Repetition of phrases in music and literature

So I've been listening to a bunch of OK GO in the past couple weeks, and one of the things I really like about their songs is the repetitiveness -- more than pretty much any other music I listen to, OK GO songs repeat the same moments and phrases throughout songs, often in slightly different ways or after different kinds of build-up. Importantly, they're not like those artists who just sing the chorus twice whenever they sing it, or get to the end and repeat two lines over and over again until the music fades out. OK GO seem like they're finding the climactic moments in their songs and rebuilding the songs to hit that point as many times as they can, without sacrificing meaning. They justify the moments, every time. If the goal of a piece of art is to achieve a heightened emotional state, then art that takes place across a space of time has a problem: building to a climax means the work comes in a shell; the long bit before, and the long bit after, the climax isn't really the art, it's context.

Note: At this point in the train of thought, I'm not thinking about music anymore, I'm thinking about writing. Although I am still listening to OK GO.

In American literature, the answer to this problem tends to be "Fine, just cut all that other stuff off." Edgar Allan Poe argued that the short story was the ideal format for story, exactly for this reason. American poetry is noticeably short and informal more often than not.

Maybe pop music is an example of this, two-to-three minute long chunks of sound that focus intensely on a particular moment, but I'm not totally sure about that. I can't think of any examples off the top of my head (because I hate songs that do this and so never listen to them) but I've heard dozens of songs in my life that build all the way through to one moment of perfect, climactic engagement, but take two thirds of the song getting there and never return to it.

There are a lot of ways to answer this problem. Poe's answer, obviously, is that if the song takes a minute getting to the point then meanders for a minute after it, it's probably about two minutes too long. (That is, if Poe's philosophy of writing translates to 21st century pop music, which I can't say with confidence it would.)

OK GO seems to me to bring an alternate approach to the conversation: take that climactic moment, and drop it back in several times in the beginning, and throw it in a few more times at the end, and make it work. That means the narrative of the song is at least a little non-linear: the moment of climax is happening the whole way through.

I spent some time trying to figure out what that would look like in literature. My first thought was action novels -- beat-for-beat action-packed thrillers -- but that was an unsatisfying answer.

Then I remembered Fight Club, and Chuck Palahniuk's "chorus lines" -- phrases that repeat throughout the book, accumulating meaning and significance and resonating backwards through the story as their context comes together. "I am Jack's raging bile duct." "Paraffin has never worked for me."

Of course, those repetitions don't need to be ominous and increasingly disturbing throughout the narrative the way they are in all of Palahniuk's books.[1. For the record: I've only read two, "Fight Club" and "Survivor."] Comedy is a fantastic place to look for this kind of thing, because not only do running jokes pretty much always make a story funnier, but in a good piece of comedic fiction, I think, the humor tends to agree: it all represents a coherent thrust of a worldview. In Terry Pratchett, a fair amount of the jokes say "If it's working, that's as good as true." In Douglas Adams, it's "Literally every part of this is a bad idea pursued for flawed motives and will have disastrous consequences."

None of those works are non-linear, though, in the way I initially suggested. (With the possible exception of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, but I won't say anything more about that except go read it right now.)

The non-linearity comes from the way that the repetitions reflect the outcomes they foreshadow. It's like dramatic irony -- the kind where the audience knows something the characters don't -- but the audience doesn't know, either. We're being told, but we don't, as a consequence of having been told, know the thing the author's telling us.

That makes the second-readings of these books amazing, for one thing. But for another, we start to pick up on the feeling of that climax far, far before it actually takes place. These chorus lines and running gags, placed at thoughtful and appropriate places throughout the books, light up matching moments so that we can start appreciating and enjoying those thematically vivid beats long before we fully understand how they all come together.