The question as to whether the lyrics of some popular songs of contemporary music may also be considered to be poems is entirely dependent upon the conception of poetry being employed. Does the question make the distinction between “bad” poetry and “good” poetry, so that the question ultimately entails whether some popular song lyrics may somehow be considered examples of “good poetry”? Yet this approach is based on some working definition of what classifies good and bad poetry, and, furthermore, some understanding of what poetry itself means. If poetry represents a certain use of language, one in which we use language in fairly unconventional ways through poetic devices such as metaphor, meter, rhyme and alliteration, then it would seem that popular songs do in fact represent poetry when such devices traditionally associated with poetry are utilized. Therefore, the question in this regard is not whether popular songs are examples of good or bad poetry, but rather, to the extent that some popular song lyrics do employ poetic devices than they are in fact instances of poetry.
Consider the recent pop song “Adore You” by the American pop singer Miley Cyrus. While the lyrics of the song could certainly be considered adolescent and popular drivel, almost alarming in its poetic simplicity – consider for example the banal rhyme “you and me – we’re meant to be/in holy matrimony” – the song lyrics themselves do in fact incorporate traditional poetic devices that allow us to recognize certain uses of languages as poetic. Hence, the use of imagery and simile is shown in the following lines: “But when you’re near me/I feel like I’m standing with an army/Of men armed with weapons.” The quality of such simile and imagery is clearly a question for literary criticism and judging the artistic value of such lyrics: most academic critics would deride such lyrics as juvenile. Nevertheless, if the question at stake is only whether such language is a poem, and if we understand poetry to mean the usage of poetic devices, then it appears that such a song may be classified in this manner.
The recent popular song “Dark Horse” by Katy Perry and featuring Juicy J is another example that despite its commercial nature popular songs do utilize traditional poetic devices and therefore must to an extent be considered as forms of poems. Perry uses poetic devices throughout the lyrics, such as simile — “I’m coming at you like a dark horse” – and figurative language – “Make me your Aphrodite.” This is further emphasized in the lyrics featuring Juicy J, who as a rapper, clearly uses poetic devices, to the extent that rap lyricism constantly uses traditional poetic devices. Hence, “She eats your heart out / like Jeffrey Dahmer” and the rhyme scheme of Juicy J’s verses show clear obligations to how poetry has traditionally been conceived. In this regard, the increasing prevalence of hip hop in contemporary music arguably makes the argument that popular songs can also be considered poems more robust, to the extent that rap lyrics are the poetic expressions of African-American culture in the late 20th century and early 21st century, their structure and form clearly reflecting traditional concepts of poetry.
Certainly, the lyrics of popular songs are often overlooked as potential forms of poetry because of their simplicity and banality. Consider the popular hit “Stand Down” by Little Mix, and lines from the opening stanza: “We ain’t playing no games, this ain’t no playground/It’s time to drop your sticks and stones.” It would be difficult to find a contemporary art critic that would call the following lines examples of good poetry, since the imagery here is very simplistic and relies on clichés such as “sticks and stones” and “we ain’t playing no games.” Nevertheless, the author of the lyrics clearly attempts to use instances of figurative language to communicate a narrative through the words: the words here attempt to portray a seriousness of a situation and this is developed through using contrasting imagery associated with childhood. Poetic imagery is thus employed to convey a message to the listener and the quality of the imagery must be separated from the fact that this imagery is present in the song’s text.
If we employ fairly liberal and basic definitions of poetry, such as the presence in a text of poetic devices, and furthermore, add to this definition the deliberate intent to use poetic devices in a similar manner to poets have traditionally utilized these same devices, then it appears that it becomes a moot point as to whether popular songs represent poetry. They clearly in this case do, since the devices used remain a constant across traditional forms of poetry and popular music. The question in this sense is whether such lyrics represent quality poetry and this is another issue altogether.
In this regard, there is a tendency to degrade popular culture, citing its vacuity and lack of depth, its populism and its reliance on cliché. The lyrics of popular music often are guilty of these charges. However, if we do not use some value system to judge the quality of poetry and furthermore suspend some of our prejudices concerning pop culture, we see that pop culture also does in fact rely on traditional poetic devices in its song lyrics. To the extent that classification of poetry involves trying to identify the deliberate use of these devices, then the texts of popular music, however banal, must be considered as implying the same basic tenets of poetry.