Understanding Lyrics: Imagery, Allusions, Symbols, and Figures of Speech
This post is part of a series on how to do close readings of lyrics. For the full list of analytical tools for lyrics, see my introductory post. To help flesh out the previously posted list on close readings of lyrics, I shall go through each item listed and give some examples to help illustrate some real-world examples of the concepts being talked about. Those familiar with analyzing poetry will find much familiar in this list, as this post will be a basic overview examining the purpose of a song’s lyrics. Songs cannot be examined by their lyrics alone, but they serve as an important piece of the work to evaluate. This series seeks to help shape the conversation in lyrical analysis to broaden the rhetorical discourse on song lyrics.
Consider imagery, allusions, symbols, and figures of speech.
- Are there any allusions that should be checked? Why did the lyricist include these allusions?
- What is the purpose of the comparisons (metaphors, similes) in the lyrics? Why does the lyricist compare these items?
- What senses does the imagery appeal to and how? Why are the images presented in the order in which they occur? What is the significance of the symbols?
Here we meet more fanciful language, lyrical elements that might pop out more as intentional artistic expression than other elements such as diction or rhythm. For this post, I’ve decided “The Magnificent Seven” by The Clash shall be the example text.
Allusions are indirect references, leaving the educated listener to fill in the missing information. The mention of “Luther King” near the end of the song is an allusion to Martin Luther King Jr., best known for his non-violent advocacy. The knowledge would be necessary to understand why his death in the song (along with fellow peace advocate Gandhi) is significant, as it illustrates the oppression of “the other team”, those empowered to retain the status quo through violence. As a song about the struggle an toil of working class life, the violent retention of the status quo is a powerful image to add to the oppressive grind of the proletariat.
Metaphors and similes make their point through comparison. This song in particular has a somewhat confusing simile, though the image is striking:
Italian mobster shoots a lobster
Seafood restaurant gets out of hand
A car in the fridge
Or a fridge in the car?
Like cowboys do – in T.V. land
Is the cowboy comparison with the mobster or the car/fridge? It seems to make more sense comparing the ridiculous shooting of the mobster to the staged violence of television. By comparing the imagery of television cowboys to a ridiculous scene (either comparison is equally strange and ridiculous), the simile highlights the silliness of both sides of the comparison, hinting at the hilarity and campiness underneath many old Western T.V. shows. Most notably, it draws attention to the title of the song, “The Magnificent Seven”, a popular Western film that reimagines The Seven Samurai in the Old West.
Imagery has multiple forms, drawing upon each sense perception. Some examples from “The Magnificent Seven” include the tactile image of a car splashed with cold water, the sound of the lunch bell, and the sight of waving the boss goodbye. The order of the images reinforces the daily routine of the workers and the regimented status quo.
As symbols acts as a stand in for a belief or an idea, the symbol of the cowboy as referenced but the song’s title might be alluding to the American Dream. Using the image of the cowboy, the song subverts the idea of the American dream by pointing out the enforced status quo upon the working class. Throughout the song, The Clash illustrate the grit of the proletariat and the cyclical nature of capitalism (working all day, only to drink their wages).
Hopefully these brief stabs at dissecting lyrics helps illuminate how words can work meaning, wether in written or in audio form.