Return of the Raven
Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”
by Malia Jackson
illustration by Justin Wambult-Reynolds
SOMETIMES IT’S BEST not to write critically about a thing you truly love: to expose its cog wheels and springs can result in a pile of inner workings with none of the gestalt. I was apprehensive writing a paper recently that included a long section on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” This is a poem I’ve loved since youth, one I memorized in eighth grade, one I’ve recited beerily at parties (don’t you want to party with me?). Thankfully, Poe himself decided the poem was worth vivisecting. In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” he unraveled “The Raven” in the same way his fictional detective Dupin solved murders: logically and meticulously. This essay reaffirmed my love for the poem, even magnified it, and oddly enough has led me to occasionally use Poe’s philosophy to justify what makes great art—he obviously felt “The Raven” qualified.
This leads me to Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”
When my roommate played “Crazy” for me and told me it was going to be the Summer Jam of 2006, I believed her immediately. Maybe because Cee-Lo Green’s vocals, spilling from his lips with such power and improbable ease, move me at a molecular level. Maybe I’m just a sucker for choral oohs and swelling strings. Or perhaps it’s because even upon first listen, I could sense that there were depths to be plumbed in the song.
If we take Poe’s word for it, there are a few things that make “The Raven” a great poem, and many of these things apply to “Crazy,” musically and lyrically. One thing Poe appreciated was concise writing. He felt that if you couldn’t read a piece of writing in one sitting, the effect would be lost on the reader as the rest of the world intervened in the meantime. “Crazy” clocks in at just under three minutes. In my lifetime I have seen the evolution of music from vinyl to digital. Thanks to the virtually limitless capacity of digital storage media, at some point in the near future we’ll be able to listen to all 50 of those Sufjan Stevens state albums, in the order those states joined the Union, without having to flip or change anything. Poe would have keeled over, our champion of the short story and the even shorter poem. He’d have been an iTunes user (or maybe he’d never have abandoned 45s). Just buy the single. Just listen to the song that gets its point across in three minutes.
“The Raven” is a musical poem, certainly, and remarkably structured. The poem is 108 lines long—a number Poe ascertained through some mathematical/numerological process as the ideal length for a poem—and broken into six-line stanzas. Four lines in each stanza rhyme with the word “or.” That gives a grand total of 72 lines that all have “or” as the end sound. I’d call that elegant. And consistent. Unlike “Hey Ya,” the next coming of which “Crazy” was billed to be, “Crazy” contains no spacetastic freakouts. Simple bass, simple beat, spaghetti western soundtrack sample, chorus, and Cee-Lo: I’d call that elegant, and consistent as well. I love a good musical freakout, but I can also appreciate when musicians use some restraint.
When analyzing poetry (or song lyrics as poetry) there are several elements worth considering: the musicality of the language, the overarching ideas supporting the poem, and how evocative, interesting, and surprising the language is. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe addressed these ideas directly. All of us even vaguely familiar with Poe’s work know the themes he holds dear—mystery, the macabre, love. He actually said that the most poetic subject of all is the death of a beautiful woman. “Crazy” is in line with these sensibilities. The singer has lost his mind, is haunted by some lost soul, and craves a heroic death. I’m not going to attempt to argue that the lyrics are on par with Poe, but I am going to argue that they are genuinely poetic in their cryptic nature and skillful use of repetition.
Poe believed in the refrain; poems need pivots on which to turn. Songs are no different, and neither is “Crazy.” Poe chose “nevermore” for his refrain, and he decided it would be best to use a non-human agent to deliver it because of how often it recurs. Thinking about the mood and tone of his piece, he chose a raven to speak the refrain; a parrot would have just been silly. The narrator of the poem is descending into utter breakdown, and each repetition of “nevermore” tugs at his ankles, pulling him further down. He takes the refrain to heart more and more until he finally begs the Raven to “take thy beak out of my heart,” to which the reply is obvious.
“Crazy” doesn’t have quite so many repetitions of its refrain, but it does skillfully pivot around that word. Each repetition of the refrain imbues the word with more meaning in the context of the lyrics. “The Raven” starts out in the narrator’s study; we find the speaker reading books of “forgotten lore” as he fails at forgetting his lost love Lenore (I like to imagine the forgotten lore as zombie books about how to raise the dead, but I may be reading into that a bit much). “Crazy” also starts out in memory, in which the singer is contemplating his lost mind and the echoing emotions of the person he’s lost. The refrain twists us through the singer’s train of thought as he questions who exactly is crazy. He first wonders if he’s crazy, then he directs the crazy at “you,” then a “maybe it’s you, maybe it’s me, maybe it’s both of us, yeah, that’s probably it” conclusion. Poe would have loved this ambiguity. After all, by the end of “The Raven,” we aren’t sure if the raven is even a physical bird.
Gnarls Barkley’s use of the word crazy is decidedly unlike other pop songs with “Crazy” titles. Musicians who have written or recorded songs with “crazy” in the title include Patsy Cline, the Magnetic Fields, Beyoncé, Aerosmith, Heart, Seal, Kenny Rogers, and the Fine Young Cannibals, to name just a few. “Crazy” songs generally encapsulate the ideas “I’m crazy for you,” “I’m crazy for feeling this way,” or “you’re making me crazy with what you’re doing to me.” Seal is probably the exception, with his cavalier “we need craziness to survive” attitude. The songs all lack a truly pivoting refrain. They all lack the haziness and particular emotional timber of the lyrics of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Gnarls Barkley makes good on the word “crazy.”
Frankly, poetry isn’t the same kind of cultural capital it once was in America. The good old days when there were such things as hit poems are long gone, and pop music and other forms of entertainment media have usurped poetry as the art mainstream culture endorses. While it may be disheartening that a poet is unlikely to ascend to rock-star status anytime soon, I do find it heartening when a particular pop culture phenomenon such as “Crazy” stands up to some critical scrutiny, especially the peculiar scrutiny of our tragic rock-star poet of yore.
Malia Jackson lives in San Francisco and works at the Exploratorium. She has published poetry in 42opus, Shampoo, and Sidebrow, and research in the Astrophysical Journal. When she was a high-school teacher, she wrote songs about math for her students, but this is her first foray into music writing.