Music and Lyrics: From Julie Andrews to Paul Muldoon with a brief detour in Nashville



Sadly this was not a productive combination of a few of my favorite things

I am ostentatious about the fact that my taste in music comprises almost entirely of “guilty pleasures”. From the little blonde girl singing “Do Re Mi” while flying through the air on her swing set to the graduate student adopting feminist work ethic anthems from Legally Blonde the Musical, I have always been a musical theater enthusiast. Driving to and from my weekend classes in singing, dancing and drama, my dad and I used to listen to the country star Deana Carter, smiling at each other cheekily when the line “she’s Daddy’s little girl” came up. One of the joys of now living in the US is the plethora of country music stations I can blast while cruising around in my (gasp!) Oxford blue Toyota. Perhaps what most obviously links these two genres of music is their narrative content: as a scholar and friend of mine remarked of country songs, they are “sadly lacking in lyric temporality”. Country songs and musical theater tracks tell stories. In the latter case, that indeed appears to be their primary function. If this is true, though, how I can possibly reconcile my musical loves with my literary tastes? I’m a formalist: I’m all about style over substance and plot points do not make great art in my estimation.

But—dear patient readers—think of your favorite musical (you must have one!). My friend’s nieces have regaled me with their version of Frozen enough times for me to assert that the genre is alive and well. While many songs have narrative purpose (Idina Menzel does many a version of the “screw you, I rock” anthem foretelling a central character asserting her destiny), they are hardly the most efficient way of relating a plot point. What I love about those great songs is their excess, their lack of necessity, which is exactly what I adore about great literature too, particularly poetry, in which all joy would be lost in a practical paraphrase. Country music—with its love of wordplay and refrains—similarly revels in what it is to articulate emotion. The insufficiency of language and music merely encourages rather than impedes the desire to communicate to other humans through such joyously imperfect tools.

What led me to this deeper understanding of my own tastes was attending a reading by Paul Muldoon, who was the Wallace Stevens Poet this year at UConn. (He was introduced by my Orphic companion, Miller Oberman, who won the accompanying prize and is an exceptional poet-scholar.) Part of his oeuvre that I was less familiar with was his book of “rock lyrics”, The Word on the Street, which I eagerly purchased a copy of when I was at the Strand Bookstore recently. The two lyrics he read so perfectly that night both playfully captured the idiosyncrasies of language, reveling in the gap between denotative and metaphorical meanings. For example, the last verse of “Cleaning Up My Act” begins and ends:

There are no gentlemen

In a gentlemen’s club

No room for nuclear families

In a nuclear sub

I’m hoping to be filthy rich

That’s why I’m cleaning up my act

As I learnt in a recent trivia game, the phenomenon of contranyms (for example, “dust” as a verb denotes the action of removing what it denotes as a noun) is more frequent than we might imagine and Muldoon makes full use of the linguistic principle. The multiplicity and generative potential of language, ironically its lack of precision, is what makes its communicative potential so powerful in another lyric, “It Won’t Ring True”. Here Muldoon not merely exposes such properties of idiomatic language but utilizes them through the type of twist I most adore in country music (perhaps most well known is the turn in Taylor Swift’s “White Horse” from the romantic hero being unable to save to being unable to catch the young woman). Muldoon’s verses all end with the refrain “But if a … isn’t hollow / You know it won’t ring true.” Promises, excuses, victories: all these ring hollow in the cruelest fashion. But a guitar’s hollowness makes the sweetest music.

I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s heartbreaking depiction of loss in “One Art” or Christina Rossetti’s bereft fury in “Noble Sisters” and it is their pairing of a reiterative structure, rhyme and refrain, with the deceptive agility of language that makes both of these poems great. No wonder Muldoon—and indeed many other poets such as Alan Shapiro—have turned to musical lyrics in conceiving of their own poetic output. How can I be ashamed of being as swift to sing “Don’t Rain On My Parade” on my valiant days as to murmur “The second-hardest thing I have to do is not be longing’s slave” on my most vulnerable?


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