When I was freshman in college, I worked as a DJ for the campus radio station. The experience was invaluable. The real perk , however, even though I worked every weekend, was that, while all of my freshmen friends got the dining hall as their work study, I got to spin tunes (yes, I know how dated that sounds, but seriously…there were turntables and vinyl in that radio station).
One afternoon, the CD machine broke (that was new technology at the time), and we had to figure out a way to keep the dead air at bay. So, one of my co-workers put on a Pink Floyd album and we were covered for some time.
Pink Floyd is a classic piece of our musical heritage, we can’t deny that. I’m going to come out and say, though, that, despite their technical skill, I’ve never been a huge fan of their music. I think it’s more because their sound just doesn’t click with me, but…I digress. I still respect them artists. The song that’s always been most prominent in my noggin when I think of Pink Floyd is Another Brick in the Wall, and one line in particular:
“We don’t need no education…”
The writer in me cringes and weeps in the corner.
I listened to a great discussion on NPR last week…and, of course, I can’t find the audio anywhere now…about artistic license for musical artists. Basically, when do we let artists get by with such atrocious grammar, and when do we not? Of course, Pink Floyd is saying something with their poor grammar…like a good poet, their meta-message is augmented by their sentence structure. And rock n’ roll, lest we forget, is an art form with its roots in rebellion against the status quo. The posture, the hair, the distorted sound and guitars in overdrive…these are all pushing back on something. Back when music had poetry in its lyrics, the language worked to convey that message, carrying with it hints for which the listener had to work to find the meaning. In short, when the grammar was bad, it was generally bad for a reason.
Now, in the interest of being objective, I’m about to sound un-objective, as you might have guessed when I said “back when music had poetry.” You can imagine, then, that I don’t hold any particular love for a great deal of modern music. The teacher being interviewed in that NPR article talks about role modeling proper grammar in music for students in the impressionable time period between high school and middle school. She was concerned about artists such as Justin Bieber and Shakira using poor grammar and hearing her students repeat it, because music is such a powerful memory aid.
Yet, so much of the music to which I listened as a child had incorrect grammar, and I turned out just fine.
Rebellion in popular music certainly hasn’t changed…there’s a lot of machine to rage against out there, and a lot of rage with which to do so. That sort of expression is one of the most important things that rock music gives us, I think. Where does artistic license begin, though, in regards to grammar in the lyrics?
I propose an answer, and that answer is at the end of ignorance. When an artist (any artist…this is apropos for the poet as well as the musician) knows a rule and then breaks it for intentional effect, that is artistic license. Beethoven wrote much of his music by breaking the rules that contemporaries such as Mozart valued so highly, and we are without a doubt richer for it.
I can’t help but think, though…and if this sounds judgmental, I’d encourage you to look at statistics…that most poor grammar in the modern music industry is the result of being uneducated. That is, the grammar errors aren’t made for effect, they’re made out of ignorance. These kids are just looking for something that rhymes.
When artists break societal norms out of ignorance instead of with intentional purpose, then they’re not making art…they’re making excuses. I can look back on Pink Floyd’s anthem and recognize what they’re saying, and their grammar choices lead me to that. Many modern artists don’t use their grammar choices to say anything, but rather boost their popularity by using trendy expressions. The poetry, my friends, appears to be dying.
And certainly it is preceded in death by lyrics than meant anything of substance, anyway. That, though, is a topic for another day.