Lyrics in the Law: Music’s Influence on America’s Courts
Have you ever wondered what Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” has in common with Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”? How about Shania Twain’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much” and the musical, Miss Saigon?
Each of these have been quoted in opinions and decisions of U.S. courts, along with countless others. Or, perhaps, nearly countless — until now.
Lyrics in the Law is perhaps the most ambitious collection of musical references dotting American jurisprudence ever undertaken. The book contains citations to hundreds of musical works, ranging from radio hits to film, theater, and even musical maxims. In fact, references to the Beatles and Bob Dylan are so numerous that each commands its own chapter with well over 100 cases between them.
Lyrics in the Law is no doubt a labor of love. Each appearance of a musical work, and there is an eclectic range, is accompanied by a brief explanation of the context or legally relevant point the book’s author contends the music was invoked to convey.
The book is organized more in the form of a reference guide, with extensive chapter endnotes, and an exhaustive case list and index. Beyond that, it raises poignant questions about the language and writing style used in caselaw. Legal decisions are, the book says, “a guide to society at large…for future conduct,” not solely meant for the parties with an immediate stake in the outcome. There is a good argument to be made that these decisions should be approachable.
To that end, many judges borrow from popular culture, including music, to provide context or explanations. It is a popular writing tactic, though the informal style attracts critics. Concerns include perceived frivolity, limited “shelf life” of pop culture references, and whether a reader’s opinion of a musical work evokes a negative reaction to the case.
Yet, clearly the style has proponents.