19

This question arose from this answer.

It can be argued that songs and poems can be considered literature. Heck, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his songwriting. I wouldn't say that Dylan's work qualifies as literature for the purposes of this site, but I think that a lot of older works in the style of epic poems could fit. The best examples I can think of are certain old Norse sagas.

So, are poems - specifically epic poems - on-topic on Literature Stack Exchange? If so, what about the boundary between songs and poems?


I've asked a test question: In "Bullet the Blue Sky", what is the symbolism of Jacob and the angel?.

  • 2
    I think the line between poems and songs is very thin – RaisingAgent Jan 18 '17 at 20:59
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    @RaisingAgent - It's actually 5 parallel bars, not a line – DVK Jan 18 '17 at 21:23
  • You can't take the Nobel committee as the arbiter of what is literature. After all, as Tom Lehrer famously said, Satire died the day Henry Kissinger got the Peace Prize for napalming Vietnam. – Chenmunka Jan 19 '17 at 12:33
  • @Chenmunka not the same commitee that awards the peace price and the other ones. – Helmar Jan 20 '17 at 15:24
21

Poems should be on-topic without further qualification. For hundreds of years, poetry was nearly the only type of literature produced, and some of the greatest works of literature are poems.

I favor allowing questions about songs as long as they are literary questions. Questions about word choice, symbolism, historical context, or narrative structure of a song should be allowed, but as soon as you get into the musical aspects of the song, it should probably go to Music Fans. (And if we do end up allowing identification questions, I'll fight to the death against allowing "identify this song".)

Basically, if you could ask the same question about a poem, I think it should be on-topic, but questions specific to the musical aspects of a song should go to Music Fans.

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    Although I'm reluctant to allow song lyrics questions, his may be the best way to draw the line between songs and poems that happen to be set to music. – amaranth Jan 22 '17 at 1:16
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    @amaranth I'm not super jazzed about accepting questions on the lyrics of Megan Trainor and Kanye West either; I'm here to talk about more traditional literature and the occasional graphic novel, and if I had my way, I'd like to kick all the song questions over to Music Fans. But the line between what I'd like to allow and what I'd like to forbid is probably too vague and subjective to use as the basis for a real policy, so I came up with this as a hard, clear line that everyone can understand. – Torisuda Jan 22 '17 at 1:25
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    The issue here is that, in most cases, it's impossible to separate the meaning of the lyrics from the meaning of the song. – Aza Jan 22 '17 at 11:09
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    @Emrakul I'm not sure I understand what you mean. I was thinking of allowing questions like HDE 226868's example question. If someone asks questions like "Why is there a guitar solo in 'Stairway to Quincy' at 10:32?" or "Why did Baron Smellington play an F chord right when Smussh said 'YOWL' in their smash hit 'Bankruptcy'?", then those should be off-topic because they're asking purely about the music, or about how the lyrics and music interact. – Torisuda Jan 22 '17 at 16:52
  • "Poems should be on-topic without further qualification. For hundreds of years, poetry was nearly the only type of literature produced, and some of the greatest works of literature are poems." Very curious: how does music fit into this history? Before deciding that an entire class of questions should be off-topic, it would be helpful to do some research to make sure you're making the right decision. – user111 Sep 2 '17 at 15:57
  • @Hamlet No need for condescension. I'm aware that the history of poetry and music is tightly intertwined. I'm not wedded to this policy; it was a compromise suggestion because at the time I wasn't sure how open people would be to the idea of taking questions not about the written word. If you want to allow questions about the musical parts of songs, then feel free to propose such. You will find that I offer little resistance. – Torisuda Sep 2 '17 at 17:08
  • @Torisuda the thing about compromises is that instead of one or both sides getting what they want, nobody gets what they want. Compromises work because both sides decide that they would rather nobody gets what they want rather than some or all people getting what they want. The art of a good negotiation is finding a solution that satisfies everyone, not a solution that satisfies some or nobody. (But judging by the upvotes, this answer has satisfied quite a few people. Which makes me suspect it isn't a compromise.) – user111 Sep 3 '17 at 14:16
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    @Hamlet I see you ignored "No need for condescension" in favor of lecturing me about compromises. I did get what I wanted from this. I was afraid that some zealot would argue that songs should be off-topic and that since poems are so closely related to songs, they should also be off-topic. I wanted poems on topic, so I moved to quash that line of reasoning immediately. I cared less about songs, so I partially threw them under the bus to secure poems. – Torisuda Sep 3 '17 at 16:46
  • I did and always have favored a wider scope. I even would have liked to consider allowing literary analysis on films since I don't feel M&TV covers this well. But previously the community seemed to react poorly to this, so I didn't bother arguing for it. – Torisuda Sep 3 '17 at 16:47
  • @Torisuda fair enough. I appologise. – user111 Sep 3 '17 at 16:48
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    @Torisuda I would encourage you to share why you think M&TV doesn't cover literary analysis of films well and how they could possibly improve on that. Feel free to drop by their chatroom or even meta to share your opinion on the matter. (You don't have to of course, but that site is at least supposed to cover that and IMHO did so in the past, and it's one of its primary fields to cover, so I'd like to know why you feel it's lacking in this regard and how they can do a better job at it.) – Cahir Mawr Dyffryn æp Ceallach Sep 3 '17 at 22:16
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    @CahirMawrDyffrynæpCeallach I don't think I have anything useful to say, unfortunately. It seems like it's just not something that interests most of the people who ask questions over there anymore. We had a similar progression at Anime and Manga; there used to be a lot of good analysis questions with good answers, but people just don't ask them anymore. (On A&M they often don't get answers even when people do ask them.) – Torisuda Sep 3 '17 at 23:37
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    @Torisuda Okay. But I don't think creating another site for it is a good solution either. It's also not really an experience I made myself. But we're diverging, I guess. I'll try to keep your worries in mind. – Cahir Mawr Dyffryn æp Ceallach Sep 3 '17 at 23:54
  • @CahirMawrDyffrynæpCeallach I took at look at Movies and TV. You have some good questions, but they're hard to find. Looking at your answers, however, I'm seeing answers based on TVTropes and Wikipedia. I'm not seeing any actual original analysis or reputable sources. Maybe I haven't looked hard enough. But if I had questions to ask, I wouldn't want to ask them there. I imagine that many other people feel the same way. So maybe that's why there is an appetite among some people for asking questions about films on Literature. – user111 Sep 4 '17 at 16:05
  • @Hamlet Feel free to bring your concerns to that site's chatroom or meta, which would be a more appropriate place for discussing this. I'm sorry to have started this discussion here in this unrelated comment thread. I just saw some reasonable concerns and asked the users to take them to that community. – Cahir Mawr Dyffryn æp Ceallach Sep 4 '17 at 16:08
7

I think we can agree that poems and ballads are literature and songs are as well. Which answers the question, if they should be on-topic here. Lyric poetry is the beginning of all literature, when the bards and poets sung their songs to the kings and queens. It too, is a huge part in modern literature. I am already thrilled to discuss about songs like 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' or 'Lose Yourself'.

In addition: non-lyrics questions about songs should be off-topic.

Since even Bob Dylan has won a Nobel Prize for his music.
Stephen Sondheim won the Pulitzer prize for the musical Sunday in the park with George.

  • So we're allowed to ask "What the hell IS a real-estate novelist, anyway"? – Lauren Ipsum Jan 19 '17 at 2:28
  • I'm downvoting mostly because your answer doesn't make the same fine distinction as another answer (e.g. that non-lyrics questions about songs should be offtopic). If you edit that in, i'll reverse my upvote – DVK Jan 23 '17 at 2:39
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Yes, but it's especially important to avoid speculation for these types of questions.

I've seen discussion forums where questions on song meaning just descended into "Well I think this means x...", "I think that this means Y...", etc. As is the case elsewhere on the site, answers should be justified with concrete facts (rather than just speculation or personal opinion). I think that it's very important that we avoid that here. (I think that, overall, we've already been doing a good job with that elsewhere on the site, though - it's important to avoid broken windows when introducing a new category of questions, though).

In fact, if we keep standards good for these questions, it could be a major value-add for this site over existing discussion forums - it seems like there's a dearth of quality information on song lyrics and if we could help fill that gap it could actually become a draw for the site.

One thing that's unique about interpreting songs: the song title, music, and performance are part of interpreting the song meaning. Yes, this is a literature site, but you can't really divorce the song lyrics from the music - that's like saying that we can't discuss the artwork in a graphic novel or comic book because it's not part of the actual words. The music is just as much part of the literature of a song as the illustrations and drawings are part of the literature of a graphic novel.

-2

TL;DR - On-topic

I think we can look to some of sister sites to help formulate our "policy" here as the same issue has been brought up before.


First, on English Language and Usage song lyrics are not out-right off-topic but come under some scrutiny. On their meta we find the following

If the question is about the grammaticality of line of poetry or what the metaphor is supposed to be, then that's OK. If it is about the cultural relevance of the item than that's off-topic. Source

I agree with that sentiment. While here on Literature we may not deal with grammar we certainly deal with metaphors and meanings. In addition, "General Reference" is no longer a close reason, so this would allow what might be considered "trivia questions" to be on topic as well. However, this should not prevent poorly researched questions from being down-voted.


Next, on Music Fans song lyrics are on-topic from what I can gather. They are also a newer site (older than Literature, but still in Beta) and still growing and learning as Literature is. On their meta we see the following discussion on lyrics:

First I think we have to realize that the meaning of lyrics may have multiple interpretations especially to different people. We should seek answers that are either:

  1. Interpretations from the person who wrote the lyrics.
  2. Commonly accepted interpretations.

The first should be preferred over the second, but lyricists sometimes don't explain their lyrics at all. In either case though a source should be required to keep the answers from just being personal interpretations which there could be infinite. Source

I also agree with this answer as we should try to find if the original author has commented on the issue, but if not other forms of literary analysis are obviously fine. Since Stack Exchange is a site for "experts" we should tailor our answers in that format.


Overall, I feel that the site will self regulate and that good questions and good answers will always rise to the top. Experienced users know how to identify the difference between a good and bad question and should respond accordingly, whether that be down-votes or closure.

Even if lyrics are on-topic they need to be formatted in a way that will not make them "Too Broad" or "Primarily Opinion Based".

(Full disclosure, I am a member but not highly active on ELU, and not a member on Music)

  • 3
    I agree with "on topic but keep the quality high," but your specific ideas about what "high quality" might look like don't sit right with me. In particular giving priority to authorial intent over other kinds of analysis is a bad idea in any context, but it's an especially poor decision when dealing with song lyrics. – BESW Feb 17 '17 at 23:02
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    Because the author is only an authority on what the author says. The text outlives its author not just literally, but in meaning and context. The author and the text can be regarded as unrelated and many forms of analysis don't care about the author at all. By insisting on giving the author first authority over interpretation we'd be ignoring entire broad fields of literary theory. – BESW Feb 18 '17 at 0:38
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    Science fiction and fantasy fandoms tend to give the "word of god" treatment to creators and give their statements the highest authority, but even within fandoms that's obviously an incomplete approach at best; Davies thinks his Doctor Who reboot's success with women was due to the domestic soap opera elements, while JK "Oh Dear Maths" Rowling contradicts herself regularly. As a literary site (not a fandom site) we need to be open to the full range of critical and analytical tools and lenses without giving any preferential treatment. – BESW Feb 18 '17 at 0:43
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    America is famously inconsistent in saying what "A Horse with No Name" is about, while Bob Dylan will say whatever makes the interviewer look foolish. This isn't restricted to song-writers (see Poe's "Philosophy of Composition") but performing artists tend to be more restricted by contracts and industry relationships, and more interested in preserving a public persona than in offering true insight into their work. So while a site policy prioritising authorial statements is a bad idea in general, it's even more obstructive of useful answers when applied to song analysis. – BESW Feb 18 '17 at 0:47
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    In summary: answers which only draw on the author's statements are only good answers if the question is about the author's statements. Any other kind of question must benefit from not naively accepting the author's word at face value. – BESW Feb 18 '17 at 0:51
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    Again, that is only one way to analyse a work, and by treating it as a necessary method you're reducing entire fields of theory like post-structuralism, deconstructivism, and post-modernism, as second-class theories not worthy of equal consideration. You may personally feel that they are secondary and inferior, but the site can't afford that prejudice. If you're just not familiar with concepts like the "death of the author" and the philosophies behind reader-response criticism, please do some research; I think you'll find it fascinating. I've given you plenty of terms and links to start. – BESW Feb 18 '17 at 1:01
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    That is not my intent. I am not trying to take anything away from other forms of analysis, but you seem to be going in the opposite direction. Who cares what the lowly author said, we are educated, we know better. – Skooba Feb 18 '17 at 2:02
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    If it is not your intent to propose that "we should always try to find if the original author has commented on the issue and then those answers should be given more weight that others" (emphasis mine), then please edit your answer to place that phrase in context or revise it to mean what you intend. – BESW Feb 18 '17 at 2:22
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    "Since Stack Exchange is a site for "experts" we should tailor our answers in that format." If you want this to be a site for experts about literature, then that means understanding that authors very frequently misinterpret their texts, either intentionally (because they don't want to give away the meaning) or unintentionally (because they just don't have the knowledge/skillset). – user111 Feb 18 '17 at 2:41
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    I guess I just can't get behind an author unintentionally misinterpreting their own work. Intentional, as you mentioned, sure. – Skooba Feb 18 '17 at 2:45
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    @Skooba it happens all the time in real life. Someone makes a joke. Someone else responds with "hey, actually that was really hurtful." People don't always understand the meaning/impact of their words. Why should it be different for professional authors? – user111 Feb 18 '17 at 2:47
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    @Skooba even with that edit I would still downvote this answer. As BESW said, we can't favor one interpretation over another as site policy. – user111 Feb 18 '17 at 2:49
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    By insisting the author's extra-textual statements are necessary for quality answers, you're classifying as secondary any theory which ignores or devalues the author's extra-textual statements. Let's flip it: Please explain why an author's extra-textual statements, and not the text itself, are the starting point from which we can "expand" if we "want to." We're a site about literature, not about authors, and there are many ways to consider a text without considering its author at all. (I hope you didn't mean to imply that song lyrics somehow merit less critical thought than novels.) – BESW Feb 18 '17 at 4:30
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    But I have not insisted they are necessary, only that they be given weight when provided. We may be a site about literature, but there is no literature unless someone writes it. There can be no better expert on a work than the person who wrote it. – Skooba Feb 18 '17 at 13:22
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    This is going to be my last comment, but the sentence "There can be no better expert on a work than the person who wrote it." is just not true. – user111 Feb 18 '17 at 18:37

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