U2’s “Miss Sarajevo” and Good Pop Lyrics

April 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

I had a writing teacher who mentioned in class once how nobody pays attention to the lyrics in a pop song. But I don’t think he was being derisive. The music is the fun part of a pop song, and the lyrics have no hope of getting primary attention, so they’re just there to not get in the way or, at best, fit the feel and the mood of the song.

Let’s assume I’m right about that. Is there a way to do that well? Is there, in other words, such a thing as good pop lyrics?

I’d say yes, but it’s extremely rare. If nobody’s paying attention to your lyrics, why bother trying to make them blend in well? The incentive for a songwriter is strictly risk aversion: if you write bad lyrics, people will notice and it will mar the song.

Even in, let’s say, Beatles songs, the success of the lyrics is pretty much musical, and the words don’t hold up in themselves. They rhyme, carry the rhythm and melody, etc., but no one bothers holding up “I read the news today, Oh boy / About a lucky man who made the grade” as anything more than the right sounds at the right time. (You could argue the whole song is about a mood of modern disorientation and chaos, into which these lyrics fit, but that’s pretty easy to say, isn’t it? The thematic connection, if it’s there, is vague and general.)

So to be clear, I’m talking about pop lyrics that succeed as words. The best example I know of this is “Miss Sarajevo”, the big hit of U2’s one-album side project Passengers. The song is about a beauty pageant held in war-torn Sarajevo. If you haven’t heard it (good music, too!), here you go:

The lyrics are all one- or two-line plays on the frivolity of the whole thing, images of getting ready and prettying oneself up that are perfectly fluffy:

Is there a time for kohl and lipstick
A time for curling hair
Is there a time for high street shopping
To find the right dress to wear

What’s great about these lyrics is that rather than trying to capture a narrative of or commentary on the pageant, they go straight to the heart of the matter: the lovely ridiculousness of it all. Each line is really a rhetorical question: “Is there a time for X?” And via this repetition the images gather presence and build into a whole from their individual frivolity. It’s like a thematic refrain shored up by individual variations that are all over the place. (The lyrics mention “duck and cover”, the boy band “East 17”, “tying ribbons”, etc. etc.)

This is, structurally, really just the perfect way of capturing the song’s theme, of diving deep into the absurd implications of the pageant and those implications’ richness. These lyrics locate the heart of the beauty of the whole thing.

(Additionally, the lyrics and their cadence fit the music — the swirling mood and easy pace, the easy rise and fall. The gentleness of the music is another meaningful frivolity.)

Opera’s lyrics are ridiculous too, suggesting the whole notion of lyrics-as-poetry is kind of silly. Insofar as lyrics are rigorously poetic, they’re probably going to sound absurd when set in music. But the feel of a piece of music and the feel of its lyrics can unite harmoniously. More than anything else, I think it takes consummate taste to pull it off.

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