Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1788
Perhaps the most convincing way to demonstrate that the best of rock lyrics are effective poetry is to show how skillfully certain techniques are used to develop themes which these techniques are organically suited to treat. The relatively more objective poems employ drama, irony, implication, and ambiguity to treat the theme of daily restriction, whereas the more subjective songs present their worlds solipsistically and surrealistically to develop the themes of non-conformity and independent thinking. Both types often rely on setting to reveal states of mind.
To illustrate these trends in popular music, I have chosen the hybrid genre of folk-rock as performed by Paul Simon because the lyrics found in this idiom often provide the best examples of those songs that dramatize objectively their theme, that of restriction and failure. Let us begin, then, with songs that view the world more from the outside than within a mind and that use the more traditional poetic devices of drama, irony, ambiguity, and implication; then let us move from these to songs that describe worlds which individual minds form solipsistically and surrealistically. An example of a dramatic song is Paul Simon's "America" which portrays by means of a monologue and through a short conversation the failure of communication between the speaker and his girl and between the speaker and his country, or what that country stands for—the American Dream.
The poem begins casually and mockingly, the speaker poking fun at his fortune which consists probably of some clothes in his bag, some cigarettes, and some pies…. Paul Simon even uses the setting, as an objective correlative, with the moon alone in a wide open sky over a flat plain in the wasteland of New Jersey to reveal that the emptiness of the land is matched by the speaker's emptiness. New Jersey, the so-called "Garden State," represents the commercialization of the American country-side, where oil refineries have replaced farms. It is the perfect symbol for the failure of the American Dream, which once represented the freedom for self-fulfillment but has come to mean the license for exploitation. One suddenly realizes that the imagery of finance—"fortunes" and "real estate"—together with the seemingly off-handed remark—"Michigan … seems like a dream to me now"—the imagery and the remark about the dream link the failure of the friends' communication with the larger failure of any American, played by the speaker, to achieve the promise of his nation…. The refrain—"They've all come to look for America" with its sad musical tone—takes on an increment of meaning as it is repeated: he is just as desolate in his search as the others. Thus, through actions and words the poem dramatizes very simply, but also very subtly, the loneliness of a boy and a girl and thereby the dilemma of all Americans cut off from each other and therefore from one source of self-development—that of sharing with others…. The dramatic technique manages to imply a good bit about the theme of restriction.
The dramatic opposition of two voices is a familiar device in rock. Paul Simon uses it in "Seven O'Clock News/Silent Night" and in "Scarborough Fair/Canticle."… Thematically and dramatically the two poems are related. If the two poems do belong together, one reason is that the speaker of "Scarborough Fair" is the soldier described in "Canticle." This conclusion is based on an interpretation both of the drama of these ballads and of their themes. One of the appeals of the good ballad is that much remains unstated, and the listener has the pleasure of supplying missing information to help the bard compose his piece. An examination of what is...
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implied by the dramatic juxtaposition of the two songs by Paul Simon, "Scarborough Fair/Canticle," uncovers their meaning.
The chrous of "Scarborough Fair" tells us that a girl had once been the speaker's "true love" and thus implies that she is no more. The body of the poem then presents her with various impossible tasks to accomplish in the medieval tradition of the ordeal. Its refrain states that the completion of these tasks will once more make the girl a true love of the speaker, but the implication is that because of the impossible nature of the ordeals—finding land between the sea and the beach, for instance—she will never become his true love. Why not? The ambiguous answer lies in "Canticle" which, in my opinion, describes the speaker of "Scarborough Fair."… By juxtaposing the child with the soldier, by associating them both with sleep and the hillside, and by implying the traditional metaphor of sleep for death, the poems suggest that the person described in "Canticle," the speaker of "Scarborough Fair," is, if not physically dead, at least spiritually dead…. One conclusion might be that because the soldier is sick with lost love, he cannot act. Another is that because he is engaged in a senseless war whose cause has been forgotten, he cannot return to his former love. Both conclusions imply that love and war are incompatible…. The dramatic juxtaposition of "Scarborough Fair/Canticle" might even suggest a third and quite different interpretation: just as girls cannot be forced to love by impossible tasks, so boys cannot be forced to fight for forgotten causes. The dramatic method allows multiple meanings, none of which really contradicts the others; they all deal with the failures of love and war, another variation on the theme of restriction.
Let us now consider another group of songs which like most good lyric poetry also communicate indirectly but less by drama and irony and more, rather, by implication and ambiguity. Most of them still deal with the theme of restriction in various forms.
A humorous song, on the surface at least, is Paul Simon's "At the Zoo," whose casualness and bouncy rhythm might throw one off the scent. The key to the poem's deeper meaning is at the center: "Something tells me it's all happening at the zoo." What is happening? Animals, the remainder of the song tells us, masquerade as humans or stand for different human characteristics like honesty, insincerity, and stupidity. The effect is that the humor and satire are not directed at the animals, who after all are not supposed to possess these human characteristics, but it is directed at the humans, who are supposed to have them. To give to animals human traits is to degrade humans…. It is significant that the list of animals begins with monkeys who most closely resemble men. We are thus put on the trail for Simon's method and meaning; men like animals long before them have been assuming false identities for centuries, fooling others and themselves. The same history of dishonesty, insincerity, etc., repeats itself in our "civilized" age when we take "fancy rambles" to look at the animals in the cages—that is, at ourselves. By putting the human mask on the animals, Simon has made humans see themselves for what they really are. The mirror is a more effective teacher than bare statement especially when the subtleties of implication at first becloud the mirror and then suddenly leave it clear to reveal the spectator laughing at himself.
Likewise, Paul Simon's "Mrs. Robinson" is a poem which obscures at first its unpleasant portrait of a restricted life only to make its point more striking as the picture comes into focus…. [The song suggests] that Mrs. Robinson is psychologically maladjusted, perhaps paranoid. But the horrible truth that we slowly realize is that she is probably just as well a typical suburban housewife. Her life represents the wasteland of America's affluent society…. Because she must feel the irrelevance of it all, she needs reassurance, and the song gives it mockingly to her, parodying the child's prayer—"Jesus loves me that I know, for the Bible tells me so"—with the refrain—"Jesus loves you more than you will know / (Wo wo wo) / God bless you please, Mrs. Robinson, / Heaven holds a place for those who pray / (Hey hey hey)." But Mrs. Robinson's god is Joe DiMaggio, to whom the whole nation "turns its lonely eyes." Unfortunately even this baseball hero, whose legends have assumed proportions of religious myth for this decadent society, has deserted it. No wonder Mrs. Robinson, and others like her, are lonely, insecure, loveless members of a latter-day wasteland, whose god has "gone away / (Hey hey hey)." By the end of the song the echo of this laugh rings menacingly in our frightened minds, for the poem implies that all our lives could become like Mrs. Robinson's.
Paul Simon's "A Hazy Shade of Winter," one of his more subjective poems, goes deep into the psyche to investigate imaginative independence as a solution to the restrictions imposed on the individual by society. Its world is seen subjectively—solipsistically and even surrealistically. It advises to "live your life behind your eyes, / Your own skies, your own tomorrow."… The failure to live by such a solipsistic vision is dramatized by "A Hazy Shade of Winter." As in "America" and "I Am a Rock," Paul Simon uses the landscape to reveal inner states of mind, but in "A Hazy Shade of Winter" we see the landscape change as his mind, following his mood, alters it. In "America" and "I Am a Rock," the landscape is objectively real and is stable; in "Hazy Shade" it is a projection of the narrator's mind and changes according to what happens there…. In the tradition of Buddhism … and American Transcendentalism, the song shows how the self can control its own environment. But this narrator is not schooled enough in this philosophy, and, depending on someone else to remember him, the narrator forgets his self-reliance, he confronts his writing failures, he drinks, and he sees the springtime of hope fade into his winter of despair. He is controlled by the outside world and its insistent tolling of "Time, / Time, / Time," which dominates the opening mood of the poem.
Although most rock songs have been admired for their music, many of them have lyrics with remarkable poetic qualities. Their form is generally loose, often to accommodate the music. Nevertheless, their drama, irony, ambiguity, and symbolism put them in the tradition of "serious" poetry, and they have something interesting and important to say about the restrictions of modern life and the ways of gaining freedom from these restrictions…. Time and time again in these songs one finds beneath a disarmingly simple and entertaining surface a studied art and considered thought organically unified to create something worthy of the name of "new poetry." (pp. 169-75)
Harold F. Mosher, Jr., "The Lyrics of American Pop Music: A New Poetry," in Popular Music & Society (copyright © 1972 by R. Serge Denisoff), Vol. 1, No. 3, 1972, pp. 167-76.