WordsDay: the hegemony of poetry and lyrics

Reach out and touch me now
Aphrodite said
You aren’t the only one
with armies in your head

We’re fond of calling our great rock stars poets. Dylan is a poet. Springsteen is a poet. John Lennon was a poet. Jim Morrison (*gag*) was a poet. And so on. Certainly the first three (have) produced some marvelous words, but as a poet – forgive me if I call myself a “real” poet here – I’ve never quite been willing to accord their work the status of poetry. This isn’t necessarily a slam – their work isn’t architecture, either.

Of all the great songwriters I’ve encountered, precious few wrote songs that work as poetry – that is, they work as words on their own. Most great rock poetry sounds pretty silly once you take away the music. Mark Knopfler had a couple moments early on, and Fish is probably the best at crafting lyrics that stand in their own right.

None of this means that what your favorite rock poet is doing isn’t wonderful. It’s just something else, and needs to be evaluated on its own terms.

So why I am I carping on this subject? In a recent TunesDay I offered a strong recommendation for the new Fiction 8 CD, Project Phoenix. In that piece I noted that my favorite track was cut 10, “Hegemony,” and I promised to explain why I’m so partial to it in an upcoming WordsDay. This is that WordsDay, and the reason I like “Hegemony” is because I co-wrote it. Specifically, I did the lyrics (frequent S&R commenter Mike Smith, aka fikshun, wrote the music). Hey, I never promised you that my reason would be noble.

The reason I’m writing about “Hegemony” is because it exists in two different forms. It’s a song lyric, and it’s also a poem although these are two different versions. The poem simply would not have worked as a lyric, and the lyric can’t stand on its own as poetry. This isn’t the only time where I’ve had a poem become a lyric or vice versa, either, and the release of this CD has had me thinking on the relationship between the two versions and how the very different demands of poetry and songcraft can lead us from a common starting point to a very different destination.

I thought, then, that I’d take this opportunity to do something that writers are best off avoiding. I’d like to analyze my own work – not for the sake of the work itself, but to illustrate something I think is instructive about the difference between lyrics and poetry.

So first, here are the lyrics to the song version, and you can listen along if you like. In fact, that’s probably the best way to do it, because lyrics are inherently bounded and contextualized by the music.

Part 1: Examining “Hegemony,” the Song Lyric

Hegemony

v1
Tattoo of stars
skull underneath
he’s got his scarecrow on
and diamonds in his teeth

He’s partisan
scene of the seen
he packs a pocketful
of rocket trampoline

Reach out and touch me now
I’m feeling your abuse
I smell him on your breath
Mr. Black Sky’s in the house

CHORUS 1
One tribe, one throb, one voice
a frequency of rust,
there’s only dust

v2
Quickly she said
embrace your rage
Apollo’s coming home
Must disengage

Cell of our selves
insurgency
We’ve got our blue lights on
but the red lights disagree

There’s music in the moon
and rhythm in the suns
Our cult of curvature
our digital beyond

CHORUS 2
One tribe, one throb, one voice
a frequency of mud,
there’s always blood

v3
You like to preach
about destiny
Say love is doom and fate
and sacred syzygy

I’ve heard enough
of your poetry
about kings and queens and knights
and social theory

Reach out and touch me now
Aphrodite said
You aren’t the only one
with armies in your head

CHORUS 3
One tribe, one throb, one voice
the frequency of free,
hegemony

Hegemony….

I know that all the good critics since the onset of the Modern era tell us that things means whatever the audience think they mean, and that’s certainly going to be the case here. The imagery is bound to conjure all kinds of interpretations, especially in conjunction with the music, which I think communicates pretty strongly in and of itself. For the sake of argument, though, let’s be old school and pretend that the author had some thoughts of his own as he was developing these words. What I meant to say doesn’t dismiss the validity of what you hear any more than your interpretations dismiss my artistic impulses. Think of it not as an either/or, but as a both/and.

This said, here’s a brief blow-by-blow of what was intended by these lyrics. This matters, because what I say and how I say it will change when we get to the poem version in section two.

Tattoo of stars
skull underneath
he’s got his scarecrow on
and diamonds in his teeth

He’s partisan
scene of the seen
he packs a pocketful
of rocket trampoline

With luck, the listener recognizes a stylized description of Baron Samedi, the Voudoun Loa of Graveyards who, in addition to death, also signifies sex. I don’t quote Wikipedia often, but this isn’t bad:

Baron Samedi stands at the crossroads, where the souls of dead humans pass on their way to Guinee. As well as being the all-knowing loa of death, he is a sexual loa, frequently represented by phallic symbols and noted for disruption, obscenity, debauchery, and having a particular fondness for tobacco and rum. Additionally, he is the loa of sex and resurrection, and in the latter capacity he is often called upon for healing by those near or approaching death, as it is only Baron who can accept an individual into the realm of the dead. He is considered a wise judge, and a powerful magician.

So in him is intertwined both death and the generative force – a powerful contradiction bound up in one handy party-’til-we-die kind of signifier, huh? Of course, the sex here is not bounded by love, but by club life – the “scene of the seen” – and if you perceive the “rocket in his pocket/trampoline” image as being on the degenerate and juvenile side, then give yourself a bonus point.

I wanted to establish the bacchanalia in the song early on, because what I’m trying to do is depict a condition – those who know me won’t be the least bit surprised to hear that I’m writing about Gen X here – and all the ways we try and make our peace with it. So in Samedi destruction looms, but he also embodies some of the things we use to attempt our escape. Since “my generation” is a construct, there’s an inherent element of mythologizing in the story I’m going to tell. I acknowledge this and use it as best I can by building much of the “narrative” around supernatural and mythological characters throughout.

Reach out and touch me now
I’m feeling your abuse
I smell him on your breath
Mr. Black Sky’s in the house

Here there’s a voice change, and the new speaker is consumed by angst and hopelessness. At best he takes twisted pleasure in betrayal by his lover, and at worst he takes the cuckolding because he really doesn’t see much choice. Mr. Black Sky is Samedi.

One tribe, one throb, one voice
a frequency of rust,
there’s only dust

Here’s though, the chorus (or The Chorus, if you prefer) chimes in with the first of three possible outcomes. Line one asserts the myth of the collective experience, and the fate of the collective is entropy – rusting away to dust.

Verse two begins with another sexual vignette.

Quickly she said
embrace your rage
Apollo’s coming home
Must disengage

Again, it’s a scene of infidelity, and again, the context is explicitly mythical.

Cell of our selves
insurgency

Very briefly, these lines note the insularity of the culture and its battle footing with respect to the world at large. The use of “cell” connotes the structures by which terrorist networks organize themselves, and I imagine “insurgency” doesn’t need a lot of explanation. In the next lines we have an expression of the artificial red vs. blue political divide that divides us against ourselves. As bad as this internecine warfare is for the culture as a whole, it’s hellishly bad for a small generation that has little sense of itself as a whole to start with.

We’ve got our blue lights on
but the red lights disagree

In the next four lines we get another snapshot of the escapist impulse.

There’s music in the moon
and rhythm in the suns
Our cult of curvature
our digital beyond

The first two lines are drug references: ecstasy pills come in a lot of designs, including sun and moon. Overlay this with the mystical symbolism sun and moon can represent and you have sort of a deification of pharmacalogical withdrawal from reality. (Yes, this one is pretty obscure, and no, I didn’t expect most people to get the reference. I’m impressed if you did, though.)

The next two lines come from something Mike got from a poem I write a few years ago. I had a reference to “digital belles,” which he interpreted in audio technological terms – the curvature of sounds in their digital representations. So curvature, in this sense, fuses music with the surrounding club culture, and in the process hopefully intimates something about the soft, malleable edges of the compartments in which some of us segregate our lives.

One tribe, one throb, one voice
a frequency of mud,
there’s always blood

In the second iteration of the chorus, the images of decay are replaced by mud and blood. Blood, on the one hand, is life, although it here emerges from mud – which signifies a lack of clarity, an amalgamation of elements. This can be read a couple of ways, of course – the intermixture of elements can be a source of tremendous energy and vitality. In any case, the dryness of rust and dust has been infused with moisture, and in that sense we’re moving in the direction of life, not death.

Verse three stages the confrontation that’s been building since the beginning. The voice from the “Mr. Black Sky” and sun/moon sequences above is back, and this time he’s fed up with all of his lover’s strategies for rationalizing the collective condition.

You like to preach
about destiny
Say love is doom and fate
and sacred syzygyI’ve heard enough
of your poetry
about kings and queens and knights
and social theory

Religion (preach/sacred), superstition (destiny/doom/fate), metaphysics (syzygy), art (poetry), mythology (kings/queens/knights), and of course, intellectualism (social theory), are all implicated and rejected. She has dabbled with each (meaning he’s been in close proximity to the systemic denial behind it all) and he desperately wants an honest showdown with the possibilities that actually exist for him in life.

At this point the female voice from the illicit tryst above reappears, and we now realize that it’s Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, who’s cheating on Apollo (appropriately enough, the god of music and poetry).

Reach out and touch me now
Aphrodite said
You aren’t the only one
with armies in your head

Aphrodite seems to have stepped well beyond her domain – physical perfection – and into the realm of wisdom, as she consoles her backdoor consort with the knowledge that he isn’t alone. Whatever the rules may be, she intimates, there’s comfort in human contact – especially contact with the divinity inherent in love.

The final appearance of the Chorus sets the stage for the resolution – is there really redemption or only betrayal?

One tribe, one throb, one voice
the frequency of free,
hegemonyHegemony….

For those who don’t know the word “hegemony,” it has a couple of relevant meanings for this song. The common definition, from Merriam-Webster:

1 : preponderant influence or authority over others : domination
2 : the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group

It’s use in Marxist social theory is more useful, though. Rather than focusing on the condition of pure domination, Gramsci employs it to describe the process by which the subjugated come to accept and legitimize their own subjugation.

Gramsci used the term hegemony to denote the predominance of one social class over others (e.g. bourgeois hegemony). This represents not only political and economic control, but also the ability of the dominant class to project its own way of seeing the world so that those who are subordinated by it accept it as ‘common sense’ and ‘natural’. Commentators stress that this involves willing and active consent. Common sense, suggests Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, is ‘the way a subordinate class lives its subordination’ (cited in Alvarado & Boyd-Barrett 1992: 51).

In the end, then, the tribe/throb/voice tunes into the frequency of “free,” a freedom that we hopefully, by this point, can see for the sham it is. Instead of actual freedom, it’s an imitation freedom-like product that’s the ideological equivalent of Cheez-Whiz. We’ve come to an understanding whereby we all decide to agree that we’re free, despite manifest evidence to the contrary. We do so because the alternative is more than we could bear.

In this collective social, economic and political reality – and yes, I know that “reality” is a construct here – this group of people turns inward and seeks validation through personal intimacy (or the fleeting approximation thereof), drugs, trance, and in the worst cases, self-indulgent angst and alienation.

If you’re thinking that the guy who write the lyrics imagines a lot more going on in “Hegemony” than you did, that’s fine. The form of the song, especially one as symmetrically composed as this one, I believe leads us to assume a certain boundedness – how much deep meaning can you really cram into 4:51, after all? The form of the poem, on the other hand, suggests more open-endedness (especially if it’s free verse than avoids visual formality on the page).

Check back for part two, where I’ll walk through the poem version of “Hegemony” and illustrate some of the ways in which the process of writing a poem differs from the craft of lyric writing. With luck, we’ll all come away with a better understanding of the two genres.

The painting at the head of the page is “Temenos #8: The Poet,” by Gregory Eanes.

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14 thoughts on “WordsDay: the hegemony of poetry and lyrics”

  1. I remember hearing an interview with Paul Simon about the poetry of his lyrics, and he said he wasn’t a poet, but rather a songwriter. Simon though the difference was that a poet was free to choose the exact words and never bend them, while a songwriter needed to bend or break the poetry to make it work as a song.

  2. Simon though the difference was that a poet was free to choose the exact words and never bend them, while a songwriter needed to bend or break the poetry to make it work as a song.

    Take THAT, Homer!

  3. I thought Peter Gabriel’s version of Anne Sexton’s Mercy St worked out well. But there are HUGE differences between song and poem. Ditto with Loreena McKinnet’s version of Yeat’s Two Trees.

  4. ah cool. now i know what that song means. 😉

    Songs are marriages of two different media. Like with any other relationship, the quality of the individuals (music, rhythm, and lyric) and the quality of their union go a long way to determining one’s reaction to the finished song.

    You and I have collaborated on a couple of songs now; doing so in different ways each time out. With this one, you wrote your lyrics to accompany the music after it was fleshed out. With “Winter Rain”, you wrote to a song that I had not heard and I then wrote music around the lyrics, uncolored by what had inspired your meter. In both songs, the poetry became lyric out of a slavery to rhythm and structure, though I think the lyrics in “Winter Rain” stayed truer to the initial poetry because you sought out a song that fit better with the tone of what you were feeling and I then had to lock onto some quality of your meter. Likewise, the music in “Winter Rain” was nothing that I would normally write since it needed to play off of words and a feeling that weren’t mine.

    Although exceptions are surely out there, my personal feeling is that good poetry, unaltered, invariably makes bad song. Melody, rhythm, and word need to play off each other in a balance, the same way that musicians take turns soloing in a freeform piece. None of the three can storm along, ignorant of the other, without ruining the final product.

    Thank you for posting this. I’ve learned a bit about the nature and nurture of collaboration in reading it. It seems to be the lesson I’m supposed to learn right now. There’s a temporal aspect that I’d previously ignored. Songs have to live in the moment, too.

  5. Oh, Michael. That’s my favorite Peter Gabriel song – probably because it’s such a good, respectful but personal adaptation of the poem, which is also one of my favorites…

  6. Sure Lennon, Dylan, and Springsteen are great.
    But Id like to think why you think Jim Morrison is not a poet.
    His work is so insightful and deep.
    He is THE Great American Poet.
    You dont know what your talking about.
    Jim Morrison is a legend.

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