Written by Katelyn Connolly
In the LitHub article “11 Pop Songs for Literary People,” Emily Temple jokes about the interlocking prestige of books and songs. There’s definitely some truth to that. When you see a person reading a book you like, you probably get pretty curious about what’s blasting through their headphones, and vice versa. But the link between literature and music runs deeper than their utility as indicators of status or social group. Here are a few of the links I’ve contemplated while reading and listening, though by no means does this list cover every literary meaning in music.
A Song as a Poem: Songwriters have always been considered poets by some, but most people apply the label with hesitation. Pop songs are often deemed an inauthentic art because of their formulaic style, but in many ways poetry has historically adhered to strict forms and a select batch of recycled themes. Pop lyrics successfully lodge in people’s minds, like religious lines of old, and their monotonous hooks and choruses are prime examples of the literary device repetition. I don’t remember ever seeking out Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” yet I know every word. Rap and hip-hop lyrics, on the other hand, have been dismissed because they may contain subject matter that certain listeners deem inappropriate. Yet studies find that hip-hop artists have the widest vocabulary, use more words per song, and introduce more new words per song than artists of any other genre. Wordplay and rhyme are essential elements that hip-hop shares with many poetic forms, and wide vocabulary is important to compelling writing. Considered one of the quintessential “lyrical” rappers, Nas claims the title of poet for himself in the 1999 track “Nas Is Like,” a song with a stream of similes, metaphors, imagery and personal history.
Songwriting as a Literary Act: If there is any doubt left that writing a song is like writing a poem, the example of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature offers some hefty validation. Though critics were split on whether or not a songwriter deserved the prize, David Gaines, an English professor at Southwestern, suggested that modern literature needs to expand to incorporate “words set to music…film…it’s not just your grandfather’s novels anymore.” After all, we’re living in a digital age. One fascinating Dylan lyric is “Hurricane,” from 1976, which uses mythologizing literary license to turn the true story of the boxer Rubin Carter, wrongfully convicted of murder, into a folk ballad about the injustices of America’s legal system. But Dylan also writes what Stephen King calls a “pressurized dump of lyrics and images,” a form of poetry representing a much different impulse than that present in “Hurricane.” A great example is my personal favorite Dylan song, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” which offers surreal and disjointed scenarios strung together by a short refrain. This is a case of a song influencing a book: Hunter S. Thompson references the song in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
An Album as a Story: Musical narratives that can’t be contained in a single song can sometimes be expanded into entire albums. Major concept albums of the ’60s and ’70s, like Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia, follow the struggles and growth of particular characters, in many ways emulating the Victorian literary form of the bildungsroman. But more recent concept albums dwell on the artist’s personal connection to a place from their past, or atmospheric memories of their coming-of-age, similar to trends in contemporary memoir. Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs is a surrealistic recollection of a suburb of Houston, paired with a paratextual short film. Kendrick Lamar’s good kid m.A.D.d city provides a sort of day-in-the-life view into Lamar’s native Compton, brought to life with his shifting personas and embedded skits that sound like found audio.
Co-opting Personas: Certain authors are larger-than-life personalities, the types of writers whose work can only be remembered through the lens of their lives, for better or for worse. Sylvia Plath was one of those people: her deeply confessional poems, revealing semi-autobiographical novel and infamous death, leave her vulnerable to romanticizing and misrepresentation. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to be sucked in by her persona, and on indie rock band the Antler’s concept album Hospice, the protagonist is a woman named Sylvia who is dying from bone cancer and suffers from emotional trauma. On the track “Sylvia,” songwriter Peter Silberman explicitly references the manner of Plath’s suicide and her poem “Fever 103” is implicitly present in the song’s content. Another example often present in my mind, because of my personal tastes, is Oscar Wilde’s influence on Morrissey. He has professed an adoration of Wilde in (difficult to find on the internet) interviews, and proudly proclaims in the Smiths song “Cemetry Gates” that “Keats and Yates are on your side, while Wilde is on mine.” Even without name-dropping in his songs, Morrissey emulates Wilde’s playful style, bracing wit, antagonizing antics and semi-autobiographical writing impulse.
Name-Dropping: Just for fun, here are a few songs that reference famous literary works. Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” puts singer Robert Plant’s Tolkien obsession to good use, crafting a fantasy-tinged rock classic about a girl he loved from “the darkest depths of Mordor,” who is stolen by Gollum. The song “Soma” by The Strokes weaves together plot lines from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which the citizens of a dystopian society are fed the drug “soma” to keep them complacent, with a modern criticism of the social repercussions of conformity and addiction. The Cure’s first single ever is a controversial one, though their music from that time period is some of my favorite and this song is a proto-punk masterpiece. It pretty much tells the story of Camus’s The Stranger over a frenetic backing track, but the very literal title “Killing an Arab” was condemned for promoting racist violence. Decades later, the Cure would perform the song with new lyrics based on Melville’s Moby Dick, with the new title “Killing an Ahab.” You have to admit, they were dedicated to their literary homages.