Friday, October 21, 2011

What is a song?

It's time for an exercise in synchronicity, collage and reflection. All in the search of a response to a pretty contentious question: what is a song?
Yesterday afternoon, I was taking some personal time to stroll through my Google Reader account. I've got all sorts of stuff that I follow there, everyone from film critic MaryAnn Johanson to SkepChick to Maurissa Tancharoen Whedon and a bushel of online comics from xkcd to Order of the Stick. Long story short (too late!), I get a regular deluge of engaging and occasionally off-beat stuff.

To wit: on Songwriting Scene, there's a link to a 2000 Suzanne Vega interview with songwriter Jack Hardy. While Sharon Goldman, author of Songwriting Scene, wants to focus upon the false dichotomy of songs vs. poetry, the interview explores many more issues about contemporary, traditional and even ancient songwriting. I read Goldman's post, and shrugged a bit because I agree with Hardy that songs and poetry have more in common than they have differences.

But, with that article still fresh in my mind, I immediately went to Flick Filosopher and found the video below, called "Prisencolinensinainciusol" from a 1970's Italian TV show. It's a deliriously fun four-minute slice of disco-flavored big band beats and some really impressive set design and collective choreography:

But, the entire time I was watching it, I kept having this niggling feeling of both lack and doubt. Lack, because, despite the really engaging music and the fact that words are in English, the lyrics are utter gibberish. Doubt - that this was indeed a song. It reminded me of a polite disagreement I had with a fellow SongFighter, Kapitano, about his submission to the "Circle Me" fight back in July.

The lyrics' "language" is entirely made-up, though based upon real-world tongues. The first verse goes :
udu mbu adu (muza zimba)
uwa ungi iba (mudu ngu)
ngu ndu uzi (hawa yami)
wadinga wa ma (buwamu mbu)
I contend that neither of these compositions are songs. But that's easier to say than to argue convincingly, so let's start gathering some ideas.

Collage, part 1: What a song isn't
Wikipedia's "song" entry is pretty thin and seems to come down firmly on the fence. Besides, the more I thought about this idea, the more I wanted a more authoritative source of background information. When in doubt about the meaning of a word, the Oxford English Dictionary is my best tool. So, what is the OED definition of a song?
song1. The act or art of singing; the result or effect of this, vocal music; that which is sung (in general or collective sense); occas., poetry.2. a. A metrical composition adapted for singing, esp. one in rime and having a regular verse-form; occas., a poem.
So far, both "Prisencolinensinainciusol" and Kapitano's "Circle Me" still qualify as a song. They are sung and are metrical compositions adapted just for that purpose. They both have rhyme and verse form. However, this is where the Vega/Hardy interview comes into play along with the ending phrase of each OED entry. Hardy is adamant that "songwriting is poetry;" he points out that poetry was sung for millennia. The modern shift towards poetry as we know it (often free verse and/or concrete, intended as much to be read and seen on the page as to be recited) is very recent and has created a false division between two arts that are sympatico.

So, what is poetry? Back to the OED!
poetry II. (in existing use) 3. The art or work of the poet. a. With special reference to its form: Composition in verse or metrical language, or in some equivalent patterned arrangement of language; usually also with choice of elevated words and figurative uses, and option of a syntactical order, differing more or less from those of ordinary speech or prose writing. In this sense, poetry in its simplest or lowest form has been identified with versification or verse. [my emphasis].
I particular like the final entry in II.3, providing a clear and useful distinction between poetry and prose, which John William Mackail identifies as "the repeat":
1906 J. W. Mackail (Communicated), In general, the essence of poetry as an art is not so much that it is rhythmical (which all elevated language is), or that it is metrical (which not all poetry is, except by a considerable extension of the meaning of the word), as that it is patterned language. This is its specific quality as a 'fine art'. The essence of 'pattern' (in its technical use, as applied to the arts) as distinct from 'composition' generally, is that it is composition which has what is technically called a `repeat'; and it is the 'repeat' which technically differentiates poetry from non-poetry, both being (as arts) 'composition'. The 'repeat' may be obvious, as in the case of rhymed lines of equal length, or it may be more implicit, to any degree of subtlety; but if it does not exist, there is technically no poetry. The artistic power of the pattern-designer is shown in the way he deals with the problem of 'repeat'; and this is true of poetry likewise, and is probably the key (so far as one exists) to any technical definition or discussion of the art.
Still, if repetition is the key to poetry and poetry is a synonym for songwriting, this is doesn't solve my dilemma. "Prisencolinensinainciusol" and Kapitano's "Circle Me" both rely on repetition in many ways, including rhyme, assonance and consonance. But note that Mackail says "patterned language" and while he places an emphasis on "patterned," I'd like to take a closer look at "language."
2.a. In generalized sense: Words and the methods of combining them for the expression of thought.
Eureka! "For the expression of thought," this is precisely what these two compositions are lacking. They express emotion, but there's no message, no narrative, no meaning in their lyrics, merely the abstract use of vocals in the same way as any other instrument. In certain respects, the vocal melody could have been carried by a guitar, or a violin, or a Jew's Harp with the same effect. (Though I do admit, with respect to the precise tonality and timbre of the human voice, the choice of "instrument" does make a difference, sonically but not semiotically.)

Collage, part 2: What a song is
Reductive arguments are a rather poor way to craft a definition (and all definitions are arguments). If these two compositions are not songs because they don't use language, what is a song? I think Vega's and Hardy conversation holds some key points that ring true for me. In brief, songs - good songs, at least - are narrative and dialogic.

Jack Hardy states "I think that every song is potentially almost like a play." Even at their most abstract, songs tell stories, they delve deep into our Jungian subconscious and connect with some of the basic drives; they animate the most primal of archetypes. This is their power. Hardy elaborates:
JH: If you take the song as... Like when you're telling a child a bedtime story, they're not listening to you tell a story. They're in that story. They become the princess. Everything that's happening to the princess is happening to them. And to me, a song, when it's good, does that same thing, places the listener in the song. Because when you move the listener physically into the song, their emotions follow. 
This idea leads to the dialogic characteristic of songs and poetry, that is, their equally performative and interpersonal nature. Vega poses the question, "Do you ever think about how it will be perceived by your audience?" and Hardy eventually responds, "Oh yeah. I feel that a song is a two-way street." More importantly, "poetry or song should be accessible to a more general audience and shouldn't be exclusionary." Language is precisely what allows a song to be inclusive. This seems to be an essential point for Hardy, who has rather long diatribes in the interview against the increasingly egocentric and form-fascinating modern trends in both poetry and songwriting; so, language itself isn't sufficient. But it is necessary; Hardy continues his "princess" metaphor in this vein: 
Because when you move the listener physically into the song, their emotions follow. As long as they're still stuck in their cerebral self, you don't have their emotions; they're still thinking about it. They might think that this is a good song, but you're still in the ego level of "this is good/bad"; you don't really have their emotions.
If language is the point of entry, as I contend it is, then this is precisely what happens to me when I'm listening to songs with nonsense lyrics. I'm always thinking about it; I'm not feeling it. And this is somewhat ironic, because they're probably designed to be "feel-pieces," instead of "think-pieces," more akin to Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor ...
... than to, say, even something as lyrically abstract as DJ Ranger Den's tone poem "Shoot Through It."

But because they're offered as "songs" and not "compositions," there is a generic disconnect. I keep waiting for a story, for meaning, for thought. In fact, I'll even start trying to construct something even where's there's no there there.

Reflection: How does a song come to be?
I've whittled out a pretty solid definition here, I think. A song is a metrical composition adapted for singing, an artistic form similar to poetry and whose lyrical element contains language.

But we've come to the "so what?" part of our ruminations. In the definition above, a simple ditty like "Ring Around the Rosy" would qualify as a song while the musical engaging and even complex "Prisencolinensinainciusol" does not. Even if we set aside any issues that such a labeling might be qualitative and/or comparative, of what use is this definition?

Well, for me, at least, this definition helps to resolve that nagging feeling that I got listening to Kapitano's "Circle Me" and the "Prisencolinensinainciusol." Maybe, for you, it might serve some other purpose. Good try it out, and let me know what shakes loose.

1 comment:

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