Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Songs and Poetry

Linguistically speaking, the differences between spoken and written language are well documented; however, my focus for this post is differences between performing lyrics as a song and performing them as poetry.  Obviously, there are differences in how the words are produced (singing versus speaking), but how do those differences affect the overall effect of the song and the potential message being delivered?

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine introduced me to a YouTube video that I can't believe I had never seen before: William Shatner performing "Rocket Man."

Shatner's take on the classic song is memorable, with his presentation coming across as both dramatic and humorous.  I love that he uses prosodic features to change the flow of the lyrics each time the chorus reoccurs and takes advantage of editing features by having two Shatners on the screen at once.  I'm not a poetry expert, but I think the reading is enhanced by that fact that Elton John's lyrics are poetic and lend themselves more freely to spoken performances.

Thirty years after that performance, another actor took on a popular song to perform as, um, a type of spoken art.  Through Twitter, I was introduced tonight to the video performance of Christopher Walken reading Lady Gaga's "Poker Face."

Walken's performance is also memorable, but I would not exactly apply the term "classic" to it.  Comparing the two made me start thinking about song lyrics and how they're written in general to achieve different goals.  One aspect of linguistic study is to ask why a speaker (or singer) put particular words/sounds together and what purpose or function the speaker (or singer) is achieving through those words/sounds.  Songs are a form of linguistic performance.  As such, I think some songs are meant only for singing (i.e., "Poker Face") while others are more readily available for other modes of performance (i.e., "Rocket Man").

What songs do you think are only meant for singing?  What songs do you think could be more readily performed as poetry?

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