Poetic Features of Punk Rock Lyrics

An Analysis of Punk Rock Lyrics with Regard to the Punk Movement

Seminar Paper, 2005

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Are Punk Rock Lyrics Comparable to Classical Poetry?

2. An Introduction of Selected Punk Bands and Analyses of some of their Works
2.1 Bad Religion
2.2 Green Day
2.3 AFI

3. Opinions

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction: Are Punk Rock Lyrics Comparable to Classical Poetry?

There are certainly people who regard punk rock and its lyrics as dilettante unarticulated noise that has only one message and one purpose: provocation. Of course there are differences in the quality, but the same counts for poetry. The lyrics analyzed in this paper are chosen because they contain stylistic devices that are thoughtfully used to create atmosphere, describe feelings, emphasise criticism and different kinds of intertextuality. I want to show that punk rock lyrics can be more than mindless provocation.

Punk rock and the punk movement had a powerful impact on society and pop music. People influenced by it regarded crudeness and simplicity as a chance to express themselves, the constraints of conventions that demanded conformity and accuracy left behind. While breaking with those traditions concerning music, life style and attitude was at first the main motivation in the late 1970s, the movement emerged for many people to a force propagating virtues like equality, justice and social responsibility. The mixture of music always forcing attention and the prevalent notion of urgency in the lyrics proved a perfect basis for a countless number of artists to express vigorously protest, feelings ranging from despair to joy or just their personal perception of their environment.

Along the history of American poetry the poems showed exactly those features, offering a channel to express oneself. The way poets express themselves just changed. It required centuries and many different stages to develop for example from the puritan style and fixed rhyme pattern of Anne Bradstreet’s works to the flowing free verse of Walt Whitman expressing a fervent patriotism, which is again a great contrast to Allen Ginsberg’s beat poetry, which features a very critical attitude towards America.

Regarding the Native Americans’ poetry, which deals in many cases with the balance between humans and their environment or appears in the form of vocables, as an additional facet, these developments illustrate how wide the range of style has already been when comparing it to later forms of poetry, and that always a breaking with conventions, accompanied by enthusiastic adherents on the one hand and sceptics on the other hand, took place.

Analyzing a selection of punk rock lyrics by American artists I want to show that they possess features that are typical for classical poetry, whereas the term classical poetry will represent the traditional understanding of poetry, which does not include punk rock lyrics. Intertextual elements as well as formal aspects will be pointed out and compared to similar cases in works of different poets that are supposed to serve as a kind of measuring staff, which will help to show where congruence is present and where it is not.

2. An Introduction of Selected Punk Bands and Analyses of some of their Works

Some selected works of the bands Bad Religion, Green Day and AFI are the focus of this paper. All of them are still active and play shows all over the world. They represent different styles of punk rock, deliver different messages, and their audiences only overlap to a certain degree. Yet, the one thing they all have in common is the wish to express themselves and their personal attitude, and share it with their audience. I will try to show how this is done and in what ways the three bands differ.

2.1 Bad Religion

This band is maybe the best representative of music being both punk and intellectual. I chose this band, because it has evoked a discussion about the question whether a band can fulfil both features at the same time, and because it can look back on a comparatively long history that started in 1980 when the punk movement has just started to gain its full energy. As teenagers, they played shows in the dirtiest clubs in Los Angeles where the lowest sound quality thinkable carried their first screams for attention to punks wearing black leather jackets and torn clothes, sharing the attitude ‘no future’. But verses like “We’re only gonna die from our own arrogance.” (cf. “We’re only Gonna Die”) or “We're all being oppressed by the upper middle class.” (cf. “Politics”) made it clear that this band won’t line up behind the ones hiding behind ‘no future’ as a shield from society, but rather prove its injustice and deficiency by describing its nature with a disillusioning meticulousness.

The singer of the band, Greg Graffin, born on 6 November 1965 in Madison, Wisconsin, is regarded as the head of the band and has become famous as a “punk rock professor”. Besides Bad Religion he managed to pursue an academic career and achieve the Ph.D. title in evolutionary biology at the Cornell University in Ithaca. He proved that punk rock music and intellectual lyrics do not except each other. He also believes that the punk movement itself is something that deserves a serious discussion and wrote the “Punk Manifesto”. This essay on a topic that many people ignore concludes among other things that “PUNK IS: the personal expression of uniqueness that comes from the experiences of growing up in touch with our human ability to reason and ask questions” (my emphasis).

This definition answers the question, whether punk can be poetry, with yes. Regarding the statement of Manfred Jahn, that “a lyrical poem is a subjective and reflective type of discourse in which a speaker presents or describes an emotion, or discusses a philosophical problem“ (cf. Jahn, “A Guide to the Theory of Poetry”, P3.2; my emphasis), one notices the central element of subjectivity, which both definitions are based on.

Graffin is not the only writer in the band. He sometimes works together with Brett Gurewitz, who is also a founding member. The lyrics written by Gurewitz differ from Graffin’s by being not so highbrow, but more metaphorical.

In order to get on to the works of Bad Religion I now want to present a couple of citations and examine them for elements of classical poetry.

The brown and orange sky holds its breath
As the sun retreats to the distant horizon
And our hearts palpitate anxiously as we soon will lay supine
And wait for sleep to overcome us

As all of the lyrics introduced in this paper, these taken from “Tiny Voices” by Greg Graffin are sung over music played in four-four time. This urgency suggesting rhythm can also be applied to beat poetry like the kind Allen Ginsberg produced. As for him, especially for punk rock bands, is using free verse an indication that not the form of the work is what is important, but everything else. The passage contains intertextuality in different ways. While the romantic image of the setting sun in the coloured sky suggests beauty, the atmosphere of peace is disturbed. The personifying verbs “hold breath” and “retreats” create a feeling that something is wrong, while the first can mean “to wait for something unpleasant” and the latter implies that the sun is fleeing from something. Also the people seem to expect something worrisome. The fear is expressed by the hearts that “palpitate anxiously”, which is another personification. The situation of the people described in the passages is paradox. On the one hand, they cannot fall asleep peacefully, since they are afraid of something, but on the other hand, their attitude is described as careless or resigned, which can be told from the adjective “supine”. The lyrics of the chorus will explain what the sky and the people beneath expect in the night.

Tiny voices

Echoes of our heritage

Our long and sallow faces turn the other way

Tiny voices

Harbored deep within as we outwardly deny

They have something to say

And if we don't confront they will never go away

Since history often plays a central role in Graffin’s works, “echoes of our heritage” might be a metaphor for it in this song. His frustration that results from the people not learning from history is obviously what he wants to express in this passage. With “tiny voices” he uses a metaphor, that causes an impression of haunting. The faces of the people ignoring those voices are described as “long and sallow”, which seems very unnatural and sick. The statement the lyrical I, who appears in the pronouns “we” and “our”, makes at the end of the chorus is plainly that the only way to find peace is to listen to the voices. The reader gets an image of sick people haunted by the voices of their ancestors, which they refuse to listen to. If all of the metaphors are transferred, one can conclude that the speaker identifies with a society that suffers for not learning from history, as long as it denies confronting the past.

The second lyrics I want to introduce are taken from the song “Turn on the Light” and are written by the guitarist Brett Gurewitz.

I’ll construct a rock of tempered beams and trusses

And equip with just a million tiny suns,

I’ll install upon the roof on my compartment

And place tinfoil on my floor and on my walls

Then I’ll turn on the light,

Turn on a million blinding brilliant white incendiary lights,

A beacon in the night,

I’ll burn relentlessly until my juice runs dry

The extract shows the second verse and the chorus. It illustrates the difference between the language used by Graffin and Gurewitz. The comparatively more common vocabulary and the distinct image of darkness being pushed away by extremely bright light result in a more direct and simple address to the reader than “Tiny Voices”. Gurewitz achieves this by explaining detailed the building of a huge light radiating construction. The extract provides a great deal of exaggerations. It’s unrealistic that a person builds such a device from “tempered beams and trusses”. The expression “suns” as light-sources and the number “million” make clear that the speaker is no real person and that the lyrics most obviously convey a metaphorical sense. Regarding the band’s intention to point up flaws of humanity, this sense is possibly the intention of clearing up. The metaphor of clearing up by bringing light to the world is also historically rooted in the Age of Enlightenment, which was supposed to bring reason to the so-called Dark Ages. The exaggerations leave no doubt about the high importance the speaker attributes to the accomplishment of this task.


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Poetic Features of Punk Rock Lyrics
An Analysis of Punk Rock Lyrics with Regard to the Punk Movement
Bielefeld University
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Poetic, Features, Punk, Rock, Lyrics, of, Music, Englisch, English, Punkrock, Lyrik
Quote paper
Sebastian Heinrichs (Author), 2005, Poetic Features of Punk Rock Lyrics, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/74948


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