To­wards joy

Anwen Craw­ford on pop lyrics, Prince and Bob Dy­lan’s No­bel Prize

The Monthly (Australia) - - ARTS & LETTER -

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

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