Essays

Are Lyrics Literature?

Alice Nuttall

Senior Contributor

Alice Nuttall (she/her) is a writer, pet-wrangler and D&D nerd. Her reading has got so out of control that she had to take a job at her local library to avoid bankrupting herself on books - unfortunately, this has just resulted in her TBR pile growing until it resembles Everest. Alice's webcomic, writing and everything else can be found at https://linktr.ee/alicenuttallbooks

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Whatever music you like, and whether you’re a casual listener or a dedicated fan, you’re bound to have some favourite lyrics — ones that remind you of a time or place, that you have great memories of singing with friends, or that you just love because of how well-written they are. Song lyrics are popular choices for tattoos or art, and I know I’m not the only pre-Google teenager who wrote out her favourite lyrics from album sleeves and stuck them all over her wall. Wedding and funeral songs are often chosen on the basis of the lyrics as well as the music. Lyrics are clearly meaningful to most people — but does this make them literature?

When I asked around for people’s opinions on whether lyrics are literature, many people said that they were, comparing them to poetry. My husband, who was a professional songwriter in a previous life, disagrees, feeling that lyrics (including his own) aren’t that deep. Personally, I’m a bit of a fence-sitter; there are some lyrics that I would definitely consider a form of poetry, while others, not so much (although arguably, just because something’s simple or commercial doesn’t mean it’s not literature). Lyrics are sometimes deep and meaningful, sometimes light and fluffy, and sometimes just catchy earworms – but in every incarnation, they’ve inspired a great deal of discussion.

A black-and-white photo of a man with long hair in locks and a mid-long-sleeved shirt, playing a guitar in front of a mic stand.
Image from Pixabay

Lyrics in History

There’s no doubt that lyrics have played an important role in human history, and are one of the older forms of creative expression, dating back for centuries. Lyric poetry originated in Ancient Greece; some forms were sung, while others were recited, but in both cases they developed as specific forms, differing from the epic poetry that gave us the Illiad and the Odyssey. Songs were a hugely important part of Saxon and Viking culture, and a surviving 14th century sample suggests that songs from this era were sung well into the Middle Ages.

Medieval songs are some of the earliest examples of lyrics that have survived to the present day. The widespread power of the Catholic Church led to the creation of hundreds of religious songs, while later in the medieval period, rising literacy outside of ecclesiastic settings led to nonreligious songs being written down and preserved. Traditional folk songs and ballads are also important historical examples of lyrics, some ancient and others more modern, all featuring narratives and stories that could certainly put them in the category of literature.

More modern works have also blurred the lines between poetry and lyrics. William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience were written so that they could be sung as easily as recited, and Emily Dickinson drew on hymns while writing some of her poems.

It’s important to note that this history of lyrics focuses on Western European and North American songs, and many other cultures have rich histories of song lyrics that interplay with poetry, such as Indian classical music. Additionally, marginalised groups within Western societies developed their own musical and lyrical traditions; for example, African American music has a long and complex history that draws on traditions from different African nations, spirituals that developed as a response to enslavement, and later forms like ragtime and blues that became a driving force behind modern music and song.

Lyrical Debates

One of the strongest arguments for lyrics being literature centres around the feelings they invoke. Spotify is full of playlists for music that suit every mood, not just because of the tunes, but because of their words. Many people choose to have song lyrics as tattoos, because, like lines of poetry or favourite literary quotes, they hold a deep meaning for the person. If a key component of literature is having an emotional impact on readers, then song lyrics certainly count.

Another potential criteria for literature — although this too is up for debate — is that it responds to and, in turn, has an impact on the world. Protest songs can be viewed as part of radical literature, with lyrics reflecting people’s anger at injustices in society and inspiring them to make change. These songs have accompanied historical events for centuries.

Singers and songwriters, and wider society, have varying opinions on whether lyrics count as literature. There was controversy in 2016 when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his song lyrics — some commentators thought it was long past time that a songwriter was honoured in this way, while others felt that lyrics did not count as poetry — or, as poet Simon Armitage stated in an article about Dylan’s win, they are “bad poetry” that cannot stand up on their own without the accompanying music.

I do agree that, with very few exceptions, song lyrics quoted without the music are often cringey — but does this mean they’re not literature? There are many lines from excellent novels and poems that are clunky and meaningless out of context, but carry huge emotional weight when you consider them as part of the whole. Additionally, we seem to be happy to allow aspects of a literary work other than the words to count when we’re considering the merits of other forms of literature. Poems often use the shape of text on a page to add a visual, artistic component to the impact of the words; novels such as House of Leaves have used text and typesetting to enhance the story; and we’ve all seen how a poor performance can make even the best-written play unwatchable, or how a good performance can elevate the most trite and predictable words into something special.

So is rejecting song lyrics as “not literary” a result of snobbery and a distaste for this particular form of art? Well, sometimes, but not always. Some songwriters have joined the “lyrics aren’t literature” camp, most notably Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker. Cocker stated that “Many of my lyrics were hastily written the night before a recording session because I’d been putting off writing them until the very last minute…the words to a song are not that important. They’re contractual obligation, a necessary evil, an afterthought.” Artists like Cocker feel that the music is the most important part of any song, with the lyrics coming second — and indeed, some of the most memorable and lasting songs don’t have particularly impressive lyrics (think of Toto’s Africa, a much-beloved song that features one of the worst similes I’ve ever heard, “This mountain is as big as another mountain”).

Personally, I do believe that lyrics count as literature, because of the impact they have on the people who consume them, and the effect they have on society at large. Lyrics aren’t always that deep — but then, neither are some books or poems. There have been songs that have changed the world, and songs that you put on just because they help you get through your commute — and that’s okay. The literary world has room for both.

The Legal Side

Wherever you fall on the “are song lyrics literature” debate, there’s one area where lyrics and literature often stay well apart, and that’s in novels. Books often quote poems, other novels or lines from movies, but you’ll rarely see song lyrics quoted, even in books where you might expect them (like teen romcoms about fans of real-world bands, or novels that revolve around the music industry).

The reason for this is that copyright law around song lyrics is incredibly strict. Writers will usually be able to quote a line or two from a novel or poem as long as they credit the original author, and don’t attempt to pass it off as their own or use too much. However, as this article explores, simply crediting is not enough for song lyrics — you need to get express permission from the publisher to quote even one line. While there are some ways to get around it (I read one book, whose title I’ve completely forgotten in the intervening years, that managed to legally include the entirety of ‘I Did It My Way’ by breaking it down and having characters interject at random points), it’s generally not worth the cease-and-desist and the possibility of a lawsuit — better to either describe the vibe of the song, or write your own fictional lyrics instead. Unfortunately, unless there’s a reform of fair use law specifically with regards to the music industry, we won’t see many real-world lyrics showing up in literature any time soon.

If you want more musical inspiration for your TBR pile, check out our list of 50 Must-Read Books About Music. If you feel you can tell the difference between poetry and lyrics, try our quiz, Radiohead Lyric or Emily Dickinson Phrase?