There’s something magical about songs that incorporate poetry into their lyrics. It’s a beautiful blend of two art forms that can evoke powerful emotions and connect with listeners on a deep level. Whether it’s a classic ballad or a modern pop hit, songs about poetry have a unique way of capturing the essence of life and love.
Songs About Poetry
Let’s begin with Bob Dylan.
1- Bob Dylan – Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
There is a cartoon drawing of two men riding in a train. The man on the left stares at a dark, blank wall beside him, frowning as he laments, “Life has no meaning.” The man on the right stares out the window at a sunny, brightly colored landscape and smiles, “Life has no meaning!” They both say the same thing, but one man worries about the future while the other enjoys the moment.
Bob Dylan said, “I never have and never will write a drug song,” yet many have used “Rainy Day Women” as proof that Dylan lied. But if anyone in the history of recorded music ever understood the multiple meanings of words, it would be Bob Dylan. The opening track from Dylan’s seventh album, Blonde on Blonde, “Rainy Day Women” is a song about states of mind.
“They’ll stone you when you’re tryin’ to be so good,” he sings matter of factly, “They’ll stone you just like they said they would.” He’s referring to the act of being physically stoned to death, a method of punishment found in The Bible’s Old Testament.
Dylan suggests that “they” will persecute you for minding your business just to prove they’re in charge. By including himself in the category of the persecuted, he’s telling the listener he knows how they feel.
“But I would not feel so alone – everybody must get stoned.”
You can look at that line as nihilistic, like the guy on the train staring at the wall, or you can celebrate the fact you ever got to live in the first place. What’s more, your view on the matter won’t change the outcome. The lyrics to this song are brilliant, but their delivery is what makes the song truly masterful.
“Well, they’ll stone you when you’re walking on the street
They’ll stone you when you’re trying to keep your seat
They’ll stone you when you’re walking on the floor
They’ll stone you when you’re walking through the door
But I would not feel so all alone
Everybody must get stoned!”
2 – Tom Waits – Emotional Weather Report
While we’re on the subject of delivery, this is a good time to mention Tom Waits as a performer. An early example of his power as a storyteller can be found on the first track from his 1975 live album, Nighthawks At The Diner.
The intro to “Emotional Weather Report” introduces Waits as a character who just got into town. Ready to party and kick up a fuss about the night before. He met a woman he liked spending time with, but she didn’t exactly feel the same. Waits hides how this makes him feel by explaining his emotions like a weatherman.
“Flash flood watches cover the southern portion of my disposition
There was no severe weather well into the afternoon
Except for kind of a lone gust of wind in the bedroom.”
3 – M.I.A. – Paper Planes
London rapper M.I.A. has a well-regarded reputation for mixing industrial and electronic music with hip-hop and an inclination to call out injustice and needless violence. In her breakout single, 2007’s “Paper Planes,” M.I.A. mixes a sample of “Straight to Hell” by The Clash (a protest song about injustices in Northern England and Viet Nam) with simple electronic beats and a breezy but powerful rap delivery; oozing with self-confidence and an almost indifferent outrage.
“Paper Planes” is about Sri Lankan immigrants being murdered at the border by passport counterfeiters and arms dealers. M.I.A. defended her use of sampled gunshots on the track as being sounds from the neighborhood she grew up in. Surrounded by people either on the take or dishing out violence to survive.
“Pirate skulls and bones
Sticks and stones and weed and bongs
Running when we hit ‘em
Lethal poison for the system
No one on the corner has swagger like us
Hit me on my burner prepaid wireless
We pack and deliver like UPS trucks
Already going hard, just pumping that gas.”
4 – Tricky – Hell Is Round the Corner
Tricky’s long and successful career began with the fantastic band Massive Attack. He started his solo career in 1995 with the album Maxinquaye, which is excellent from start to finish. The album was met with widespread critical acclaim.
One of the most notable aspects of Tricky’s career is his collaborative partnership with vocalist Martina Topley-Bird. The two have worked on numerous projects over the years, and their unique musical chemistry is evident in their music. Tricky’s blend of hip-hop, electronica, and rock creates a truly unique sound.
His lyrics are often introspective and personal, dealing with identity, love, and loss themes. He has been open about his struggles with mental health and vocal about the importance of seeking help and getting treatment when needed.
“Hell is Round the Corner” is, perhaps, Tricky’s most popular song, and with good reason. It partially succeeds by utilizing a sample from Portishead’s “Glory Box” and Martina Bird’s beautiful airy backing vocals. However, Tricky’s discordant, hushed inflection sets this track apart.
“I seem to need a reference to get residence
A reference to your preference to say
I’m a good neighbor, I trudge
So judge me for labor”
5 – Kendrick Lamar – FEAR.
The New York Times lists Kendrick Lamar as one of the artists responsible for “dismantling the barriers between rap and poetry.” Commenting on the song “FEAR.,” writer Adam Bradley says Lamar “upends assumptions about what rap virtuosity should sound like” through his use of repetition and the artistic decision to deprive the listener of conventional rhyme schemes, choosing instead to rely on inflection and relatability.
“I’ll prolly die anonymous,
I’ll prolly die with promises
I’ll prolly die walkin’ back home from the candy house
I’ll prolly die because these colors are standin’ out
I’ll prolly die because I ain’t know Demarcus was snitchin’
I’ll prolly die at these house parties, ******’ with *******
I’ll prolly die from witnesses leavin’ me falsed accused.”
6 – Taylor Swift – Champagne Problems
Although wildly different from Kendrick Lamar’s, Taylor Swift’s life experiences have populated her lyrics since the beginning of her recording career (which started an almost unbelievable 17 years ago!). Swift released two albums in 2020 (Folklore and Evermore), the second of which features the first song she wrote after the COVID-19 pandemic began, making it impossible for musicians to make a living on the road.
As she sat contemplating the things that would normally occupy her emotions, she realized the world wasn’t the same anymore. Indeed, for all of us, there is a clear before and after Pandemic living, which Swift connected to a fictional couple with different ideas about the future in “Champagne Problems.” When you consider that this was the first song she wrote after lock downs started, it takes on a new meaning.
“Sometimes you just don’t know the answer
‘Til someone’s on their knees and asks you
‘She would’ve made such a lovely bride
What a shame she’s ******** in the head,’ they said
But you’ll find the real thing instead
She’ll patch up your tapestry that I shred
And hold your hand while dancing
Never leave you standing
Crestfallen on the landing
With champagne problems.”
7 – PJ Harvey – Rub ‘Till It Bleeds
On the surface, PJ Harvey’s “Rub Til It Bleeds” is an overtly sexual tune. As PJ sings, “Lie Steady – rest your head on me – I’ll smooth it nicely – rub it better ’til it bleeds,” there isn’t much left to the imagination.
But as the rhythm picks up and the guitars get louder, her “partner” becomes a victim. She’s almost laughing, seething with rage at the words, “And you believed me – caught out again – I’m calling you weak! Getting even!” With this added menace, PJ Harvey turns sex into vengeance in a way that (sadly) women are all too used to surviving.
8 – Joanna Newsom – Emily
Joanna Newsom is a classically trained harpist and highly regarded singer-songwriter. She has released only four albums in the last 19 years, but each is so full of creativity and beauty, it’s extremely hard to complain about a “lack” of musical output. She is not nearly as popular as she deserves to be, and I’m quite sure many would agree. I could go on and on about Newsom and each of her records.
NPR called her the 21st Century’s Timeless Voice. “Like the multi-layered metaphors and double-meaning wordplay that laces her lyrics,” writes Liz Pelly, “in Newsom’s world, rare and rich dualities exists. She shouts, screeches, creaks and coos.
And yet this is all entwined within her distinct femininity: her high-pitched inflection, masterful harp playing, epicly emotive lyrics and intuitive writing. There is a sense that she is following her voice where it goes, but she goes there gracefully and attentively, matching her syllables with the most emotionally suited turns in her voice.”
“Emily” is from Joanna Newsom’s 2006 album Ys.
“And, Emily, I saw you last night by the river
I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water
Frowning at the angle where they were lost, and slipped under forever
In a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky’d been breathing on a mirror”
9 – Lana Del Rey – West Coast
Lana Del Rey is a singer-songwriter and musician known for her unique voice and retro-inspired music style. Born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant in New York City, she adopted the stage name Lana Del Rey and gained popularity in 2011 with her debut album Born to Die.
Her music often explores themes of love, loss, and nostalgia, and she is praised for her evocative lyrics and haunting melodies. With multiple albums and hit songs under her belt, Lana Del Rey is a beloved figure in the music industry and continues to captivate audiences with her soulful sound.
“West Coast” is from Rey’s 2014 album Ultraviolence. Its surf-rock Stevie Nicks vibe is due to the production handiwork of The Black Key’s Dan Auerbach.
10 – Joy Division (Ian Curtis) – She’s Lost Control
There is perhaps no more poetic (or tragic) figure of the late 1970s post-punk/goth scene than Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. When I think about poetic music, Joy Division is one of the first bands that comes to mind.
Curtis, who suffered from depression and epilepsy, died by suicide in 1980. He worked at a hospital for people with special needs for a time. “She’s Lost Control,” from Joy Division’s first album Unknown Pleasures, is about one of Curtis’s clients who died in her sleep due to a massive siezure.
“Confusion in her eyes that says it all
She’s lost control
And she’s clinging to the nearest passerby
She’s lost control
And she gave away the secrets of her past
And said, “I’ve lost control again”
This article was written by Joel and edited by Michael.