So You Think You Can Turn Pop Songs into Shakespearean Sonnets?

Posted by Erik Didriksen

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

Normally I’d turn that lyric into a line of iambic pentameter. Today, I think it’s fine the way it is. With a few short words, the Grateful Dead pretty much summed up my last two years or so — from the first moments of rewriting a Carly Rae Jepsen song as Shakespeare to putting the finishing touches on the book. The entire process has been extraordinary in both senses of the word: wonderful and kinda far out, man.  It’s also been educational. At the outset, I didn’t know “thee” from “thou,” or when a word like “make” should become “makest.” But there are less obvious things I’ve picked up while translating pop songs into sonnets — things I can’t pass on in the sonnets themselves. Here are some of the more entertaining ones:

  • Accent is everything. A lien of iambic pentameter requires ten syllables, alternating between accented and unaccented beats. This, however, can be confounded by the other kind of accent. While writing the book, I’ve had to dismantle several lines due to miscounting syllables — not because I can’t count, but because my New Joisey accent makes me add syllables to certain words! The dictionary tells you the word “desire” is pronounced “de-ZIRE,” but I usually say “dee-ZI-uhr.” The monosyllabic “smile” also throws me sometimes, since I usually say “SMI-uhl.” Fuhgeddaboudit!
  • Pop lyrics are deeper than you think. It’s so easy to ignore the lyrics of a pop song, especially if it sounds like bubblegum pop. I considered writing a sonnet for Hanson’s “Mmmbop,” and elected not to only because I couldn’t remember any of the original lyrics on my own. When I read through them, I discovered the song is actually a mature reflection on the uncertainty of the future and the transience of relationships. Seriously! You could’ve slipped it into my high school English textbook and told me it was Walt Whitman, and I would’ve believed you.
  • The early days of MTV were incredible. YouTube was a great resource for revisiting songs I was working on, and I was often treated to the artist’s music video. Videos from the 80’s were usually my favorites — MTV was still in its infancy, and artists and directors were still trying to get their bearings. You’ve been Rickrolled enough times to know “Never Gonna Give You Up” is entertainingly cheesy, but when was the last time you watched Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl?” The video ends with Springfield playing a concert for the title couple…and a dog in a tie. Even Springsteen couldn't escape the cheese: the “Dancing in the Dark” video is four minutes of the Boss doing the Carlton Banks dance, with Monica from “Friends” joining him for the last few moments. (This is not an inaccurate or exaggerated description; Alfonso Ribeiro developed Carlton’s dance by watching this clip.)

So go ahead — put on some 80’s tunes, read a few sonnets, and… well, keep on truckin’.

Erik Didriksen

Erik Didriksen

ERIK DIDRIKSEN is a software engineer, musician, sonneteer, and trivia enthusiast. He lives in Astoria, New York. His book with Quirk, Pop Sonnets, goes on sale October 6, 2015.