In 2011, University of Colorado Boulder professor Adam Bradley, along with co-editor Andrew DuBois, released The Anthology of Rap; a year earlier, he'd put out Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop. Both books sought to prove that rap lyrics had literary value. Likewise, his CU course titled "Hip-Hop in the Classroom" takes a scholarly approach to an art form that some academics would deny has value.
In both his teaching and his writing, Bradley has proven that, in fact, many of the same techniques employed by the classical poets are also used effectively by the likes of Public Enemy’s Chuck D.
"Andrew DuBois and I were at Harvard at the same time, and here we are learning all this literature from Chaucer to Shakespeare,” Bradley says. “We’re listening to hip-hop all along; it’s the soundtrack to our experience as students of literature. From a very early stage in my education, I wanted to find a way to connect the tools that I was honing as a scholar of literature with the music that I loved. Rap offers a perfect laboratory for that. It creates a space for engaging with rhythm, rhyme and wordplay of all types. It’s as sophisticated and as traditional as anything you’ll see in English and American poetry.”
In his new book, The Poetry of Pop, Bradley takes the same approach, hoping to demolish the notion that pop music, even manufactured pop, is artistically vacuous. The subject is particularly topical right now, in the wake of the furor that surrounded Bob Dylan's being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In fact, Bradley was just about finished with the book when that hit the news.
“I feel like I sparked Dylan’s Nobel in a way, just by putting out the energy in the world that, let’s think about the poetry of these things,” Bradley says. “I’m jesting, of course. But I had been working on Poetry of Pop for close to five years. The book was completed and in the copy-editing stage, and the news of Dylan’s Nobel comes along. I was conflicted because, in a way, I was thinking, ‘Oh, shit, I can’t weigh in on this in my book.’ But it just so happened that the printers had made a mistake in flowing the pages, and they said I had a page and a half I had to fill somewhere in the first two chapters of the book. I knew exactly what I was going to use that for.”
The book tackles a ballsy subject, especially given the title. The word “pop,” right or wrong, inspires thoughts of mass-produced, soulless music with no artistic merit. That’s wrong on just about every level, but particularly because Bradley is using Nick Hornby’s “anything but opera” definition of pop. Still, he insists that there is merit to the lyrics sung by the Katy Perrys and Taylor Swifts of this world, the sort of lyrics that are carefully crafted by big-league industry lyricists like Max Martin.
“I see ‘pop’ here as a descriptive term, to say that there are certain principles in play in a certain Taylor Swift song or Max Martin lyric that are also in play in Shakespeare’s 'Sonnet 34' or something,” Bradley says. “The structures are there. When I was writing the book, John Seabrook’s book came out, The Song Machine, where he offers a really brilliant exposé. He shines a light on the process of songwriting, and that fueled what I was thinking. A Max Martin composition, Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off,’ for example, is hook-driven. Every six seconds, there has to be something that’s catchy, that is repeated, and is somehow forging a listener connection to the song. It’s as much in that music as it is in Dylan, or the Beatles, or the Stones. That’s what I preach in the book, and that’s what I practice with my teaching, as well.”
Taking that broad definition of ‘pop,’ serious music aficionados might argue that the quality of lyrics, and the literary value of them, has been declining for years. In fact, Bradley believes that it has remained remarkably consistent.
“I read an article that came out a few years ago where they looked at the most common rhyme pairs over the course of the last fifty or so years in Billboard hits,” he says. “‘You’ and ‘too’, ‘me’ and ‘see’ — I forget exactly, but they’re pretty much consistent between the Beatles and Bieber. Now that’s only one small keyhole into the matter of how they’re developed. However, through the influence of two seemingly conflicting genres in hip-hop and country and their influence on mainstream popular music, we’ve seen a real flowering of storytelling. Country and rap are storytelling genres. With so much music now either fitting those categories or being influenced by those categories, we’re seeing this urge to storytelling.”
Like Seabrook’s aforementioned (and brilliant, by the way) The Song Machine, Bradley’s The Poetry of Pop takes a literary and unusually academic look at rap and pop. Still, there’s something in there for any reader with an open mind and an urge to learn.
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“I think anyone can get something out of it, but it requires something of you as a reader,” Bradley says. “What I’m asking people to do is to think critically about things you don’t normally think about when it comes to music. Some people won’t want to do that. Some people will go their entire lives without giving thought to how a particular lyric is given voice in a particular recording, why we’re moved by a certain turn of phrase. Those of us who like analyzing ourselves and our motivation, like understanding our own tastes, then I think there are things in this book for you. Wordsworth once said, we murder to dissect. By analyzing, we kill the thing. In fact, I believe the opposite. By giving studied attention to the things we love, it brings us closer to those things and makes us love them all the more.”
It’s a fascinating subject, and Bradley is a learned guide. He reminds us that even when a song seems over-produced, and clearly now written by whatever teen diva is the flavor of the week, somebody has written it, and it's likely to have value if you’re willing to listen without prejudice.
“Nobody cares that Whitney Houston didn’t write any of her own lyrics,” Bradley says. “Celine Dion barely writes her lyrics. All of these artists with supposedly great voices aren’t writers. Neither was Sinatra, or Billie Holiday. These are people who were interpreters. Great interpreters of song. There’s a place for that. There’s a dignity in that, as well.”
The Poetry of Pop, by Adam Bradley, is out now via Yale University Press.