Bob Dylan‘s Nobel Prize for Literature win last Friday was an unexpected one. Leaving the discussion about the definition of literature aside, because I haven’t got a spare year to hand, the auto declaration that Bob Dylan is the world’s greatest poet, the poet of American pop who creates poetry for the ear, and other platitudes, irks. Not because Dylan is not a fine songwriter – only the churlish and argumentative would insist that – but by slapping him with the poet tag we are denigrating songwriting, and the art of pop and rock songwriting itself.
Poetry, as singer songwriter and composer Scott Walker says in the documentary film 30th Century Man, ‘isn’t written to be sung’. And he’s right. His own lyrics, like Dylan’s and alongside other songwriters, are often wrongly referred to as poetry. But poetry is written down. It is performed, sometimes, but it is not sung.
And neither is rap the same as poetry. There’s been many a spoken word and poetry night where someone has cheekily called their work poetry and everyone has thrilled, because it’s so different to all the sonnets and whatnot, but I’ve thought, ‘nah, babe. Who are you kidding? That’s a rap. And you jolly well know it.’
A song with lyrics is different to a poem. The musical part of a song emphasises, heightens and underlines emotions and meaning. Lyrics are not poetry. Even if you write down the lyrics to a song, glory in them on paper, enjoy them, weep or fall in love over them or pluck inspiration from them, they are still not poetry. Reading out lyrics as poetry results in something akin to Peter Sellers orating Lennon & McCartney’s A Hard Day’s Night in the style of Laurence Olivier.
Lyrics are lyrics, and there is no shame in referring to them so. The word lyric is not an insult. We don’t typically consume lyrics as we do poetry, in physical book form, although very few people buy poetry in 2016. The sale of poetry books and pamphlets is consistently and depressingly low, year on year. I’ll wager any books of lyrics published are largely left on bookshelves, or displayed on coffee tables for the benefit of visitors, but rarely read. That’s because lyrics require music to hit the sweet spot, the tender flesh of the heart.
Pop songwriting and lyric writing are equal in value to poetry. You get bad poetry in exactly the same way there is awful songwriting. One is not a better or worse art form than the other. There’s an instinctive response to try and legitimise pop music somehow, an underlying feeling that pop is not good or worthy enough on its own, like it needs that extra bit of class to make it better. As if it is lacking. Calling a songwriter a poet appeals to the vanities within us. If we enjoy lyrics and claim them as poetry, it makes us cleverer, deeper, more intellectual than those who foot tap and enjoy rousing choruses. We are elevated above all that, we are the brainy ones! Aren’t we good?
What bollocks. It’s snobbery, and not unlike the horrible trend of slathering unnatural orchestration over pop songs, or even worse, concerts with orchestras banging out versions of Beatles songs and theme tunes from James Bond and Dr Who; y’know, to get the kids into classical. And let’s not leave out the pop bands with no classical bent in their musical DNA whatsoever, hooking up with Philharmonic orchestras, and slapping on an extra ten or fifteen quid on a concert ticket.
For artists like The Last Shadow Puppets, The Magnetic North and Meilyr Jones, to take three examples of contemporary artists who combine pop and orchestration on their albums, the combination is a natural, understandable thing. And it works. But I have no truck with some, those who push their luck, big time. We all know who they are.
For the Christmas record market last year, someone at RCA had the bright idea to re-work recordings by Elvis Presley going to the bother of hiring the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to perform alongside the songs, with a choir bellowing away on top. The resulting album, If I Can Dream : Elvis Presley With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is a ghastly affair. Recording the original version of the title song, part of the 1968 Comeback Special, was a pivotal moment for Elvis.
In it, he had to prove himself, after years churning out bad films, and lordy, he did precisely that. It’s a powerful, emotional vocal performance but it’s the imperfections that make it perfect. A lone guitar string moans – with pleasure or pain, it’s impossible to tell – and his voice cracks and trembles, his vulnerability exposed. It’s utterly fucking beautiful. But once If I Can Dream is, erm, reworked, we don’t hear any of that. It is reduced a vulgar, rude blare, strings and piano and choir combined into a sickly sweet layer of icing that makes us gag. And don’t get us even started on what they’ve done to his song Burning Love. There’s another Elvis Philharmonic album coming out this year. Help us all. If he were still alive, Elvis would shoot the telly. And who could blame him?
My point is, declaring lyrics as poetry, plus pop and rock bands suddenly out of the blue performing with formal and straight orchestras might make us feel all cultured and highbrow, but it is patronising towards pop music and those who enjoy it for what it is. Pop and rock music is fine as it stands. It needs no extra trimmings, or validation. We should stand up for what we love, our beloved pop and rock. Adding extra tags and qualities to either, ones which simply aren’t there, is completely and utterly unnecessary.
Who knows if Bob Dylan himself feels the same? For now, the body that awards the Nobel Prize for Literature has given up trying to contact the singer-songwriter – not poet! – regarding whether he accepts the prize or will attend the ceremony in Stockholm on 10 December.