Popular Music Perspectives: Ideas, Themes, and Patterns in Contemporary Lyrics

By B. Lee Cooper | Go to book overview

Introduction

Popular recordings are pieces of oral history. Written accounts that attempt to communicate reactions to social situations, technological change, political events, and economic conditions are inevitably incomplete. So, too, contemporary lyrics offer only partial visions of American society. This limited perspective provided in popular song is magnified by several factors. First, the physical nature of sound recordings restricts the duration of a singer's commentary to an extremely brief time. The average song is less than three minutes long. Second, the achievement of "popularity" for a single recording indicates broad levels of public acceptance for a particular song. This market-oriented reality tends to limit extremes of lyrical deviance. Third, the radio-play life span for most songs is quite brief. A particular tune may be a frequently played, much discussed commodity for six-to-ten weeks, and then disappear from the music charts forever. Finally, songs may either consciously or unconsciously address significant historical conditions or personal concerns. Various listening publics may accept, reject, ignore or be totally unaware of the lyrical commentary being presented. This means that intent, content, and influence via recorded music are rarely synonymous.

Recognizing these limitations in assessing the impact of sound recording communications, why should songs be considered valuable oral history resources? As a communication medium, lyrics do not systematically propagandize listeners. Likewise, they do not function as flawless historical mirrors. Such polarized indictments of songs ignore the inherent pluralism of contemporary lyrics, a pluralism that is a logical by-product of the intellectual (and sometimes anti‐ intellectual) variety of modern U.S. society. Popular songs replicate in unsystematic, segmented fashions a multiplicity of ideas and values; in contemporary culture they form an unpredictable, ever-changing audio collage. The oral history that lyrics present resembles the historical remnants available in an Indian burial mound. Just as an archeologist must reconstruct cultural reality from innumerable fragments of a former civilization—pieces of pottery, projectile points, tools for building, stone drawings, ancient toys and games, eating utensils, religious tokens, and death masks——the contemporary soundscape researcher must examine many, many recordings produced within a defined time span in order to identify persistent ideas, themes, and patterns.

Some subjects of rock lyrics are overwhelmingly available for scrutiny. For example, the standard courtship theme—boy meets girl, boy dates girl, love blooms, marriage beckons and a wedding occurs—is predominant in all popular music. However, there are also numerous variations to the typical love-and‐ marriage scenario. Women's liberation, birth control, social mobility, economic independence, the sexual revolution, and dozens of other trends and situations

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Popular Music Perspectives: Ideas, Themes, and Patterns in Contemporary Lyrics
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Popular Music Perspectives - Ideas, Themes, and Patterns in Contemporary Lyrics *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgments 1
  • Introduction 4
  • Ideas *
  • Chapter One - Education (i) 9
  • Chapter Two - Railroads 25
  • Chapter Three - Rebels and Outsiders 37
  • Chapter Four - Education (ii) 48
  • Themes *
  • Chapter Five - Automobiles 59
  • Chapter Six - Christmas 68
  • Chapter Seven - Death 82
  • Chapter Eight - Food and Drink 94
  • Chapter Nine - Telephones 111
  • Patterns *
  • Chapter Ten - Answer Songs and Sequel Recordings 121
  • Chapter Eleven - Cover Records and Song Revivals 140
  • Chapter Twelve - Nursery Rhymes and Fairy Tales 155
  • Chapter Thirteen - Social Trends and Audio Chronology 172
  • Selected Bibliography 193
  • Index 210
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