Why Pop Songs Are Not Novels


The Human League

by Enrique Lima

Although this seems self-evident it’s worth explaining. As Bakhtin long ago observed, novels are heteroglossic. That is, although one consciousness or voice may dominate narration, the novel is compelled by its own philosophical-formal orientation to include other voices. I’ll mention just a couple of dimensions of that imperative here. First, novels are systems of narratives. Unlike short stories, which tend to focus on one event in the life of a character and finish at the conclusion of that event, novels are made up of many stories that while hierarchically ordered also amplify and extend the aims of the work. While it is possible to imagine a short story that is longer than a novel, novels are almost universally longer than short stories because stories are their building blocks. Second, novels aim to render the extensive totality of being. They want to show what they imagine to be real people living in their social world. That vision may seem provincial or metropolitan, shallow or profound, artificial or organic to the reader depending on his or her ideological or historical relationship to the work, but the work itself is written with the belief that what it is representing is an adequate representation of the world. Because they intend to represent an image of society through a system of stories, novels must be made up of many voices. A narrowing of that heteroglossia leads novels to navel-gazing and narcissistic abstraction at best or to motivated and misleading propaganda at worst.

Pop songs are deeply monological. That feature only asserts itself, however, when one is confronted with songs that take up a dialogue, for example Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” The song begins with a moody, sparse, yet playful instrumental section seemingly taken from the Tom Waits songbook. It moves from there to a terse recounting of nostalgia, resentment, and bitterness regarding a past relationship. Good stuff! It reminds me that I look forward to being unhappy in another relationship someday. The song continues in a minimalist vein, creating a kind of empty sonic space in which the tortured words of the singer resonate. Then some weird shit happens. Someone else starts singing and what she’s singing offers a counterpoint to the earlier claims. It’s jarring because a dialogue is so unusual in pop music. I’m sure there are more examples but I can only think of two off the top of my head: The Postal Service’s “Nothing’s Better” and The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me Baby.”

These songs are very different from traditional duets, which despite the presence of two voices only offer one narrative. Compare Gotye’s song to Matt Nathanson and Sugarland’s “Run,” another song currently on rotation on commercial radio. The two voices in the second song are working together to explain one emotion. This isn’t a dialogue; it’s a soliloquy in two voices. So why are pop songs primarily monological? Probably for the same reason that they succeed in ways that novels can’t: music can convey emotion in a much more immediate way than novels and what it loses in its social vision it gains in the instant and deeply personal contact it can make with listeners. We like monological music because we want to be alone with songs and we want them to be alone with us.

Piece crossposted with Pop Erratic