think it’s a good choice for listeners who have young children. That might be a cool point of entry that would be more different than the Stones or the Beatles.”

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(Clockwise From Top Left) The Beach Boys, Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes, Taylor Swift, Pharrell Williams, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell in various performances throughout their respective careers. (AP/WikiCommons)
(Clockwise From Top Left) The Beach Boys, Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes, Taylor Swift, Pharrell Williams, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell in various performances throughout their respective careers. (AP/WikiCommons)