But Is It Art? Michael Dunaway Essay

person_pin But Is It Art?

by Michael Dunaway

Published in Issue No. 27 ~ August, 1999

He doesn’t dig poetry. He’s so unhip that
When you say Dylan, he thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas,
Whoever he was.
The man ain’t got no culture,
But it’s alright, ma,
Everybody must get stoned.
– Simon and Garfunkel, “A Simple Desultory Philippic”

I recently saw an interview with Paul Simon in which the interviewer asked him about the staying power of pop lyrics as poetry. Since he is one of the genre’s greatest wordsmiths, I assumed Simon would give his assurances that the best written songs can stand on their own as poetry, but instead he launched into an all too familiar argument, that the lyrics were only half of the song, that they were indistinguishable from the musical environment that surrounded them, etc. I was more than a little surprised, and dismayed that I’m now put in the position of refuting one of my artistic role models.

But he’s wrong. Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello will be included in the twenty-second century anthologies of this generation’s best poetry. Simon himself will be, too. Their work is art, and it’s poetry.

You know, art is a funny thing. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, one man’s Philip Glass is another man’s clanging cymbal, and one man’s bold new post-structuralist statement is another man’s chicken scratch on a canvas. So any discussion of artistic boundaries and definitions is bound to be fraught with wildly clashing perspectives and assumptions. Rather than attempt the Herculean and probably impossible task of reconciling that cacophony of voices, I’d like to first posit a schematic of my own, an environment in which to frame a discussion of the merits of pop music lyrics.

During my undergraduate years I was in the midst of wrestling with the “what is art?” question (ah, for the days of esoteric abandon) when I attended a workshop at a L’Abri conference, a workshop that addressed just that question. The speaker’s inclusive formation has stayed with me ever since – art is communication. After all, paintings and sculptures are obviously objets d’art, but it’s difficult as well to exclude the art of playing the violin, the art of public speaking, or for that matter the art of conversation. In fact, I’d argue that even facial expressions are a form of artistic expression when they’re designed to convey thoughts, emotions, or images.

So under this definition, pop lyrics are certainly art. But adopting a definition so broad raises a new set of questions, one of the first of which is, shouldn’t we have some sort of sub-classification here? Can’t we somehow separate the Van Goghs from the fart jokes? And of course we can. Just arriving at the conclusion that something is in fact art is really only the first step, after which we can ask questions such as, is it good art? Bad art? High art? Low art? Destructive art? Inspiring art? And it’s in these questions that I think the interesting discussion of pop music lies.

So, back to definitions. From the answer of “yes, it’s art,” the answer of “yes, it’s poetry” follows close behind. After all, we can hardly make the case for rock lyrics as painting or sculpture, or even as prose. And the argument that the music and lyrics form an indivisible whole doesn’t hold much water either. First of all, that argument implies that no element can be extracted and considered in isolation. And you’ll have a long row to hoe if you want to convince me that John Coltrane’s saxophone solo in “My Favorite Things” or Duane Allman’s slide guitar in “Whipping Post” – or Bootsy Collins’ bass line in “One Nation Under a Groove,” for that matter – can’t stand by themselves as works of art. You’ll also paint yourself into a pretty serious corner, being forced to exclude a host of literary works that were originally set to music – The Psalms aren’t art? Beowulf? The Iliad?

But as concluded above, more questions need to be asked – after all, “There once was a man from Nantucket” is poetry, too. What do pop lyrics as poetry accomplish? I’d argue that a few of the most important things poetry can accomplish are as follows:

  1. an inherent beauty,
  2. an emotional or spiritual connection with the reader/listener,
  3. a reflection of the environment from which it springs,
  4. intellectual stimulation, and
  5. an expansion of the structural possibilities of the form.

I’ll leave the argument in favor of pop music providing #5 for another time; it’s too involved a question to tackle here. And, I must admit, intellectual stimulation is not a strong part of the offerings of pop music, even (and especially) when pop tries really hard. In fact, a wise saying comes to mind about another controversial medium: “The answer to the question, is photography art? is: yes, but almost never when it thinks it is.”

But the other three are lay-ups for pop music. A reflection of the environment? How about Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”:

Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
Keep a clean nose
Watch the plain clothes
You don’t need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows

Or his “The Times They Are A-Changin”:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Or Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype”:

Number one, not born to run
About the gun…
I wasn’t licensed to have one
The minute they see me, fear me
I’m the epitome – a public enemy
Used, abused without clues
I refused to blow a fuse
They even had it on the news
Don’t believe the hype…

You get the picture. I could go on for days just with this one category of “reflecting the environment,” and we haven’t even gotten to inherent beauty or emotional connection yet. I’m sure you have your own favorite examples of those.

Now it may be a stretch to claim that the rock era has produced a large number of great poets (though I’d certainly nominate Dylan for that honor, and perhaps a handful of others as well). And you’ll never hear me arguing for pop music as high art (which, given the quality of so much of the “high art” being produced at the end of this century, may actually be a compliment). But even if you’re not crazy about the culture it spawned, you can’t just toss the baby out with the bath water and dismiss rock and roll … or its lyrics.

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MICHAEL DUNAWAY commended a biographer in the July issue of Pif for "Letting Janis be Janis." He is a Georgian by origin, a New Yorker by residence, a hero by night, and a smartass by nature. He miraculously received a BA in English from The University of The South and an MBA in Finance from Cornell University. He may be the only person in the world who's a fan of Beck, Francis Schaeffer, Dante, and the Blue Devils. When he was a kid, he wanted to be just like his daddy. He still does.