Understanding Lyrics: Determine the literary value

by criticalhit009

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.

  • Determine the literary value.
    • What lines appeal to you and why?
    • What emotions do these lyrics evoke?
    • If you do not understand these lyrics, what causes this?
    • How skillful is the lyricist?

Evaluating worth is a tricky, ultimately subjective act. Writing about the theories and frameworks one could evaluate art with is beyond the scope of this series, but the listed items above can help shape one’s thoughts when confronted with lyrics and poetry in general. What is good is really up to the individual and their wants and needs. Learning how to critique only comes from more experience reading, writing, watching, and listening, all coupled with critical thinking.

But let’s finish this series with an example of one of my favourite songs, “The Queen is Dead” by The Smiths.

The remarkable thing about this song is that its one of my favourite for its sheer forcefulness. It’s one of The Smiths’ most vicious songs, with propulsive bass and drums as Morrissey sings of the death of the queen. The self deprecating humour of lines like “She said, ‘Eh, I know you, and you cannot sing’ / I said, ‘That’s nothing, you should hear me play piano'” is enjoyable, the cutting claims of “the pub who saps your body/ And the church who’ll snatch your money” incisive. These lyrics invoke a great swelling of emotion from me, an invigorating energy resulting from the swirling examinations of the world in the song.

For years I actually didn’t understand all of the lyrics, as some reverb effects obscure some wonderful lines like “All their lies about make-up and long hair, are still there”. In the case of song lyrics rather than poetry, sometimes not understanding the words comes from their performance rather than just their obtuseness. The song also begins with an excerpt from taken an obscure 1962 kitchen-sink drama called The L-Shaped Room, a reference that would require some research to fully understand. But the skillfulness of Morrissey is quite apparent, as it is with the rest of The Smiths catalogue. “The Queen is Dead” evokes the forces at work in British society and criticizes them with gusto. One of the best songs of The Smiths, it seems a fitting end to this series on analyzing song lyrics.

And here is where we reach the end of this series, something over two years in the making. Hopefully people have found it insightful. Here’s to more beautiful lyrics that rend the soul!

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