Can Today’s Top 40 Lyrics Compete with Yesterday’s Poetry?

“Read some Byron, Shelley, and Keats
Recited it over a hip hop beat
I’m having trouble saying what I mean
With dead poets and a drum machine.”
~ Natasha Bedingfield

I admit that this is a biased exercise. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for poets – be they The Bard or one of many goateed high school misanthropes. Unfortunately, pop culture doesn’t seem to esteem them as much as I do. For the forty years after the Beat Generation, we’ve turned to singer-songwriters to provide the soundtracks to our lives. The lead singer of Coldplay? Gwyenth’s hubby Chris Martin. The US Poet Laureate? Anyone?

So, do our current chroniclers hold a candle to poets of the past? Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias or Byron’s narrative Don Juan are clever and complex masterpieces. Yet even Keats, whose odes are considered the most perfect poetry in our language, often sounds like Weezer. His Ode to a Grecian Urn captures teen melodrama and immortality like Alphaville did for our proms.

“More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breAll All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.”

It’s really not that far from The Click FiveâÂ?¦

” She’s cold and she’s cruel
But she knows what she’s doin’
She pushed me in the pool
At our last school reunion
She laughs at my dreams
But I dream about her laughter
Strange as it seems
She’s the one I’m after”

If we parse a very unofficial list of last year’s most memorable songs, Keats clobbers Gwen Stefani’s B-A-N-A-N-A-S. And though it may be catchy, it’s hard to see literary merit in “Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?” which Cee-Lo and Busta Rhymes penned for the Pussycat Dolls. Brandon Flowers (lead singer of The Killers) and Fall Out Boy, however, may give our venerated poets a run for their money when it comes to imagery, metaphor, and original rhymes.

What makes pop and poetry both pertinent is the ability to comment on current culture. The Killers’ refrain “I got soul, but I’m not a soldier” spoke to 2005. When they sing, “I wanna shine on in the hearts of men/I want a meaning from the back of my broken hand/Another head aches, another heart breaks/I am so much older than I can takeâÂ?¦” it speaks to universal angst. As does Fall Out Boy’s Sugar, We’re Going Down:

“We’re going down, down in an earlier round
And Sugar, we’re going down swinging
I’ll be your number one with a bullet
A loaded God complex, cock it and pull it

Am I more than you bargained for yet
I’ve been dying to tell you anything you want to hear
Cause that’s just who I am this week
Lie in the grass, next to the mausoleum
I’m just a notch in your bedpost
But you’re just a line in a song”

The truth is that when we’re singing at the top of our lungs in the car, shower, or ex-girlfriend’s lawn, we don’t want deep rivers of meaning. We want anthems that plainly speak of yearned for love and heartache. We want continuous mantras of hurt and regret. When we offer John Cusack-style boom box serenades, it isn’t necessary to offer complicated rhyme schemes and metaphor. James Blunt’s simplicity works. When he sees the girl of his dreams with another man in the subway, “My life is brilliant/My love is pure” is all we need to hear of You’re Beautiful.

Modern lyrics have a definite advantage when it comes to emotional resonance. The words are packaged with plaintive music and cinematic videos to present a total package. We can’t help summoning the image of Eric Roberts in Mr. Brightside, or the melody of Fergie’s “no, no, no, no” in Don’t Lie. It’s hard to compare a line of “no’s” to a line of Byron, but the Black Eyed Peas’ “no’s” and “in my book of lies I was the editor” are what we echo to the car stereo.

Even Kelly Clarkson can refuel your confidence.

“Since you’ve been gone
I can breathe for the first time
I’m so movin’ on
Yeah, yeah
Thanks to you
Now I get
I get what I want”

If lyrics like “How can I put it? you put me on/I even fell for that stupid love song” make you throw furniture around ex’s place, wellâÂ?¦ the former American Idol is as powerful as poetry. Pop and poems that stand time are those which seem to be specifically about your situation, but that situation is one almost everyone else has had, too.

So, what’s on the ipod that satisfies the top 40 and a love of verse? Missy Elliott.

“I’ve got a cute face
Chubby waist
Thick legs in shape
Rump shakin both wayz
Make u do a double take
Plan rocka show stopa”

The creative grammar and slant rhyme would make Jack Kerouac proud.
Plus, you can dance to it.

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