Bigmouth strikes again?

James Redburn 31 October 2013

Popular music suffers from its shortened derivation ‘pop’. Whilst we might term the latter a genre, with connotations of standardisation and phoniness, the former is a medium, through which respectable artistic work is frequently achieved, just as in any other medium.

In the modern age, the pop song is the supreme form of communicating a message since it is concise, easily accessible in any location and participates within the youthful obsession with taste. That is, despite its commodity basis, the pop song’s appeal comes from the way it interacts emotionally with the listener, defining memories, illuminating ways of thinking and justifying concerns, all whilst giving the inexplicable thrill of passive escape from the surrounding world.

Thus, the recent release of Mr Steven Patrick’s autobiography as a ‘Penguin Classic’ should not immediately be condemned as a blasphemic act which tears apart the very foundations of what we lovingly term ‘Literature’. He should not, by virtue of being a pop lyricist, whose language is disseminated aurally rather than textually, necessarily be excluded from the literary canon (whatever that is).

It seems that there are two major objections taken to this decision, which has led some to consider that Penguin have blemished the reputation of their series. Firstly, on a practical level, the autobiography has never been published before so cannot possibly have gained the status of a ‘classic work’, in the same influential sense that The Odyssey has. Secondly, the series is reserved for a glamorous gathering of literary greats in which Morrissey, a mere pop star, is about as welcome as ‘Heaven Knows…’ at Cindies.

The first of these arguments is indisputable, unless we twiddle with the definition of ‘classic’, which we are more than entitled to do, since it’s entirely subjective anyway.  The autobiography is a classic because it is the culmination of a career of words that have influenced so many others, musicians and listeners alike. It is a supreme example of autobiography, with experimental prosaic techniques which challenge the conventional expectations of the genre.

As for the second, Morrissey’s lyrics are the focus of academic interrogation, they are widely respected as beautifully melancholic and have, along with the work of other great lyricists, given dignity to an artistic medium which is so often denigrated. We can argue about the definition of ‘literary value’ until The Smiths reform but when words garner such widespread acclaim in a primarily musical medium, something must be special.

By elevating Morrissey into the pantheon of panache, seating him alongside Wilde (as well as Keats and Yeats), Penguin have made an extremely bold, but entirely justified, cultural and artistic statement – lyrics of popular music should be considered, within their own unique conditions of production, alongside novels, poetry and drama.