Modern Shakespeares

Follow any popular music artist long enough and eventually someone will call him (or her) a “modern Shakespeare.”  I use to rail against this, replying with “Contact me in 400 years and we’ll see whether or not anybody’s still listening to your guy.  Then we can talk.”

Recently I was adding music to my playlist (I only really listen to music while programming, and for that I have one very specific playlist) and running music through Pandora for suggestions.  I laughed when Pandora told me that it had suggested a song because I like “intelligent lyrics.” 

That reminded me of the modern Shakespeare argument, so I decided to lighten up and have fun with it.  Let’s hear about some modern Shakespeares of yours.  Specifically we’re talking about lyrics.  What lyrics of what song make you stop and listen and say, “Wow, that was very impressive writing.”

I’ll start off with two examples that show my very unusual taste in music.  The first comes from Eminem’s Lose Yourself:

Too much for me to wanna
Stay in one spot, another day of monotony
Has gotten me to the point, I’m like a snail
I’ve got to formulate a plot or I end up in jail or shot
Success is my only motherf_cking option, failure’s not

Look at that rhyming structure, where he somehow manages to combine “wanna” and “spot” into “monotony”, and then rolls it right over into “gotten me.”  (I apologize from dropping in the curse word, but that’s a reality of modern music.  We don’t censor our Shakespeare when we quote him.)  Much of Eminem’s music does a pretty good job of telling whatever story he wants to tell, which granted is often a variation on “Screw everybody that doesn’t believe in me,” but I’m still impressed by the variety he gets into his lyrics.  Most songs of his that I enjoy walk that line between “I’m just talking to you, telling you a story” and “I happen to be speaking in rhyme when I do it.” And he does it without getting so gutter so fast that I’m embarrassed to listen to it. 

And now for something completely different, consider the hook from Adele’s current hit Someone Like You:

I’ll find
someone like you.
I wish nothing but the best, for you too.
Don’t forget me, I beg, I remember you said:-
“Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead”

If you’ve not heard the song, it is (in my interpretation) the story of a woman who never stopped loving her former flame, and tries to get back into his life in the hopes that he, too, never stopped loving her – but finds instead that he did indeed find someone else, got married, and is perfectly happy.

“Nevermind I’ll find” is a great hook (especially the way Adele belts it out), and for me it’s the “never mind” that makes the song.  Had it just been “I’ll find someone else” then it would be a different song, it would have a positive “I’ll get over this, I’ll be ok” vibe to it.  But instead it’s “This is the world to me, I’m betting everything on you feeling the same way….oh, you don’t feel the same way…oh, ok….never mind,” and it’s so clearly just this crushing moment for a woman who’s accepting (unwillingly) the truth that the best she’ll ever have is a shadow of who she wanted. Especially when you couple it with that “I wish nothing but the best for you.”   And that’s all just what I get out of the story of the song, that’s not even saying anything about that brilliant structure that starts out so short and memorable and then ends on those drawn out slow lines.

All right, there’s your quick glance into my musical taste.  It’s worth mentioning that Eminem is in my programming playlist but Adele is not. While I like both songs, the potential random transition from one into the other is too distracting for me when I’m working.

What else have you got?  I’m not looking for “Hey did you know that Sting wrote a bunch of literary references in his work?”  Yes, yes I did.  I want to hear about the songs that you think are impressive, not just interesting.

7 thoughts on “Modern Shakespeares

  1. Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson have some amazing song collaborations. The one that comes to mind in particular is the song 'Surf's Up'. The lyrics don't necessarily make sense, but the images they evoke are stunning. Take for example these lyrics– 'Dove nested towers the hour was
    Strike the street quicksilver moon
    Carriage across the fog
    Two-Step to lamp lights cellar tune'. Then look at this line: 'The music hall a costly bow'– when you sing it, it could be 'hall a costly bow' or 'holocaust-ly bow'. Brilliant!

  2. Sean O'Sullivan says:

    "Learn to love me
    Assemble the ways
    Now, today, tomorrow and always
    My only weakness is a list of crime
    My only weakness is … well, never mind, never mind"

    "Why pamper life's complexity
    When the leather runs smooth
    On the passenger seat"

    "A dreaded sunny day
    So let's go where we're happy
    And I meet you at the cemetry gates
    Oh, Keats and Yeats are on your side
    A dreaded sunny day
    So let's go where we're wanted
    And I meet you at the cemetry gates
    Keats and Yeats are on your side
    But you lose
    'Cause weird lover Wilde is on mine"

    Wit,angst, kitchen sink drama,
    whimsy, poignant longing,
    self-pity…The Mighty Morrissey
    is a lyricist of rare power.

  3. Anonymous says:

    'Motorbreath' from Metallica's first album 'Kill 'Em All' is written in iambic pentameter!

    Living and dying, laughing and crying
    Once you have seen it you'll ne'er be the same
    Life in the fast lane is just how it seems
    Hard and it's heavy it's dirty and mean

  4. We have similar tastes (and I'm loving the new stuff to check out in the comments!), but I've been re-listening to Regina Spektor for a couple of weeks and I LOVE how poetic her lyrics are and her quirky melodies.

    (The Calculation from "Far")
    So we made the hard decision
    And we each made an incision
    Past our muscles and our bones
    Our hearts were little stones

    Pulled 'em out they weren't beating
    And we weren't even bleeding
    As we lay them on our granite counter top

    We beat 'em up against each other
    We beat 'em up against each other
    We struck 'em hard against each other
    We struck 'em so hard, so hard til they sparked

  5. Sean O'Sullivan says:

    I suppose my favourite ryming
    couplet in a song is from
    The Doors' Riders on the Storm:

    There's a killer on the road
    His brain is squirmin'like a toad

    Isolated, it seems overly
    simplistic…but it works so well
    in one of the finest atmospheric
    pop songs of all time.
    More like the modern Webster than the modern Shakespeare?

  6. why does that remind me of Elvis' "itchin' like a man on a fuzzy tree"?


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