Anwen Crawford on pop lyrics, Prince and Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize
Ionce heard a distinguished American poet quote a Lady Gaga lyric as an example of perfect iambic pentameter. “I want your psycho, your vertigo schtick” – ten syllables, five feet of metre; he wasn’t wrong. I was sitting in a classroom in New York City, and the poet was leading a course on prosody, which is the study of poetic metre but might also concern itself, to quote Ezra Pound, with “the articulation of the total sound of a poem”. Gaga’s line was from her 2009 single ‘Bad Romance’, one of the songs that launched her on a trajectory towards superstardom. She would become, for a time, the most famous contemporary pop musician in the world.
“I want your psycho, your vertigo schtick.” What is the line doing, apart from keeping the metre? I want: the very bedrock of pop music. Pop music is about many things, but it is mostly about the things that we might want to do with our bodies: playing, dancing, singing, sex of all sorts. Skin and sweat and noises. The repeated “o” of psycho
and vertigo is a sound that might be pleasure, might be pain, might be both at once. It’s the sadism of Alfred Hitchcock, who took pleasure in making his beautiful blondes – Janet Leigh in Psycho, Kim Novak in Vertigo – suffer violent deaths. Lady Gaga was a blonde, and she placed herself in this lineage: beauty, danger, tragedy etc. The superstar’s schtick. As she sang she savoured the phonemes of schtick.
But ‘Bad Romance’ proved most effective when language broke down – when phonemes, set free from meaning, bloomed across the song like a rash. “Rah-rah-ah-ah-ah, ro-mah-romah-mah,” sang Gaga, repeatedly. Pop music is about what we feel more than what we say, what goes unsaid, what can’t be spoken. I want. “Rahrah-ah-ah-ah” put Gaga at the edge of language, right where Little Richard was when he shouted, “A-wop-bom-aloo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom.”
Poetry and pop lyrics are forms that share a fascination with language as a material: how can you push it around, or break it apart? And what might that sound like? Through attention to rhythm, and through devices such as rhyme, alliteration, consonance and dissonance