Song LyricsLearning materials and links about interesting song lyrics in English
This section of Camilla’s English Page features songs with interesting lyrics that lend themselves to poetic analysis, along with related media, notes, discussion questions, and blog posts exploring my fascination with and interpretation of them. When I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity, I like to discuss these songs with my students because they function so well as poetry and are quite thought-provoking. Unlike most popular music, many of these songs are characterized by a clear distinction between the speaker and the poet/singer, so they provide examples of how to be psychologically and narratively creative by attempting to inhabit the mind of a character.
Song Lyrics for Analysis and Discussion contains the lyrics for numerous songs not featured below, including songs by Nick Drake, Wilco, and Steve Earle.
Song Lyrics and Discussion Questions
Click on each link below for media, lyrics, and discussion questions for that song.
“Strange Fruit” holds a unique place in the world of jazz as a political song in an apolitical genre. Sung by Billie Holiday, one of the greatest singers in American musical history, it paints a stark portrait of white supremacist terrorism with poetic but unflinching lyrics.
Bob Dylan‘s vast catalog of songs has influenced and been covered by innumerable musicians. Among his overtly political songs, “Masters of War” stands out as a caustic denunciation of the military-industrial complex.
Father John Misty
Provocative and decidedly not priestly, Father John Misty (Josh Tillman) is often criticized for his sometimes bitingly ironic humor and his unvarnished opinions about sensitive topics. Some of his songs tell intimately personal stories; others are about the broad existential questions faced by someone who revels in the pleasures of life but feels profoundly pessimistic about humanity. “In Twenty Years or So,” from his 2017 album Pure Comedy, explores the psychological territory of this paradox.
Though folk legend James Taylor‘s style is usually understated, his songs convey thoughtfulness and sensitivity, sometimes to devastating effect. “Millworker,” from the 1979 album Flag and the Broadway musical Working, is a powerful portrait of a woman whose life is spent (in multiple senses of the word) working in a mill.
Living Colour‘s intense, complex music and politically provocative lyrics made them stand out in the rock music world of the late 80’s, when their long career began. Written from the perspective of a crack dealer, “New Jack Theme” accomplishes the difficult narrative feat of conveying empathy and psychological insight without glorifying or excusing the speaker’s lifestyle. It answers the question “Why would someone choose to become a drug dealer?”
The American heavy metal band Metallica has explored countless topics in their songs, many of them dark and somber. “Of Wolf and Man,” which explores humankind’s primal need for closeness with the natural world, is typically intense but more uplifting than many of their songs.
A singer, songwriter, guitarist, drummer, and producer, Neko Case makes music that is challenging and unconventional. Her songs boast some of the most brilliantly poetic lyrics in all of modern music. “Last Lion of Albion,” from her 2018 album Hell-On, is a meditation on the human tendency to exploit the things we destroy as images for self-glorification.
The American rock band Pearl Jam has had a tremendous influence on me as both musicians and socially conscious citizens. “Indifference” is a simple, reflective song that, contrary to its title, conveys fierce resistance in the face of adversity and injustice.
Restlessly inventive, the members of Radiohead seem to enjoy challenging themselves and their listeners with complex songs of diverse styles. “Subterranean Homesick Alien” takes an interesting approach to exploring some of the main themes of the acclaimed album OK Computer: alienation, loneliness, and a sense of the emptiness of the modern world. “Videotape” is a hypnotic meditation on mortality.
Rhiannon Giddens is a singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist of enormous range and talent, as well as a MacArthur genius grant recipient. Many of her songs explore psychological, political, and historical aspects of the African-American experience. “At the Purchaser’s Option,” written after she came across an advertisement for a slave with a nine-month-old child, is one of her best-known songs.
The Canadian progressive rock band Rush is known for both virtuosic musicianship and thought-provoking lyrics. “Subdivisions” reflects on the characteristics of suburbia that both repel people from it and draw them back to it.
The calm, gentle style of most of Suzanne Vega‘s music belies the depth and darkness of some of the topics she writes about. “Luka,” her most famous song, is written from the point of view of an abused boy speaking to a neighbor.
Temple of the Dog
The band Temple of the Dog formed as a way of paying tribute to the late singer Andrew Wood when its now-famous members (from Soundgarden and Pearl Jam) were relatively unknown. “Wooden Jesus” comments on the ethical and psychological issues raised by the influence and commercial power of televangelists.
The Irish band Villagers is essentially the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Conor O’Brien with a cast of touring musicians. Many of Conor’s songs are deeply personal; “The Waves,” written partly in response to the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, is an example of his more abstract work.