Popular Song Lyrics in Legal Writing

The Law Librarian Blog today mentioned an entertaining pre-print about persuasive legal writing. It is by Oklahoma City University School of Law professor Alex B. Long and is entitled [Insert Song Lyrics Here]: The Uses and Misuses of Popular Music Lyrics in Legal Writing.

From the abstract:

“Legal writers frequently utilize the lyrics of popular music artists to help advance a particular theme or argument in legal writing. And if the music we listen to says something about us as individuals, then the music we, the legal profession as a whole, write about may something about who we are as a profession. A study of citations to popular artists in law journals reveals that, not surprisingly, Bob Dylan is the most popular artist in legal scholarship. The list of names of the other artists rounding out the Top Ten essentially reads like a Who’s Who of baby boomer favorites. Often, attorneys use the lyrics of popular music in fairly predictable ways in their writing, sometimes with adverse impact on the persuasiveness of the argument they are advancing. However, if one digs deeper, one can find numerous instances in which legal writers incorporate the lyrics of popular music into their writing in more creative ways.”

Long admits to flaws in his methodology. He “typed in a bunch of artists’ names” in the LexisNexis databases “US Law Reviews and Journals, Combined” and “Federal and State Cases, Combined” and counted up the number of cites in legal journal articles and in judicial decisions.

The list:

  1. Dylan
  2. Beatles
  3. Bruce Springsteen
  4. Paul Simon
  5. Woody Guthrie
  6. The Stones
  7. Grateful Dead
  8. Simon & Garfunkel
  9. Joni Mitchell
  10. R.E.M.

According to Long, R.E.M. is the only alternative or post-punk artist represented in the Top Ten, “and even their popularity can be explained in large measure by the fact that lawyers just seem to get a kick out of the title of their song,’It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’.”

The discussion of what lawyers and judges are trying to do when they reference song lyrics – and whether they succeed – is fascinating.

He concludes with a double reference to Neil Young and Wu-Tang Clan:

“The personal connection we feel toward certain music is not attributable to lyrics alone, but to melody, performance, production, and the timing that introduced the song to you at that particular point in time in your life. Why then should we expect a set of lyrics, divorced from context, to bring our writing to life? But sometimes they do. There are most definitely risks in trying to work popular music lyrics into legal writing, but occasionally the attempt pays off in the form of more interesting and persuasive writing. So, be careful, but keep on rockin’ in the free world. Peace, I’m out.”

Cross-posted to Library Boy.

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Comments

  1. Editors are notorious for borrowing a performer’s turn of phrase when they don’t have the time or creativity to think of their own (which happens often). I once titled an article about the legal impact of apologies “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word,” and gave away far too much about my pop music upbringing in the process. I’m fairly proud of the editorial in our upcoming issue, about computers threatening to replace lawyers: “Rage Against The Machine.” Yes, I know they’re Audioslave now.

    I have to make more of an effort with our Law Student Issue — I borrowed the title and refrain from Semisonic’s “Closing Time” for a column about law school nostalgia, and had to ask our 20-something assistant editor to come up a title for an article about summer jobs (he went with “Hot Hot Heat”). I get farther away from hip every day.

  2. Has anyone forwarded this to Allan Hutchinson who single-handedly pioneered this genre in Canadian legal scholarship?