If you’ve never encountered the phenomenon of song poems, then, my friend, you are in for a treat-a-roo.
Song poems were – and still are – made by companies who place adverts looking for lyrics and poems to make into songs. The ads dangle the possibility of radio play and international record sales, but they’re basically the equivalent of vanity publishing for music – the difference being that, for a fee, they actually convert lyrics into fully-recorded songs.
An early episode of This American Life features a story where a guy who never met his father discovers that he produced hundreds of song poems, setting other people’s lyrics to music. He begins to get an insight into the man his father was, and even finds a kind of genius and beauty in his work. You can listen to the episode online.
But for the definitive skinny on song poems, the documentary Off The Charts is unbeatable. It’s totally wonderful. Seriously. Watch the first five minutes and I defy you not to watch the lot.
It does such a good job of capturing the hopes and dreams, the reality, the absurdity, and the sweetness of the people who pay to have their words made into songs. It acknowledges the silliness, but it’s never cruel. Similarly, it does a great job of showing the genuine craft and talent of the musicians churning out dozens of songs a day. When you see the sheer speed at which they work, it’s hard to think of them as hacks. I certainly left with a stunned admiration at their skill and hard work.
And you’ve got to watch, just for the stunning originality of lyrics like:
Within Queen City of Southern Tiers
I am sitting on my Super-Bicycle
And I’m dressed like Captain Bicycle
set to banging 80s synth and drum machine.