When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in literature last October, it produced a bonanza of debate over questions that had long dominated late-night dorm-room and barstool conversations. Is pop music poetry? Are pop songs poems? For some of us, the controversy harkened back to what was once a staple of the American classroom, the with-it prof who proved his subversive bona fides by treating rock lyrics — “Mister Tambourine Man” was a favorite subject, if my memories of my undergraduate days are correct — as legitimate objects of critical analysis. The result was usually just embarrassing, for everyone concerned.
Adam Bradley is not that guy, not least because he dismissed the whole Nobel contretemps as “bombastic polemics.” An English professor at the University of Colorado and the founding director of the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture, Bradley is a newer breed of pop intellectual who combines erudite analysis and street-level cool in an invigorating new book called “The Poetry of Pop.”
Bradley’s answer to the dorm-room question is nuanced but unequivocal, and boils down to this: Pop lyrics are not by themselves poetry, but pop songs can be. He does not fall into the trap of treating pop lyrics as technically equal to the heights scaled by great poetry; he understands that “song lyrics need music, voice, and performance to give them life.” He denies the need for “creating a canon of pop lyrics, so that Steven Tyler can sit with Shakespeare,” instead proposing a superb formulation: “Pop,” he writes, “is a poetry whose success lies in getting you to forget that it is poetry at all.”
In the exercise of this principle, Bradley deploys a formidable set of skills. He has an acute ear, dazzling command of seemingly the entire history of pop and a pleasingly wide range of taste, drawing on examples from Gershwin to Guns ’n’ Roses to make his points. His prose has precision and clarity when discussing even the most recondite of literary terms. As with all good teachers, his passion for his subject animates his writing and makes his enthusiasm nearly communicable.
Bradley is what some people would call a “popist,” that is, a critic who sees aesthetic value in commercial pop genres and has an essentially egalitarian ethic — as opposed to a “rockist,” or an old-school (usually white) (usually male) critic prone to hierarchical value judgements. He is, in addition, an unabashed formalist — he studied under the great modernist critic Helen Vendler — who relies on traditional techniques of close reading (an early chapter in “The Poetry of Pop” has an almost comically solemn passage on the importance of accurate transcription). Bradley is thus something genuinely unique: a formalist popist and the founding member of a critical school numbering exactly one.
The intersection of these possibly perpendicular critical tendencies generates unusual dynamics in Bradley’s thinking, and their point of confluence is a source of both rigor and diffusion. As a popist, Bradley has an inclusive and catholic vision: He finds merit in all kinds of genres, and his invitation to the reader to participate in the critical project is warm and authentic. There is a bracingly hortatory undertow to many of his pronouncements, such as when he speaks of pop criticism as an opportunity “to appreciate one of the most widely disseminated lyric traditions in the world.” Under Bradley’s guidance, loving pop takes on a healthy democratic glow, a form of informed collective pleasure.
The problem, if there can be said to be one, comes when the free-floating openness of popism is yoked to that uncanny formalist dynamic that begins to slide into value-free deconstructionist relativism, with a resultant softening of critical rigor. To praise effectively, one must also condemn. Examining a Bryan Adams song, for example, Bradley notes that the lyric “it cuts like a knife / but it feels so right” creates a “dissonance” that “generates some lyric heat.” As someone with — to my cost — substantial knowledge of the Adams oeuvre, I am comfortable in saying that this is not a clever exercise in generating dissonance but rather a lazy, shoddy rhyme, perfectly typical of its creator, for whom no string of cliches was ever too shopworn or illogical.
Another brutal would-be metaphor is described as “more than serviceable”; elsewhere Bradley tempts us by saying that “it would probably be amusing to spend the remainder of the chapter listing forced rhymes in bad songs,” before resuming the mantle of careful neutrality. Finally, it’s in my union contract, as a pretentious former record critic, to have two minor crows to pluck. The first is Bradley’s act of appending the tiresome adjective “innovator” to the late Prince; the second is his contention that the remixed “Exile on Main Street” of 2010 is sonically equivalent to its fabled predecessor — fighting words, on my block.
When the news of Dylan’s Nobel broke, there were many who preemptively proclaimed themselves tired of the debate, which to them was both a manufactured controversy and essentially immaterial. I disagree; people have been thinking about song and lyric and poem since Plato, trying to understand what they mean, how they work; doing so is an essential process in making sense of our emotional lives. Bradley understands this, and his book at bottom is a celebration of the mysterious process by which “the dance of word and music makes songs act on our imagination and emotions just as the best poems do.”
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