Pop Sonnets

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 41

There’s something that never ceases to astound when it comes to Shakespeare – the way this 400-year-old playwright continues to pop up in popular culture. Our guest on this podcast episode is Erik Didriksen, who takes hit songs from artists like Taylor Swift and Coldplay and rewrites them as Elizabethan-style sonnets.
 
The Tumblr where Didriksen has posted these sonnets has become so popular that he's published a book, Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins on Your Favorite Songs. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
 
Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.
 
Read an interview with Erik Didriksen on our Shakespeare & Beyond blog.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. Originally broadcast February 10, 2016, and rebroadcast with an updated introduction on August 21, 2018. This episode, called "Press Among the Popular Throngs," was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Bob Auld and Deb Stathopulos at the Radio Foundation in New York and Phil Richards and Matt Holzman at KCRW public radio in Santa Monica, California. The actors who you hear reading the sonnets are Elyse Mirto and Bo Foxworth of The Antaeus Theater Company in Los Angeles.

Transcript

MICHAEL WITMORE: OK, here’s the assignment. Fourteen lines. All in iambic pentameter … Five iambs, two syllables each. The rhyme scheme is: a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g. Then, add in Taylor Swift. Ready? Go!

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger's director. It’s always surprising how Shakespeare, this 450-year-old playwright, continues to crop up in popular culture, and at the time we originally broadcast this podcast, in 2015, this was the latest example.

For two years at that point, a New York software developer named Erik Didriksen had been taking the lyrics to songs by pop stars—50 Cent, Adele, Sir Mix-a-Lot—and converting them into Shakespearean sonnets. The results were hilarious. And like the songs that inspired them, they became immensely popular. At the time we recorded this, Erik had just published a book, titled Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins on Your Favorite Songs. We invited him in to talk about it. 

We call this podcast: Press Among the Popular Throngs. Erik Didriksen was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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BARBARA BOGAEV: How does this happen? One day you just wake up and you say to yourself, "There just aren't enough pop songs out there that have been rewritten in the form of Shakespearean sonnets?"

ERIK DIDRIKSEN: I was wondering around the wilderness of the Internet one day, couple of years ago, and came across a Tumblr post. Someone had screenshotted a Twitter account that purportedly takes pop lyrics and turns them into Shakespearean verse, but they weren't doing a terribly good job of it. And someone had posted this on Tumblr and said, "Not in iambic pentameter. Do not accept." And someone responded to it, a gentleman named Johnny from the UK, responded with a perfectly set Shakespearean sonnet version of Macklemore's "Thrift Shop."

BOGAEV: Was it impressive?

DIDRIKSEN: It was one of the funniest things I've ever seen in my life. And I immediately wanted to see more, so I dug through Johnny's Tumblr, and found that that was sadly the only one. And, at the time, I was mildly obsessed with Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" and wanted to see a "Call Me Maybe" sonnet "so bad," that when I couldn't find one, I decided that I had to do it myself.

[CLIP from CARLY RAE JEPSEN, “CALL ME MAYBE”:]

I threw a wish in the well
Don’t ask me, I’ll never tell
I looked at you as it fell
And now you’re in my way
I'd trade my soul for a wish

[CLIP of ELYSE MIRTO reading POP SONNET:]

Into the well, I cast a humble pray'r
and though the wish remains yet unconveyed,
my countenance, on seeing you so fair,
has left all my desire thus betrayed.
‘Twas naught from lust or love that I did seek,
yet you obstruct the road of Fate for me.
As skin through tears and shabby trousers peeks,
the torrid, breezy night arouses glee.

[CLIP from CARLY RAE JEPSEN, “CALL ME MAYBE”:]

I wasn’t looking for this
But now you’re in my way
Your stare was holding
Ripped jeans, skin was showin'
Hot night, wind was blowin'
Where you think you’re going baby?
Hey, I just met you and this is crazy
But here’s my number, so call me maybe

[CLIP of MIRTO reading POP SONNET:]

Now our acquaintance, only moments sown,
has made my heart fair Logic cast away;
I give thee now this favor of my own,
perchance to call upon me soon, I pray!
—For long before we had our chance to start,
   Your absence left an aching in my heart.

[CLIP from CARLY RAE JEPSEN, “CALL ME MAYBE”:]

So, so bad.
Before you came into my life
I missed you so bad
And you should know that.
I missed you so so bad

DIDRIKSEN: Once I’d written one, I found that that was so much fun that I immediately started writing a second, and it all sort of snowballed from there.

BOGAEV: But not everybody can just sit down and pour out a sonnet. How did you know how to do it, or how did you become such a fan of the form?

DIDRIKSEN: I first was introduced to sonnets, properly, my junior year of high school. My teacher had us, the entire class, write one. What happened was, we came into class one day and she started, had us all sit down, and started asking us for pairs of rhyming words. And she was putting them up on the board without saying anything, she had this big smirk on her face. And I slowly figured out what the assignment was, before we had even finished putting everything up. So I started writing before she even... by the time she finished explaining the lesson, I'd actually finished mine. So, I guess I sort of had a knack for it, but the constraints of the form are really appealing to me.

BOGAEV: And for those of us long out of high school, could you remind us again what are the rules of the Shakespearean sonnet?

DIDRIKSEN: Of course. The Shakespearean sonnet is 14 lines. Each line is in iambic pentameter, which is 10 syllables with a unstressed-stress pattern. So, for instance, Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 begins, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" So if you break that down, "Shall I," that's one. "compare," two. "thee to," three. "a Sum-," four. "-er's day," so that's the full five iambs, which are two syllables each. And then a rhyme scheme of a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g.

BOGAEV: Okay. So I can see how the puzzle is really challenging, to turn pop songs into this format. But how do you deal with the modern phrases? Say something like, "this sick beat" in Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off?"

[CLIP from TAYLOR SWIFT, "SHAKE IT OFF":]

Hey, hey, hey
Just think while you’ve been getting down and out about the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats in the world
You could have been getting down to this sick beat

DIDRIKSEN: There's two different ways that I sort of approach those sorts of phrases. One of them, like in "Shake It Off," I just sort of leave it. And it's part of the comedy of doing that is, with all the thees and thous preceding it, you get a laugh from the sudden, unexpected modern turn of phrase.

[CLIP from TAYLOR SWIFT, "SHAKE IT OFF":]

I’m just gonna shake it
And to the fella over there with the hella good hair
Won’t you come on over, baby, we can shake, shake, shake

[CLIP from MIRTO reading POP SONNET:]

O gentleman well-coiffed! I thee entreat
to hither come and dance to this sick beat.

[CLIP from TAYLOR SWIFT, "SHAKE IT OFF":]

'Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate,
Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, shake it off

[CLIP from MIRTO reading POP SONNET:]

Although my honor’s by their words maligned,
I’ll waste no effort t' have their tales disproved.
Instead, I’ll dance to music in my mind;
my malady's by melodies improved.
For just as bakers must their loaves create
and thespians put on their fictive acts,
the ones who live in scorn shall always hate—
I’ll from my shoulders shake their vile attacks.

[CLIP from TAYLOR SWIFT, "SHAKE IT OFF":]

Shake it off, I shake it off
I, I, shake it off, shake it off

DIDRIKSEN: The other way is to make that phrase as anachronistic as possible, sort of going the opposite way with it. For example, in the Chainsmokers, "#SELFIE," I turned "Let me take a selfie" into "I shall engage in swift self-portraiture," so...

BOGAEV: Okay. I get it. I get it. And there are other ways you work in the joke, too. I'm thinking of Mark Ronson's "Uptown Funk." You have a lot of fun with the lines like, "too hot (hot damn), Make a dragon want to retire man." Right? And that becomes, "so hot, 'twould make a dragon seek its rest." It's so Shakespearean already, with the dragon in there.

DIDRIKSEN: Yeah. I actually hadn't thought about that before.

BOGAEV: Well, I imagine some of these are harder than others. So far, have you had a song that just posed the biggest challenge or stumped you?

DIDRIKSEN: Definitely, I've had some that have completely stumped me. I've been trying to figure out the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" for almost as long as I've been at this. Similarly, I've been hoping to do a Bob Dylan song at some point, but he escaped, he just sort of eludes me.

BOGAEV: And why are those the stumpers?

DIDRIKSEN: I think the biggest reason is that I always look for sort of a narrative through line through the sonnet, and with Bob Dylan, he's very abstract and impressionistic, so they're, it's hard to work out the narrative through line without sacrificing a lot of the lyrics that sort of make it very obvious that this is, in fact, you know, like "A Rolling Stone" or "Mr. Tambourine Man."

Conversely, with "Satisfaction," Mick Jagger's not exactly dealing with abstractions, but the story isn't a straight narrative, it's sort of fractured into these little scenes that don't clearly connect, necessarily, beyond his general ennui.

BOGAEV: And ennui is hard to make into a sonnet?

DIDRIKSEN: I'd be sacrificing the detail, the specific details that make "Satisfaction" "Satisfaction."

BOGAEV: Well, that is the rub, right. And is that how you choose which song to do, if they tell a very specific story? Or is it all about finding a joke in a song and then going from there? Being able to make a joke of a song.

DIDRIKSEN: Making the joke is definitely the preeminent focus when I sit down to do these. Not all of them lend themselves to obvious comedy, but I think the ones that work the best are the ones that are obviously clashing in the modern lyrics and the anachronism of the Shakespearean sonnet, or something that I can pull a joke out of. For instance, with the Spice Girls' "Wannabe," almost every line of the quatrains includes some sort of reference to a spice, and I thought that was hilarious but...

BOGAEV: You'd have to be a real fan of spice to ...

DIDRIKSEN: I sat there with the Wikipedia page open, lists of spices, and scouring the thing to try to weasel one into every line.

BOGAEV: Well, it's funny, what strikes me, when I read some of these sonnets, is that when you strip the music away from lyrics, you peel away all those pop trappings, and you just see them as poetry, or your distillation of the poetry, they become this very different animal entirely.

And you mention "Call Me Maybe," Can you talk a little bit about that? That's a good example, I think. In your sonnet form, it's contemplative and it's deeper than some people might give it credit for, as a pop song.

DIDRIKSEN: I think that, and this might be just me as a former music major talking, but I do think that all of the melody and the harmony and the rhythm of the song definitely imbue the lyrics with a certain level of extra semantic meaning.

So, as you sort of said, "Call Me Maybe" is its... the lyrics eel more contemplative, and that's sort of what I was working with, but the sort of cheeriness, and maybe a little bit wistfulness, of the song is very much tied to the way it's presented as a song, as opposed to a piece of poetry. And once you sort of take that away, there's a lot of room to reinterpret and play with the song.

To give a non-pop song an example, there's a wonderful series of YouTube videos that someone did, and I wish I knew who they were, to give them credit on air, but they run songs through some sort of algorithm in order to shift certain frequencies, to take songs in minor keys and put them into major keys and vice versa. So, my favorite one is Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters," which is this very dreary ballad that Metallica did very much in their vein of morose sort of music.

[CLIP from METALLICA, “NOTHING ELSE MATTERS”:]

So close no matter how far

DIDRIKSEN: But the lyrics are sort of, you know, fungible, so that when you take the song in this dark, minor key and suddenly put them back up into a major key... [MUSIC] Suddenly it becomes like this ballad of togetherness and closeness, you know, "Nothing else matters," like, it's hilarious the way everything changes just by sort of recontextualizing the words into something dark and morose, into something light and happy.

[CLIP from METALLICA, “NOTHING ELSE MATTERS,” upbeat:]

So close no matter how far
Couldn’t be much more from the heart

DIDRIKSEN: I don't think we give enough credit to people in pop music. Then we give too much credit to Shakespeare. Not in saying that he's not an artist or not an auteur, but we sort of ascribe him to being this very high art figure when in fact he was sort of playing to everybody at the time.

If you go to the Globe Theatre, there was, right in front of the stage, is where all the groundlings were, and these are all the people that were, you know, throwing cabbage at the stage when they didn't like what they were seeing, or yelling out things to the actors on stage, interacting with the characters directly. The way we sort of take in Shakespeare now is all very reverential and that was absolutely not what he was writing for. He was writing for everyone, which is what pop music endeavors to do.

BOGAEV: Right, he was a pop star.

DIDRIKSEN: Yeah.

BOGAEV: You know, after reading a bunch of these, you really start to notice that our pleasures haven't changed all that much since Shakespeare's time. You know, there's a lot of partying, falling in love, disobeying your parents, dreaming, dancing.

DIDRIKSEN: I think that's why we still bother to read Shakespeare. For the most part, he's talking about, you know, love and heartbreak and despair and that's really, I mean, certainly love, "Call Me Maybe," there you go, and despair and heartbreak, there's Adele's "Hello," and we haven't moved on from those topics.

BOGAEV: Well I wonder, have you come across any lyrics that are surprisingly sonnet-like? And I noticed on "Johnny B. Goode," the last line is pretty close to the original.

[CLIP from CHUCK BERRY, "JOHNNY B. GOODE":]

His mother told him "Someday you will be a man
And you will be the leader of a big old band."
Many people coming from miles...

[CLIP of BO FOXWORTH reading POP SONNET:]

His mother told him that his talents rare
would bring to him a life of wealth and fame;
‘twould let him lead a band of skill'd trouvères
to play beneath marquees that bear his name.
—The criers o'er the land shall thus recite:
    “Come hear the songs of John B. Goode tonight!”

[CLIP from CHUCK BERRY, "JOHNNY B. GOODE":]

Maybe someday your name will be in lights
Saying, "Johnny B. Goode Tonight."
Go, go
Go Johnny go

DIDRIKSEN: There's definitely elements of certain sonnets that I'm very pleased that I get to use as much of the original line as possible because then it makes it recognizable. Certain sonnets almost fit, when you're reading them, you can almost hear the song in your head, because the lyrics are close enough, and the lyrics are already sort of iambic, so as you read them, it sort of flows into it.

To give an example, Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up," the third quatrain begins, oh, "never shall I vacate from thy side, nor ever shall I disappoint thee hence." But I always read it as [in a different rhythm], oh, "never shall I vacate from thy side, nor ever shall I disappoint thee hence." And it sort of has the same rhythm; you can sort of put the same rhythm onto it because it very much matches the lyric. You know, the words are a little bit different, but the flow of it remains, because the original lyrics are more iambic.

Conversely, I do like to try to sneak in Shakespeare references where I can, and sometimes they come more readily than others. When I was working on the "Iron Man" sonnet, in particular, I was trying to see how Shakespeare treated the subject of revenge, and I have a plain text document taken from Project Gutenberg of Shakespeare's entire corpus as a handy reference. So, I searched over the entire document for revenge and I came across this passage from one of the histories, I can't remember specifically which one, but I came across the line, "By most mechanical and dirty hand. [He] rouse[s] up revenge," and I went, "Oh my God, that is Iron Man," and just ripped it straight out of the source material and dropped it right into the sonnet and could not have been happier about it.

BOGAEV: How deep down the scholarly rabbit hole do you go when it comes to research, say, into Shakespearean language or verb conjugation and the like?

DIDRIKSEN: When I first started working on these and posting them to Tumblr, and they first sort of took off, and people started noticing it, as I am wont to do, I occasionally will search "pop sonnets," and see if people are talking about it or see what, where people are sharing it to try and get an idea of how it's being received.

And I came across a forum for professional poets, and discovered that someone there had posted something to the effect of "I like the idea, but someone needs to pull this kid aside and, like, teach him how to do this," so I signed up for the forum and, and asked for help where help was needed, and got passed along some great resources, because I'd been working off a chart that I'd found with a quick five-second Google search and discovered after she passed me along, you know, some actual, proper resources, that what I'd been doing was completely wrong.

BOGAEV: So you needed remedial Shakespeare?

DIDRIKSEN: I needed some remedial Shakespeare. This has all been very much from the seat of my pants. I'm not as erudite, as the subject would have you think.

BOGAEV: Well, who enjoys these more? People who know their Shakespeare inside and out or pop music aficionados?

DIDRIKSEN: I would guess people who are pop music aficionados think it's funnier, I would think, or at least I think that's the majority of my audience.

BOGAEV: Is there a clear front-runner among the sonnets?

DIDRIKSEN: Oh, yes. Will Smith's "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air."

[CLIP of FOXWORTH reading POP SONNET:]

From western Philadelphia I hail,
where in my youth I’d play upon the green
‘til—rue the day—I found myself assail'd
by ruffians contemptible and mean.

[CLIP of WILL SMITH, "THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR":]

In West Philadelphia, born and raised,
On the playground was where I spent most of my days.
Chillin’ out maxin’ relaxin’ all cool
And all shooting some b-ball outside of the school
When a couple of guys who were up to no good
Started making trouble in my neighborhood.
I got in one little fight and my mom got scared
And said...

DIDRIKSEN: The biggest draw for that one is, you can tell within the first three words of my sonnet, what song it is.

[CLIP of FOXWORTH reading POP SONNET:]

Although the spat was trivial and brief,
it wounded my dear mother deep within;
and so, to give her conscience sweet relief,
she sent me forth to live amongst her kin.

[CLIP of WILL SMITH, "THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR":]

I got in one little fight and my mom got scared
And said, "You’re moving with your auntie and uncle in Bel-Air.”

DIDRIKSEN: And knowing what it is helps you recognize where the lyrics are transformed, as the sonnet moves on.

BOGAEV: And you work Romeo and Juliet, the prologue, into the final...

DIDRIKSEN: [LAUGH] Yes.

[CLIP of WILL SMITH, "THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR":]

Looked at my kingdom, I was finally there
To sit on my throne as the Prince of Bel-Air.

[CLIP of FOXWORTH reading POP SONNET:]

I survey all the land with princely mien
in fair Bel-Air, where I do lay my scene.

BOGAEV: You have written so many of these, literally hundreds. How do you stay fresh?

DIDRIKSEN: Well, I try to follow the example of a friend of mine, Ian Doescher, who writes the Shakespeare's Star Wars series.

BOGAEV: Ian Doescher, who we've talked to on this podcast, and who is on the cover of the Folger Shakespeare Library magazine.

DIDRIKSEN: And deservedly so. He is a genius. But, in order for him to sort of keep it fresh over six full volumes of the Star Wars trilogy, he's sort of given himself a number of creative challenges that he has throughout the books, and he talks about them in the afterwords.

My favorite of which being, every line that Mace Windu has, Mace Windu being played by Samuel L. Jackson in the films, every single line that Mace Windu has in the books references a Samuel L. Jackson movie, which is frankly, absurd.

BOGAEV: That's like an acrostic or something. How can he do that?

DIDRIKSEN: It's hilarious, once you pick up on it. And he's got acrostics throughout the books. He's got double acrostics where the ends of the verses are acrostics, as well as the beginnings. He's a mad scientist with words and, so, I try to emulate him both in pop sonnets in general, and also occasionally to give myself creative challenges to keep it interesting.

BOGAEV: So how do you do that? How do you emulate him?

DIDRIKSEN: One of them, like I mentioned, was the Spice Girls, trying to sneak a spice into each one, but my other favorite example is I did Eminem's "Lose Yourself."

[CLIP of EMINEM, "LOSE YOURSELF":]

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy.
There’s vomit on his sweater already, Mom’s spaghetti.
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready
To drop bombs, but he keeps on forgettin’
What he wrote down, the whole crowd goes so loud...”

DIDRIKSEN: Most people don't want to give Eminem a ton of credit for being an incredible artist, but the way he sort of intertwines all these inner rhymes within his lyrics is absolutely staggering.

[CLIP of EMINEM, "LOSE YOURSELF":]

Snap back to reality, oh there goes gravity.
Oh, there goes Rabbit, he choked,
He’s so mad, but he won’t give up that easy? No
He won’t have it, he knows...

DIDRIKSEN: So I wanted to emulate that in a sonnet. So, for all of the quatrains, the fourth and eighth syllables of every other line rhyme with the end rhyme of the other lines. So, for the a-b-a-b first quatrain, the fourth and the eighth syllables of the first and the third line rhyme with the end rhyme of the second and fourth, and vice versa.

BOGAEV: Okay, this is such a triumph, we're going to have to hear it in your voice.

DIDRIKSEN: All right:

The novice bard doth find it hard to breathe;
his chest doth heave with hopes t' achieve regard.
His feelings guarded, all in th' yard perceive
him to've conceiv'd a tale to weave, t' bombard
their ears with song—but something's wrong tonight.
He's clamm'd up tight and froz'n with fright; the throng's
reaction's strong and doth prolong his plight.
I' he can't recite, he'll never quite belong—
and now, the time for him to rhyme hath pass'd.
He leaves aghast; he's been miscast—a crime!
He now must climb out of the grime amass'd
until at last his skill's recast as prime.
—When opportunities arise, take heed
    And lose thyself in ev'ry worthwhile deed!

[CLIP of EMINEM, "LOSE YOURSELF":]

You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime
You better lose yourself in the music

BOGAEV: It's so wonderful to hear you reciting your own sonnets, and you give them a very pop song, singing quality.

DIDRIKSEN: Well, that one I think in particular sort of lends itself to breaking out of feeling very rigid, like a sonnet. I sort of overrun the quatrains, whereas, I feel like the natural inclination for a sonnet is to very much delineate each quatrain, but the modern song helps to sort of break out of the very archaic and strict rules, even though we are still adhering to the very archaic and strict rules.

BOGAEV: Yeah, the tension between them is what's so interesting and fun. Well, I think there's only one way to say goodbye to you, Eric, and thank you, "I can no other answer make but thanks, / And thanks, and ever thanks." And I had to look that up from Twelfth Night. But it's been loads of fun talking with you, thank you.

DIDRIKSEN: It's been wonderful, thank you so much.

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WITMORE: Erik Didriksen's book, Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins on Your Favorite Songs, was published by Quirk Books in 2015. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

"Press Among the Popular Throngs" was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Bob Auld and Deb Stathopulos at the Radio Foundation in New York and Phil Richards and Matt Holzman at KCRW public radio in Santa Monica, California. The actors who you heard reading the sonnets were Elyse Mirto and Bo Foxworth of the Antaeus Theatre Company in Los Angeles.

I’d like to ask you a favor. Can you take a moment to rate and review Shakespeare Unlimited on iTunes or Google Play or whatever platform you get this podcast from? It helps us connect with new listeners. Thank you.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library.  Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts.  You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.