Poets of pop: a reply

Today's lyricists are as inventive as their forebears -- despite DJ Taylor's concerns.

Is the well-crafted song lyric a lost art? Or can words still emerge from amid the glossy images and sounds that dominate contemporary pop culture? One of the things we discovered during the past decade is that they can and they do, despite D J Taylor's concerns about lyricists losing their status. For all the power of his defence of some wonderful songwriting, Taylor ignores songwriters who have bent and are bending the English language into new forms of expression.

In many ways, the survival of the lyric makes sense. After all, we listen to pop music today on MP3 players and headphones, creating a private space for ourselves in which we can ingest its meanings. Artists today operate in a similar way, burrowing inside themselves to find ideas with which they can snare our attention. And many artists in love with language have found their way into the mainstream.

Consider the American folk-inspired singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom, who sells out huge venues in minutes and has made the top ten album chart with her recent triple-LP, Have One on Me, despite her lyrics being more of the Emily Dickinson school than the "awopbopaloobopalop" academy. She writes sturdy, structured poetry influenced by nature and nurture. Take this lyric about a rabbit from the song "Baby Birch": "But I caught her and skinned her quick/Held her there/Kicking and mewling/Upending, unspooling/Unsung and blue". The song's half-rhymes and soft rhythms demand as much attention and unpicking as good poetry.

Bands such as Arcade Fire create alternative worlds with their words. For their 2004 debut album, Funeral, they constructed a snowy dystopia full of dead adults and young children, and a dark psychedelic poetry far removed from the Edward Lear-influenced surrealism of the Beatles. In 2004, in a frightened and fractured America, the lyrics of their biggest hit, "Wake Up", resonated widely : "If the children don't grow up, our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up/We're just a million little gods causing rainstorms/Turning every good thing to rust".

In Britain, too, lyrical songwriting has found commercial success. Elbow have become platinum sellers thanks to Guy Garvey's pared-down style, which shimmers in "Mirrorball", from 2008's The Seldom Seen Kid: "We make the moon our mirror ball/The streets an empty stage/The city sirens - violins/Everything has changed." There's humour in the album's opening track, "Starlings", which is full of subtle but perky alliteration: "Yes, I guess I'm asking you/ To back a horse that's good for glue".

In fact, much of the best British pop writing of the past ten years has been comic, from the indie rock of Arctic Monkeys and the Libertines to the rap of Dizzee Rascal and the calypso-influenced songs of Lily Allen. The Arctic Monkeys frontman, Alex Turner, remains the best of the bunch. The opening verse from 2007's "Fluorescent Adolescent", for instance, reads like Alan Bennett by way of the Mancunian punk poet John Cooper Clarke: "You used to get it in your fishnets/Now you only get it in your nightdress/Discarded all the naughty nights for niceness/Landed in a very common crisis".

Even in the most mainstream pop, artists are playing with language - take Lady Gaga, shoehorning references to Hitchcock films into her biggest hit, "Bad Romance". But the best lyricists tend to work in more intimate settings: from the British Mercury nominees The xx, who conjure up the torture of adolescence in delicate poetry ("I still want to drown/When­ever you leave/Please teach me, gently/How to breathe"), to artists such as the US singer-songwriter Bill Callahan, a modern master of dark humour and melancholic euphoria.

In songs such as Callahan's "Rock Bottom Riser", we see how much the pop lyric can still give us ("So bury me in wood/And I will splinter/Bury me in stone/And I will quake/ Bury me in water/And I will geyser/Bury me in fire/And I'm gonna phoenix"). Words like these encourage us to forget the pomp and circumstance of rock and pop, and to concentrate instead on the meanings that still breathe within.

Jude Rogers is a judge for the Mercury Music Prize (winner to be announced on 7 September)

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days