Hearing The ‘Poetry Of Pop’

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The poetry of Top 40 classic hits, from “Shake it Off” to “Hey Jude.”

(Clockwise From Top Left) The Beach Boys, Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes, Taylor Swift, Pharrell Williams, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell in various performances throughout their respective careers. (AP/WikiCommons)
(Clockwise From Top Left) The Beach Boys, Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes, Taylor Swift, Pharrell Williams, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell in various performances throughout their respective careers. (AP/WikiCommons)

Pop music is irresistible. That’s what makes it popular. My guest today says it’s also poetry. Not every time.  Not every song. But the lyrics within the music work on us. Sometimes powerfully. Sometimes subtly. And often in a tradition of poetic rhythm that stretches from Beowulf to Biggie Smalls. From Cole Porter to Bob Dylan and Taylor Swift and Pharrell. This hour On Point, the poetry of pop music. — Tom Ashbrook


Adam Bradley, professor of English and founding director of the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Author of the new book, “The Poetry of Pop.” Also author of “The Anthology of Rap,” “Book of Rhymes” and “Ralph Ellison in Progress.”

From Tom’s Reading List

The Wall Street Journal: Why We Love “Hey Jude” and “M.I.L.F. $” — "Pop lyrics are clearly related to poetry. Lyrics have meter and rhythm; usually they rhyme. Like teenagers, lyrics sound casual but are very often rigidly conventional. Lyrics resemble parents, too, for the modern song lyric descends from folk music and lyric verse. And though almost all pop music is shallow, cynical and commercially standardized, we often experience it as poetic—as expressing our deepest, most sincere emotions."

Denver Post: “The Poetry of Pop,” or how to fall in love with the Top 40 all over again — "Semester after semester, an exceedingly difficult challenge plays out between literature teachers and their students: How do you make kids care about what some dead poet wrote about a wet red wheelbarrow?"

Pacific Standard: Is Poetry Poised for a Renaissance? — "In a world of 140-character bites of provocation and inner thoughts laid bare, does poetry stand a fighting chance? Fewer Americans are reading poetry than ever before — a 2013 government report based on nationwide surveys found that the number of people who read at least one work of poetry a year dropped 45 percent between 2002 and 2012. Writers like Michael Dirda, Andrew Solomon, and Jonathan Franzen have blamed electronic media, which isn’t going away any time soon, for the decline of literary culture."

Read An Excerpt Of "The Poetry of Pop" By Adam Bradley


Playlist Analysis By Adam Bradley

Ed Sheeran – "Shape of You":  "Sometimes I like to go through and look at Billboard Hot 100 charts and analyze whatever’s near the top—ripping it from the headlines."

Bob Dylan – "Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall": "Dylan is a posterchild for the poetry of pop, which makes him easy to defend. This song displays some of the things we come to associate with poetry: its allusiveness and elusiveness, its near biblical approach to repetition, the way his whole performance style shines a spotlight on the lyric so you can understand exactly what he’s saying.""

Taylor Swift – "Shake It Off": "This is a song by a committee as opposed to only by a lone troubadour of Dylan. It embodies the new song writing sensibility that involves a hook—some catchy, indelible bit of sound or language—nearly every seven seconds. Even in something that seems like a disposable pop confection there’s plenty to talk about, plenty that’s sophisticated.""

Cole Porter – "Anything Goes": "I wanted to go far back with this playlist and connect with a sense of pop that keeps us in the constant present. 'Anything Goes' sounds like young people’s music to me, even these many decades later. And you can hear some of the same swagger and pop culture references that we now expect from hip-hop."

Paul McCartney — "Hey Jude": "I don’t write about this one in the book but I wish I had. It combines the Dylan-esque attention to the poetry of the page combined with the more contemporary producer-driven attention to the poetry of sound and repeition. It illustrates something really profound about the shift going on that would manifest itself in contemporary music. Listen to the moment around 3:08 when Paul lets out a scream and the whole approach of the song changes.""

Pharrell Williams – "Happy": "Everyone loves it—from my seventy-four year old father-in-law to my three-year-old daughter. It’s one of those ear worms that demonstrates the elemental quality of rhythm as it manifests itself in the music and the lyric. It also shows that importance of imperfection: the rhythmic power comes out of all of the song’s many rhythms (of music and voice) not quite matching up. The rhythmic derivation makes it more appealing than if it followed a robotic rhythm and lyric sequencing. The shift is what makes it so danceable. Also listen for the simile: 'Room without a roof' opens up an interpretive space that demands attention"

Idina Menzel – "Let It Go": "I spent a tremendous amount of time listening to kids music because I am raising two girls. I play them some Beatles and other things, of course, but we mostly listen to kids music. I learned so much about music by listening to them listen to music. I listened to that 'Frozen' soundtrack so much because over the last few years, and it allowed me to think about the big questions of my book while also playing with my girls. I think it’s a good choice for listeners who have young children. Moana, too!"

This program aired on April 7, 2017.


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