I've always felt that the whole "Are songs poetry?" question was a bit tedious. So obviously I have taken this space to rehash it all over again.
But really, despite some valiant attempt to present song lyrics as poems, they tend not to stand up very well. I once owned a volume of Lou Reed lyrics collected as poems, in the pretentious sort of way that only Lou Reed could manage, and it was almost enough to ruin those perfect little songs for me. Of course, there are the Leonard Cohens of the world who seem to write poems and set them to music, but what makes a song great, I would argue, has nothing to do with what makes a poem great.
The poem is its own engine; the words make it go. A great poem provides its own accompaniment. But a song exists almost independent of its lyric. Some of the greatest songs in the world are built around the most inane lyrics imaginable.
No, I would align song more with drama than poetry (while pointing out that poetry and drama are descendants of song, not the other way around).
The Stones seem to me a pretty great example of this fact. Lyrically, few would be tempted to call them poetic. Stones' lyrics often read like Burroughs-esque cut-ups of old country blues songs and Henry Miller's long lost memoir. Even a song as lyrically interesting as "Sympathy for the Devil" is hardly a Browning monologue, and so much depends on the way Mick spits out those words, "After all, it was you and me."
But let me focus. Please.
Let's look at "Let it Loose," from the Stones' masterpiece, Exile on Main Street. Lyrically, the song is a pretty bluesy direct address to either a former lover or the next in line; it's not particualrly clear. Between these addresses are some clever turns of phrase such as "Hide the switch and shut the light," that add a certain amount of charm if not meaning to the whole affair. But before we get too far into this close reading, an admission:
Until I looked up the lyrics today, I had no idea what most of them were.
Mick has never felt much need to enunciate (though, today, Sir Mick seems to be speaking a bit more properly, alas), and almost the whole of the song can be sung in a kind of drunken hound-dog moan. Believe me. It's true.
What lyrics do shine through the jumble are worth noting though. First is the refrain: "Let it loose. Let it all come down." I'd say that pretty well defines the song (and perhaps the record, and perhaps the decade), and as it is repeated in the latter part of the song, even these lyrics seem to decompose into a kind of stacatto chant of "Letta Loo," with the latter bit being taken up by the backup singers. That just makes me giddy.
The other bit is one of my favorite moments in recorded music (though I say that about a LOT of moments): When Mick cries out, "I ain't in love! I ain't in love!" it strikes me as so poignant and desperate and sad. There's a whole drama compressed into that brief repetition.
Add to this Dr. John's keys and some guitars with so much chorus on them that they sound like some new instrument altogether, and you get a perfect blend of hazy, underwater soul.
The point, I guess, is that just like reading to babies, talking to your dog, or selling useless products, it's not so much what you say, but how you say it. But the thing is, I love that fact. I love that a great song comes from and aims somewhere outside the intellect.
To illustrate the true, visceral beauty of this fact is Mr. James Brown repeating a handful of simple phrases to a crowd whipped into a frenzy, and every reptition grabs me someplace low in my belly and just pulls.
Comment below if you have any favorite songs with simple/ridiculous/incomprehensible lyrics.
Another to get you started: