Understanding Lyrics: Form/Structure
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 the form/structure
- Did the lyricist use a specific form? Why?
- What is the lyricist’s focus of attention? (Pay particular attention the chorus [and bridge]. Why are those lyrics emphasized?)
- What’s the syntax? (what’s the order of the words?) For example, words at the end of the phrase are given more emphasize, and therefore more importance.
This time around we will be talking about song structure. This is a major part of how a song’s lyrics connects with the music. After all, if a pop song has the prerequisite verses, choruses, and bridge, that shapes how much lyrical content will be in the song. This is starting off rather vaguely, so let’s look at a case example to flesh things out.
Let’s start with Adele’s “Someone Like You.” Why would Adele use the standard pop song structure? The answer seems obvious: because she is a pop star, and that’s her milieu. However, I think this is a weakness of the song’s structure. The lyrics themselves are very confessional, acting like a one-sided transcript between ex-lovers. We hear Adele’s regret and jealousy percolate as she talks with here former love, and its naturally heartfelt… mostly. What I find frustrating is the pre-chorus:
I hate to turn up out of the blue uninvited
But I couldn’t stay away, I couldn’t fight it.
I had hoped you’d see my face and that you’d be reminded
That for me it isn’t over.
The pre-chorus itself is fine. It’s wonderful the first time we hear it. But within the rest of the song, it does not make sense to repeat because the song has a naturalistic, confessional nature. Why Adele’s character would reintroduce herself and, in essence, begin her conversation all over again? it alters the natural flow of the conversation. You can argue it’s Adele’s character needing to re-rationalize why she’s talking to an ex-lover, but it feels mechanical. It’s not necessary to repeat this information, and doing so removes the facade of naturalism. The chorus also somewhat fits this description as well, but it isn’t as egregious. It is also more plausible for Adele’s character to beg to her ex-lover to not forget multiple times out of desperation.
Moving on, let’s examine the lyrics and what they emphasize. Again, we see the pre-chorus repeats twice, but as I’ve mentioned above, its repetition is not as functional. So let’s examine the chorus, which repeats four times:
Never mind, I’ll find someone like you
I wish nothing but the best for you too
Don’t forget me, I beg
I’ll remember you said,
“Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead”.
Through repetition, a piece creates an emphasis around a certain theme or message. If we were to have a final impression of how this relationship ends, it’s with a mixture of bitterness and nostalgia. It’s a messy end to a relationship, and because the song is keen enough to fully illustrate that, it’s beautiful. Smart word choice like “beg” is particularly powerful, partially because it’s not a common love song cliché, save for joking, lighthearted songs. But more importantly, it illustrates a profound desire to be remembered, and ultimately loved. Adele’s sings it with an air of utter desperation. By using the term “beg,” Adele illustrates how love isn’t just a great thing to have, but a necessity for a fulfilling life. The diction itself is powerful, but through its repetition in the chorus, the desperation Adele displays is palpable and heartbreaking. And that’s what makes this song powerful.
The syntax of the chorus works as well to emphasis the desperation flowing throughout the song. “Beg” appears as the last word in the line, for example, further emphasizing it the listening audience. The last line of the chorus is also illustrative of this. The phrase could be rearranged as “sometime love hurts, sometimes love’s great” or something to that effect. But by ending with “sometimes it hurts instead,” the chorus further pounds its audience with misery and pain. They are the last lyrics between small instrumental interludes, and the last lyrics of the entire song, ultimately making the entire outing a sorrowful experience.
Overall, we see the song’s structure arranging certain words and phrases for greater impact on the audience. While the song’s total adherence to pop song structure is also partially detrimental to the messy naturalism the song invokes, it also functions as a purposeful structure to clearly highlight the main themes and message of the song.