Song­writer, No­bel Prize win­ner . . . poet?

Book re­view by Michael Lind­gren

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK -

When Bob Dy­lan won the No­bel Prize in lit­er­a­ture last Oc­to­ber, it pro­duced a bo­nanza of de­bate over ques­tions that had long dom­i­nated late-night dorm-room and barstool conversations. Is pop mu­sic po­etry? Are pop songs po­ems? For some of us, the con­tro­versy harkened back to what was once a sta­ple of the Amer­i­can class­room, the with-it prof who proved his sub­ver­sive bona fides by treat­ing rock lyrics — “Mis­ter Tam­bourine Man” was a fa­vorite sub­ject, if my memories of my un­der­grad­u­ate days are cor­rect — as le­git­i­mate ob­jects of crit­i­cal anal­y­sis. The re­sult was usu­ally just em­bar­rass­ing, for ev­ery­one con­cerned.

Adam Bradley is not that guy, not least be­cause he dis­missed the whole No­bel con­tretemps as “bom­bas­tic polemics.” An English pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Colorado and the found­ing direc­tor of the Lab­o­ra­tory for Race and Pop­u­lar Cul­ture, Bradley is a newer breed of pop in­tel­lec­tual who com­bines eru­dite anal­y­sis and street-level cool in an in­vig­o­rat­ing new book called “The Po­etry of Pop.”

Bradley’s an­swer to the dorm-room ques­tion is nu­anced but un­equiv­o­cal, and boils down to this: Pop lyrics are not by them­selves po­etry, but pop songs can be. He does not fall

THE PO­ETRY OF POP By Adam Bradley. Yale. 414 pp. $28

into the trap of treat­ing pop lyrics as tech­ni­cally equal to the heights scaled by great po­etry; he un­der­stands that “song lyrics need mu­sic, voice, and per­for­mance to give them life.” He de­nies the need for “cre­at­ing a canon of pop lyrics, so that Steven Tyler can sit with Shake­speare,” in­stead propos­ing a su­perb for­mu­la­tion: “Pop,” he writes, “is a po­etry whose suc­cess lies in get­ting you to for­get that it is po­etry at all.”

In the ex­er­cise of this prin­ci­ple, Bradley de­ploys a for­mi­da­ble set of skills. He has an acute ear, daz­zling com­mand of seem­ingly the en­tire his­tory of pop and a pleas­ingly wide range of taste, draw­ing on ex­am­ples from Gersh­win to Guns ’n’ Roses to make his points. His prose has pre­ci­sion and clar­ity when dis­cussing even the most re­con­dite of lit­er­ary terms. As with all good teach­ers, his pas­sion for his sub­ject an­i­mates his writ­ing and makes his en­thu­si­asm nearly com­mu­ni­ca­ble.

Bradley is what some peo­ple would call a “popist,” that is, a critic who sees aes­thetic value in com­mer­cial pop gen­res and has an essen­tially egal­i­tar­ian ethic — as op­posed to a “rock­ist,” or an old-school (usu­ally white) (usu­ally male) critic prone to hi­er­ar­chi­cal value judge­ments. He is, in ad­di­tion, an un­abashed for­mal­ist — he stud­ied un­der the great mod­ernist critic He­len Vendler — who re­lies on tra­di­tional tech­niques of close read­ing (an early chap­ter in “The Po­etry of Pop” has an al­most com­i­cally solemn pas­sage on the im­por­tance of ac­cu­rate tran­scrip­tion). Bradley is thus some­thing gen­uinely unique: a for­mal­ist popist and the found­ing mem­ber of a crit­i­cal school num­ber­ing ex­actly one.

The in­ter­sec­tion of these pos­si­bly per­pen­dic­u­lar crit­i­cal ten­den­cies gen­er­ates un­usual dy­nam­ics in Bradley’s think­ing, and their point of con­flu­ence is a source of both rigor and dif­fu­sion. As a popist, Bradley has an in­clu­sive and catholic vi­sion: He finds merit in all kinds of gen­res, and his in­vi­ta­tion to the reader to par­tic­i­pate in the crit­i­cal project is warm and au­then­tic. There is a brac­ingly hor­ta­tory un­der­tow to many of his pro­nounce­ments, such as when he speaks of pop crit­i­cism as an op­por­tu­nity “to ap­pre­ci­ate one of the most widely dis­sem­i­nated lyric tra­di­tions in the world.” Un­der Bradley’s guid­ance, lov­ing pop takes on a healthy demo­cratic glow, a form of in­formed col­lec­tive pleasure.

The prob­lem, if there can be said to be one, comes when the free-float­ing open­ness of popism is yoked to that un­canny for­mal­ist dy­namic that be­gins to slide into value-free de­con­struc­tion­ist rel­a­tivism, with a re­sul­tant soft­en­ing of crit­i­cal rigor. To praise ef­fec­tively, one must also con­demn. Ex­am­in­ing a Bryan Adams song, for ex­am­ple, Bradley notes that the lyric “it cuts like a knife / but it feels so right” cre­ates a “dis­so­nance” that “gen­er­ates some lyric heat.” As some­one with — to my cost — sub­stan­tial knowl­edge of the Adams oeu­vre, I am com­fort­able in say­ing that this is not a clever ex­er­cise in gen­er­at­ing dis­so­nance but rather a lazy, shoddy rhyme, per­fectly typ­i­cal of its cre­ator, for whom no string of cliches was ever too shop­worn or il­log­i­cal.

Another bru­tal would-be me­taphor is de­scribed as “more than ser­vice­able”; else­where Bradley tempts us by say­ing that “it would prob­a­bly be amus­ing to spend the re­main­der of the chap­ter list­ing forced rhymes in bad songs,” be­fore re­sum­ing the man­tle of care­ful neu­tral­ity. Fi­nally, it’s in my union con­tract, as a pre­ten­tious for­mer record critic, to have two mi­nor crows to pluck. The first is Bradley’s act of ap­pend­ing the tire­some la­bel “in­no­va­tor” to the late Prince; the se­cond is his con­tention that the remixed “Ex­ile on Main Street” of 2010 is son­i­cally equiv­a­lent to its fabled pre­de­ces­sor — fight­ing words, on my block.

When the news of Dy­lan’s No­bel broke, there were many who pre­emp­tively pro­claimed them­selves tired of the de­bate, which to them was both a man­u­fac­tured con­tro­versy and essen­tially im­ma­te­rial. I dis­agree; peo­ple have been think­ing about song and lyric and poem since Plato, try­ing to un­der­stand what they mean, how they work; do­ing so is an es­sen­tial process in mak­ing sense of our emo­tional lives. Bradley un­der­stands this, and his book at bot­tom is a cel­e­bra­tion of the mys­te­ri­ous process by which “the dance of word and mu­sic makes songs act on our imag­i­na­tion and emo­tions just as the best po­ems do.” Michael Lind­gren is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to The Wash­ing­ton Post.


Bob Dy­lan got a No­bel for “new po­etic ex­pres­sions” in mu­sic. But whether pop songs count as po­etry has long been de­bated.


Per­for­mance, mu­sic and lyrics can com­bine to make some pop songs po­etry, Adam Bradley ar­gues.

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