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Mass Media Mass Media
Editor: Jay Rosen
Sheila Davis* POP LYRICS:
A Mirror and a Molder
of Society
IN THE THIRTY-ONE YEARS since Et cetera published S.I. Hayakawa's paper "Popular Songs vs. the Facts of Life" assessing the "underlying assumptions, orientations, and implied attitudes" reflected in pop lyrics, (1) major social forces have combined to reshape the sound and the content of our songs -- the Sexual Revolution; the Women's Movement; the dominance in the recording marketplace by the creative hyphenate (the singer-songwriter- arranger-producer); and the growing "africanization" of American music. (2) If Dr. Hayakawa were listening to top-40 radio today, he would hear a radical change in both the attitudes and the language of popular songs.

For one thing, the belief in magic, miracles, and a love to last forever -- manifest in so many pre-rock era songs -- is expressed only occasionally in contemporary lyrics. Lionel Richie would seem to be the last bastion of romanticism, still proclaiming the viability of "Endless Love," and effecting an open-hearted vulnerability in "Truly" and "Still." Today long-term interpersonal relationships are more generally viewed as difficult, if not impossible, as in such hits as "Hard Time For Lovers" and "What's Forever For?" In spite of an occasional "we can work it out" sentiment, the overriding emotion is disillusionment, reflecting the current one-out-of-three divorce rate.

Female passivity, like commitment, is out of style. The lyrical wimp, who Hayakawa heard whining in "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," has been replaced with the EST-inspired assertiveness of such feminist anthems as "I Will Survive" and "It's My Turn." In fact, the top female recording stars of the mid-eighties -- Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Sheena Easton, and Tina . . .

* Sheila Davis is an Adjunct Professor of lyric writing in the Music Business and Technology Masters Program at New York University and author of The Craft of Lyric Writing.


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