“Form equals content.” You’ve probably heard the phrase. In any high school or collegiate English class, your instructor has probably uttered these words in reference to a poem or some other literary work. So what does this mean, and why is it important? In the context of literature, “form equals content” is a phrase that encapsulates the moment in a piece where the form of the piece itself mirrors the content within it. In other words, it refers to an instance where the structure of the author’s work enhances the reader’s understanding of the themes and symbols within it. But by the end of this article, I am hoping to convince you that the phrase “form equals content” is much deeper than just a silly English saying. To better understand this concept, let’s look at some examples in pop culture:
“If you wanna run away with me, I know a galaxy / And I can take you for a ride…” This is the opening line of popstar Dua Lipa’s hit song “Levitating,” which has almost 444 million streams on Spotify and 5.5 million likes on Youtube. If you have ever gone out to party on a Saturday night at Swarthmore, you have probably heard this song played at least once in the course of a night. It is a crowd favorite and for good reason. This song is a prime example of a literary work that encapsulates the idea of “form equals content.” In every way, the song meets the listener’s expectations; the upbeat and futuristic song elements match the happy and galactic connotations of the lyrics, which match the innovative space imagery in the music video. Every element of the song uplifts the others in such a way that creates euphoric harmony, so much so that it evokes an immense sense of satisfaction within the listener, ultimately making it a chart-topping hit. While “Levitating” is an example of a song whose form and content generally connote positive thoughts and emotions, it is important to note that not all songs that encapsulate “form equals content” have to be happy. For instance, Sam Smith’s music is generally sorrowful, but all elements of their songs match in their dismay: their voice always sounds on the brink of crying, the pace of the song is slower, and they employs the sounds of many classical instruments (such as strings and the piano) that are usually present in ballads. (Think of their song “Stay with Me,” if you are interested in a concrete example.)
In contrast, there are artists who intentionally create a divide between their song lyrics and the accompanying music. Take the band The Smiths, for example. While still popular today, The Smiths hit their prime in the 1980’s as an English alternative rock band showcasing lead singer Morrissey’s wistful and haunting voice. I grew up listening to the Smiths with my parents, and I always found their music to be rather intriguing because the sounds they produced did not seem to match. In fact, what is most interesting about the Smiths is the way they produce conflicting song elements. Morrissey’s voice (which, as I mentioned earlier, already sounds forlorn and melancholic in and of itself) sings extremely depressing lyrics, but, strangely, to an accompaniment of upbeat guitar riffs, fast-paced drums and major keys. For example, one of their songs called “Girlfriend in a Coma” (as you would expect from the song’s title) has some of the most disturbing lyrics I have ever heard: Morrissey croons the chorus “Girlfriend in a coma, I know / I know, it’s really serious / There were times when I could / have murdered her.” However, opposing these vocals, the music in the background is fast, upbeat, and lighthearted. Obviously, The Smiths make music that actively opposes the idea of “form equals content,” which conjures an interesting aspect of dissatisfaction within each listen of their songs. Let me be clear: this dissatisfaction does not equate to a bad song by any means. Instead, opposing form and content inherently create a work that is unsettling in nature. In other words, songs like “Girlfriend in a Coma” are not necessarily mindless crowd pleasers that should be played at a party, but rather songs that become more intriguing the more you listen to it.
After reading all of this, you are probably asking yourself the question: why should I care? Why would I ever want to analyze in-depth famous pop songs in the context of random, mind-numbingly academic literary terms? These are valid questions. For me, the answer is simple: the saying “form equals content” can be boiled down to a way of describing the concept of authenticity. It is an articulation of when something is exactly what it is supposed to be. That is why listening to Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” is so satisfying. In contrast, this phrase also provides the reason for why songs like the Smith’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” are so unsettling: they defy expectations. So in short, “form equals content” is cool because it can provide an explanation for why certain literary works make you feel certain ways. But this is not the only reason why I think that the phrase is important.
What if we thought about “form equals content” outside of the context of literature? As I said, the phrase seems to encapsulate the essence of authenticity, when the outside matches the inside. What if, instead of analyzing literature with this framework, we analyzed ourselves as people? What would you find if you asked yourself if who you are on the inside is reflected in who you are on the outside? Would you consider the person you present to the outside world to be your most authentic self? Then, by extension, would you consider this projected version of yourself to be a satisfying or unsatisfying person to be around? At its core, “form equals content” is a philosophical statement. It forces us to ask ourselves these hard and personal questions.
For me, “form equals content” is not just a nerdy catchphrase but a description of a way of life. It reminds me to be authentic and true to who I am. It reminds me that my purest, most legitimate self exists when there is no discrepancy between who I am and how I am perceived to be. Obviously, no one can perfectly embody “form equals content,” but wouldn’t the world be a much better place if everyone tried to live like this? If everyone tried to live authentically?