Greatness, analyzed through love songs

Hey kids, it’s poetry explication time! Give me five double-spaced pages on Robert Frost’s “Nature’s First Green is Gold” by Friday or your grade is toast and your parents will disown you, you’ll never hold a good job, and you’ll die destitute and alone.

Just kidding.

I hated dissecting poetry in school, but loved the promise poetry held for me. So while rebelliously faking the teacher out in my assigned schoolwork by day, I put myself through my own Poetry Education Camp by night: no cabins, no counselors, no team-building exercises (horror!)—just Amy, the books, and the Internet.

As a consequence, I can write pretty decent poetry. Yay for me! More importantly, I learned to be a competent critic of poetry and to understand what makes a good poem.

I can see you nodding off there, but give me a moment to make my case. Poetry criticism is much more valuable than it may sound, because the skills of critique are general skills.

On Criticism and Greatness and Love Songs

To be a good critic of design, programming, or anything, you must first be able to think critically and abstractly. You have to able to analyze existing pieces to determine why they work, and move from the specific to the general and back again; make hypotheses or conjectures and test them, directly or indirectly.

You want excellent critical skills, of course, because the path to doing great work lies with understanding what makes work great. You can practice all you like but if you can’t analyze and evolve, you’ll never get there. You won’t achieve greatness.

And it’s greatness that I want to discuss with you today.

Just like greatness in anything else, a great poem operates on multiple levels at once. To understand and use those multiple levels, you’ll need those habits and skills I described above—habits and skills that studying poetry will teach you.

I like to talk about poetry. But poetry is such a personal thing, I sadly fear that you’d be snoring before we got to

so much depends

a red wheel

So let’s talk about love songs instead, breakup songs in particular.

After all, song is poetry set to music. Just like “real” poetry there’s a refreshing variety available. Love songs, in particular, are more immediate to our personal experience than the average poem. Love songs have to sell.

Level 1: Neil Sedaka

Consider this famous pop song, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” by Neil Sedaka:

Don't take your love away from me
Don't you leave my heart in misery
If you go then I'll be blue
'Cause breaking up hs hard to do

Remember when you held me tight
And you kissed me all through the night
Think of all that we've been through
Breaking up is hard to do

... bridge ...

I beg of you, don't say goodbye
Can't we give our love another try
Come on baby, let's start anew
'Cause breaking up is hard to do 

This little ditty is almost entirely straightforward. It says what it means, and means what it says (except for the “comma comma down dooby doo down down”!). There are no ideas or even phrases in the song that hadn’t been heard, in some variation, before—even the concept of “taking” love away. The rhymes are the good old standards, except for “misery.” The format is predictable.

The song is generic, so it resonates easily with anyone who’s been dumped after having been held all night (at least once); at the same time, it’s explicit, and thus impossible to misinterpret.

It’s peppy, it’s catchy, it’s enjoyable—I, for one, love Neil Sedaka—but there’s really no there there. There’s no substance. It’s the same great taste but less filling. It leaves one unsatisfied.

Level 2: The Everly Bros

Our second song, “Bye, Bye Love,” steps it up a notch:

Bye bye, love.
Bye bye, happiness.
Hello, loneliness.
I think I'm a-gonna cry-y.

Bye bye, love.
Bye bye, sweet caress.
Hello, emptiness.
I feel like I could di-ie.
Bye bye, my love, goodby-ye.

There goes my baby
With-a someone new.
She sure looks happy.
I sure am blue.
She was my baby
'Til he stepped in.
Goodbye to romance
That might have been...

This classic by The Everly Bros is, narratively, as simple as “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.” The phrase “Bye-bye love” is not as direct as “Don’t take your love away from me,” though it’s clear from these very first words what the song is about. It explains the same exact situation through a slightly different lens.

Where “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” sounds almost like a straight transcription of a one-sided conversation (what, you don’t rhyme when you talk?), “Bye Bye Love” is more oblique, more like actual poetry. It approaches the topic at an angle. It doesn’t declare that “breaking up is hard to do”—a fact, and a boring fact, duh. Instead, the Bros sing “Bye, bye happiness / Hello, loneliness,” which is metaphorical and a little bit clever, leaving you room to fill out the story yourself, which makes it more interesting.

Level 3: Sarah McLachlan

Now compare the preceding two to this song by Sarah McLachlan:

I remember the nights I watched as you lay sleeping
Your body gripped by some far away dream
Well I was so scared and so in love then
And so lost in all of you that I had seen
But no one ever talked in the darkness
No voice ever added fuel to the fire
No light ever shone in the doorway
Deep in the hollow of earthly desires
But if in some dream there was brightness
If in some memory some sort of sign
And flesh be revived in the shadows
Blessed our bodies should lay so entwined


I remember when you left in the morning at daybreak
So silent you stole from my bed
To go back to the one who possesses your soul
And I back to the life that I dread.
So I ran like the wind to the water
Please don't leave me again I cried
And I threw bitter tears at the ocean
But all that came back was the tide... 

“I Will Not Forget You” is more wordy, more dreamy, more metaphorical—but still clearly a sad love song about some kind of affair.

You can tell it’s a love song because it’s got the word “love” in it, right up front. And the qualifier ‘then’ in that same line (“I was so scared and so in love then”), coupled with the first words “I remember,” implies that the narrator is not so in love and/or not so scared any more and suggests that it’s a song about lost love of one kind or another. Although the rest of that stanza implies that the narrator knew there was no hope for her love, you don’t know until the second stanza that she has been left.

At heart, “I Will Not Forget You” has the same story as “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” and “Bye Bye Love”: the narrator’s in love, the narrator is left, the narrator pleads, the narrator is really sad and desperate. The story is just embroided with metaphor and pretty words.

But that embroidery is stunning. The lyrics approach a biblical kind of beauty:

And flesh be revived in the shadows
Blessed our bodies should lay so entwined

The individual choices of words and phrases work hard to build the mood: gripped, far away, dream, lost, darkness, fire, doorway, deep, hollow, shadows, entwined (and so on). Neither of the previous songs really offer a mood as such, relying instead on explanation.

Additionally, unlike the other songs, this song builds narrative tension by carefully placing its words. The first stanza has only one passive verb for the narrator (“was”) and everything else is built by adjectives: was in love, was scared, (was) lost. The small handful of action verbs for the narrator appears only in the second stanza: remember, ran, cried, threw. In the beginning, the narrator is totally passive, leading to a vague feeling of powerlessness—which is used to serve the song’s purpose, of course.

The song also features a generous use of rhetorical devices such as alliteration, anaphora (yes I had to look that up), and parallelism. On top of all that, the rhymes are natural and pleasing, unlike the usual love song standards (arms! charms! love! dove! duke! puke!), and the line structure is more sophisticated than either of the two oldies.

Now we’re really getting somewhere.

Level 4: The Postal Service

But what about a love song that never mentions love, a breakup song that never mentions a breakup?

If you ever find yourself in the midst of a self-administered course on poetry, you will be come across many exercises that demand you to write a poem about an emotion or act without ever mentioning it, relying solely on other tools: mood, meter, word choice, structure. It’s difficult but illuminating, and the results can be breathtaking.

Just like “The District Sleeps Tonight,” by The Postal Service:

Smeared black ink
Your palms are sweaty
And I'm barely listening to last demands
I'm staring at the asphalt wondering what's buried underneath

I'll wear my badge
A vinyl sticker with big block letters adherent to my chest
That tells your new friends
I am a visitor here
I am not permanent
And the only thing
Keeping me dry is
(Where I am [3x])

You seem so out of context
In this gaudy apartment complex
A stranger with your door key
Explaining that I am just visiting
And I am finally seeing
Why I was the one worth leaving [2x]

D.C. sleeps alone tonight

You seem so out of context
in this gaudy apartment complex
A stranger with your door key
explaining that I am just visiting
And I am finally seeing
Why I was the one worth leaving [2x]

The district sleeps alone tonight
After the bars turn out their lights
And send the autos swerving into the loneliest evening
And I am finally seeing
Why I was the one worth leaving [4x]

This is a song that never mentions love, romance, relationships, or breaking up. In fact, are no “emotion words” at all until the second to last non-choral line: the “loneliest,” which is describing the evening and not a person. The impression of feeling is built through details. The one nod to direct emotion is left for the very end, the second to last word, where it packs a considerable punch.

So how do we know it’s a breakup song?

The “loneliest evening,” resonating as it does at the end, is a strong hint. But the only concrete reason we have to believe this is a breakup song is the line “I am finally seeing / Why I was the one worth leaving.” Although even that is ambiguous, offering at least two interpretations.

Despite its lack of emotion words and room for interpretation, this song is not abstract. It manages to be both less explicit than all the other songs, while at the same time having the most vivid images (“the vinyl sticker with big block letters”) compared to the others (“so silent you stole from my bed”—lyrical and poetic, but not specific).

It gives the feeling of being jilted, jittery, out of place, and uncomfortable through the sound of the words in addition to what the words actually say. Harsh sounds predominate and they tend to come in groups (ink, sweaty, stranger, door, key, vinyl, sticker, block, letters, explaining, visiting, context, gaudy, apartment, complex, swerving). There’s none of the love song “soft touch” you might expect after listening to a Sarah McLachlan album.

Like “I Will Remember You,” it tells a story on a meta-level with the progression of each stanza’s main subject: mixed (ink on your hands; you and I), I, you, you, the city.

You have to interpret that story, and decide who is feeling what (who is doing the narrating?), and why. It doesn’t come outright and tell you what it’s about in the overall shape of things.

The song is a breakup song, but it might not be about a lover. It could be about a friend, sibling, or family member. With just the tiniest stretch, it could be about losing or leaving a job, the city, or the feeling of belonging in the narrator’s own country. Is the smeared ink the ink of a fingerprinting dye, or the ink of a Dear John letter, or something else? It’s specific, but ambiguous. And therein lies its power.

And yet, at the same time, it operates on other levels. It has a good tune. The vocalists are skilled and emotive. It’s well-paced. The music is beautiful. It’s technically sweet. The progression of the female vocalist from support/background to half of a duet is not hackneyed, unusually.

In contrast with Sarah McLachlan’s songs, this song does more with less. There are very few words compared to “I Will Not Forget You,” but it builds an equally strong (although totally different) mood. It doesn’t leaven on the adjectives and mood words; instead, it contains mostly strong nouns, few adjectives, and no bald statements about feelings.

It doesn’t tell you what to think. It sneaks up on you, you sense it rather than hear it or think it—almost like it’s your own idea.

To me, this is what great work aspires to.

You may not enjoy this song—or you may like the words but not the tune, or vice versa. But you can’t deny the skill which created it.

So, what’s your work look like?

I spent all this breath on the topic because I think there’s a parallel here, between these levels of songs I’ve described and analyzed for you, and the levels of work and expertise in any field. Granted, I hand-picked these songs to make my point. Of course I did, I’m the writer! I know all these songs and love them.

I will concede that there may be more levels. I think there’s one more at least beyond Level 4, here, that doesn’t necessarily involve further mastery of the craft itself but meta-knowledge and self-awareness. I could go on about that now but you’re already exhausted, I’m sure. I know I am.

There’s also a level of skill below that of Level 1 as described here, because for all its innocent childishness, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” is an excellent example of its genre—it’s a “bad” song written by expert song writers who knew exactly what they were doing. And they did it on purpose. This is a totally different thing than somebody who lacks skill and so creates an innocent and childish work and is currently incapable of doing more.

I know this essay itself is not perfect and if analyzed the way I analyzed those songs, this would quickly be revealed. But if I waited for it to be perfect, you’d never see it.

But the idea inspired me to take a closer look at my own work yet again, and the writing of it made me feel more aware of what the bits and pieces are doing. I hope it inspires you similarly!


  1. Bill Mill says:

    > song is poetry set to music

    No. Song has music and may have poetry, but it has many more things involved in it as well.

    If it were merely poetry set to music, then nobody would enjoy the first two songs you talked about. Both are excellent demonstrations of what you can convey with the parts of music that are neither song nor poetry – the emotion of the singer and how it plays off the mood created by the song, the rhythmic incantation of sorrows, etc, etc.

  2. Miles says:

    She tweets and I read Ideas resonating I suck at blogging

  3. John Athayde says:

    i’m always a fan of the vignettes approach (a la postal service). There’s something about letting hte listener complete the picture that makes it more resonant, probably because of the introduction of personal emotion.

    U2 and Radiohead are both great at this approach to lyrics. case in point, Radiohead’s "No Suprises" from "Ok Comptuer" (most of that record in fact is in this vein)

    <code>A heart that’s full up like a landfill, a job that slowly kills you, bruises that won’t heal. You look so tired-unhappy, bring down the government, they don’t, they don’t speak for us. I’ll take a quiet life, a handshake of carbon monoxide,

    with no alarms and no surprises, no alarms and no surprises, no alarms and no surprises, Silent silent.

    This is my final fit, my final bellyache,

    with no alarms and no surprises, no alarms and no surprises, no alarms and no surprises please.

    Such a pretty house and such a pretty garden.

    No alarms and no surprises (get me outta here), no alarms and no surprises (get me outta here), no alarms and no surprises, please. </code>

    Pretty much a condemnation of modern living and suburbia. Or is that just me interpreting it that way? hmm?

    Of course, nothing beats drunken renditions of "The Promise" in a Sean Connery accent at 4am on the lower East Side. just sayin.

  4. Amy says:

    Bill, Bill, Bill!

    I did not say "song is MERELY poetry set to music." I know musicians. Take a look at John, who’s my erstwhile biz partner. I’ve seen his 2nd bedroom: wall to wall musical gear and gadgetry. I’ve listened to his music. I watched him play a mandolin with an electrical pickup in a live performance. I know how much I suck at music (except for singing). I’m not underrating the music part at all.

    Please read the rest of the article if you’re gonna bitch me out. 🙂 I don’t mind being bitched out, I just hope it’d be for the main thrust of the essay, not a single simple, unassuming, innocent line.

    John, I agree with you totally on the personal emotion part. Although I don’t like Radiohead, I like their words not their music (take that Bill!).

    We also need to hang out drunk in NYC again. I will make it happen. 😀

    Of course, the part you DON’T remember is all of us singing The Fresh Prince of Belair theme in the van afterwards…

  5. Bill Mill says:

    I want to apologize for the tone of my comment, it’s embarrassing in retrospect. Sorry.

  6. Amy says:

    Bill, no worries. 🙂

  7. criteur says:

    Delish. In another time, at another place this was taught under the rubric of "prac-crit" or practical criticism.

    The game was that you’d be given a previously unseen say, 30-line poem on which to write a 300-line intelligent response in 45 minutes.

    Because of the broad selection of the unseen text, it was difficult even for the best students to score consistently on such tests.

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