Paul McCartney spent three minutes singing “nah, nah, nah, na na na nah” in “Hey Jude.” Some might find that repetitious. Adam Bradley says it’s poetry.
The Beatles’ song exemplifies a fundamental mystery of pop music, says Bradley, an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado Boulder whose upcoming book The Poetry of Pop (Yale University Press) explores the fusion of poetry and music in popular song.
“The first three minutes of ‘Hey Jude’ are a model of a certain part of the poetry of pop: of its refinement, of its craft, and of its careful construction,” Bradley says.
“Then there’s the remaining four minutes. The mystery of pop is that the second half of the song is just as entrancing, if not more, than the first half,” says Bradley.
“Popular music can be both highly wrought and technically refined, and also completely abandoned to sound and the joy of repetition. We need the tools to analyze both.”
Bradley has always been passionate about music and literature.
“I delved into all this music I listened to as a kid and throughout the course of my life and applied to the lyrics and the performance the tools I’ve been honing as a scholar of literature,” Bradley says. “In that regard, it’s a very personal book.”
The Poetry of Pop examines how lyrics, sound and meaning synergistically create poetry in popular music.
As a literary critic, Bradley analyzes how rhythm, rhyme, figurative language and narrative form are conveyed through lyrics and instrumentation. “Studying the poetry of pop demands attention to performance, to melody and harmony, to rhythm expressed in sound,” Bradley says.
“It’s an old-school book in terms of its interests in these bedrock principles of rhythm, rhyme and figurative language,” Bradley adds, “but new school in the fact that it applies these principles to Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Jay Z., Nicki Minaj. The fun comes in bringing together the old and the new.”
However, some of the tools used to analyze poetry need to be “re-invented entirely” when studying pop music. Bradley notes, “We can’t use the same tools as we would when analyzing a Shakespearean sonnet. We have to adopt and adapt.”
Bradley is no stranger to exploring the ways in which popular music and poetry overlap. A scholar of African American literature and popular culture, Bradley is the author of Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop and co-editor of The Anthology of Rap.
“I’ve always had this fascination in my life as a scholar with bringing music and literature together,” he says. By closely reading music and finding patterns of sound and form, Bradley finds that pop music is both “formulaic and inventive, both art and commerce.”
Broadway music and rap may have more in common than just Hamilton, then.
“As the author of this book, I’m host to this strange sonic dinner party, where Ozzy Osborne is sitting next to Taylor Swift who’s sitting next to Cole Porter… in a way that defies all sorts of boundaries of genre, of style, of time period, gender, race, all these categories that we often put up to create divisions of sound that sound itself rarely respects,” Bradley says.
He adds, “The most exciting thing for me in writing this book was bringing together these songs, in their differences as well as in their commonalities.”
So why study the poetry of pop? Bradley says pop music goes beyond just words on the page. “Studying the poetry of pop demands attention to performance, to melody and harmony, to rhythm expressed in sound,” he says. A different rendition of a song calls for a different interpretation. “Each of those is an occasion for close listening and attention.”
The Poetry of Pop will be available for purchase on March 28.