Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Word about Words

Yes, at the beginning of the summer I vowed to try rewriting the lyrics to a few pop songs on the radio.  I felt like I couldn't publish another post without any "improved" lyrics to share. Then I remembered that lyrics are hard to write. It took the whole summer to get the lyric-writing part of my brain to work again. Now I'm pretty close to sharing a revised version of "Firework," but first I'd like to share why exactly a composer would care so much about lyrics. (And a thank you to whoever searches for my blog in Russia. You kept reminding me to get back on this blog.)

One of my professors in college told a story of Oscar Hammerstein II, of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame. After he wrote the lyrics to Jerome Kern's music on Show Boat, a woman stepped up to their wives and asked Mrs. Kern "Did your husband write 'Old Man River'?"

Mrs. Hammerstein spoke up. "My husband wrote 'Old Man River.' Her husband wrote "Da, Da, Dee-da...'"

Music is abstract, so when we praise or criticize a song it's easier to talk about lyrics. And indeed, lyrics can make or break a song. Good words compliment or elaborate what the music does. If written first they can influence how the melody shapes itself. Bad lyrics confuse, make us squirm, or feel embarrassed that we like a particular song. In short, lyrics can be just as musical as the music itself.

How so? For starters, Words are Yummy. The right word can affect you by its sound alone. In "Oh What A Beautiful Mornin'" The words sound so broad you feel like stretching as you take in a yawn from waking up in the morning. In Billy Joel's "Big Shot" the line "You had to have a white hot spot light" almost pierces you with it's t's, like somebody poking you during a big ol' reprimand.

The way words are used can add nuance to a song. Teddy Geiger once sang
Forgive me if I st-st-studder 
From all of the clutter in my head.
Get it? Or how about "2 a.m." by Anna Nalick. The verses drive you forward unceasing, because
You can't jump the track we're like cars on a cable 
And life's like an hourglass glued to the table.
And sometimes all you can do is
Cradle your head in your hand 
And breeeeeaaaaathe, just breeeeeaaaaathe.
All of a sudden we're taking deep cleansing breaths, and the world slows down for just a moment.

Rhyming makes a song feel complete, and can also emphasize your main points. Back to "Big Shot", the line could have easily mentioned a "great big spot light" or even a "red hot spot light" for a little rhyme. Joel goes all in with white hot spot light. It's like he makes you stop and think about what you've done, young man.

How about "The Longest Time?"
I want you so bad
I think you ought to know that
I intend to hold you for the longest time.
Or "Make You Feel My Love?"
I'd go hungry, I'd go black 'n' blue,
I'd go crawlin' down the avenue.
There is a possible exception. You know the song "Breakfast at Tiffany's?" Never rhymes. Is that bad? Maybe not in this case. Everything else is strong--melody, rhythm, instruments. And it helps that they don't even try to rhyme. "Tiffany's" does not rhyme with "film" does not rhyme with "liked it" does not rhyme with "got." It's obvious they didn't want to rhyme, so they made sure it doesn't sound like they tried.

Emphasize the right syllable. I notice this most in Katy Perry songs, although most anything new on the radio will commit this crime. (Or maybe I listen to Katy Perry more often than I admit.) A very sad, touching song of hers began like this:
Comparisons are easily done
Once you've had a taste of perfection
Not only is the line awkward to say, but where is the rhyming? Just reading it you can't tell, but she sings it like this:
CompariSONS are easily DONE 
Once you've HAD a TASTE of perfecTION.
Imagine speaking like that without anyone looking at you strangely. If I were to keep the melody as it is I could have come up with something more flowing like:
I find it easy to compare 
Now my perfect love's no longer there.
That took me all of 60 seconds to think up. See how coherent it is? Do you hear the natural rhythm of the lines? Notice how it has the same idea as the line above but it doesn't sound like I forced it to rhyme?

I had to listen to Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now" a lot to make sure I liked it. It sounds so natural and lyrical you can hardly help but sing the melody just by reading the words aloud:
It's a quarter after one, 
I'm all alone and I NEED you now.
The way it rolls and gains momentum till the word need. That's the emotional theme of the song. It's all about longing, so you can feel that desperation distilled in the way they sing just the word need.

Sometimes an unusual emphasis changes a song's meaning. When I first heard Adele sing "Someone Like You" I expected you to be emphasized, and thought Adele stressed the wrong word. Then I caught what she meant. The "You" in the song had moved on already, so she wants to find someone like you. Isn't that neat?

In everyday communication, how you say something is as important as what you have to say. And that's why I scrutinize the lyrics to the songs I hear. Lyrics are more than just words. They carry weight and power because they were chosen specially. Random noises are just aural garbage unless organized into patterns and directions, then it's music. And lyrics have no meaning unless the writer chooses the most appropriate, poetic words to string together. There are plenty of okay songs in the world that could be made better with stronger lyrics.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Good Good Songs

Just because a song has a good (positive) message doesn't mean it's a good (quality) song. As a missionary for the LDS church I learned a lot about presentation. If our presentation was sincere, respectful, and exciting enough without being overwhelming, strangers were more likely to set aside their reservations and hear what we had to say. Too blatant, and we push people away. In the art world, anything created by an agenda becomes transparent. That's why blatantly political songs drive me insane. The artist is more interested in propaganda than in throwing a party for your ears.

The same is true for songs with a positive message. I get plenty of sermons every week at church--good ones, when I'm ready to hear them. I can tell if you're giving me a sermon when you compose, and most everyone else can, too. If you want me to subscribe to your philosophies or agendas then I need to feel them, not just hear them. I quote Orson Scott Card:
So much of Mormon art shows good to be bad! That is, it often shows goodness to be puerile, or impossible, or--heaven forbid--boring. A gooey G-rated film that reduces goodness to niceness does as much harm as an R-rated film that makes evil seem rewarding, since both will move an audience to shun the good and espouse the evil. (A Storyteller in Zion, Bookcraft, p.102)
I've talked already about a few recent attempts at happy songs that show room for improvement. So what makes a positive song appealing?

It needs to tell a story
I don't necessarily mean a narrative. There should be a defined situation and the singer should either relate the situation to us, or play a character in the story. Like maybe a best friend giving advice. A good example: "Tell Her About It" by Billy Joel. He gives pointers to someone else, hoping he doesn't make "the same mistakes I made." Now we know where the singer comes from, and what gives them the right to tell us anything.

A Positive goodness/badness ratio
Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings ends it's main conflict about 3/4 through the 3rd book. A lot of hardships go down up to that point, and Tolkien apparently wanted to emphasize how much better things became for Middle Earth and how much the journey was worth to everyone. Let there be sadness in the song, let it make the song interesting, but let the happiness or solution outweigh the problem. Think of "Hey Jude" by The Beatles. For every line mentioning sadness, pain, or fear there are at least 2 lines to cheer Jude up, not counting the 4-minute Na-nas.

Focus your energies
Let's go back to Billy Joel. His wrote a blatantly positive song called "You're Only Human (Second Wind)." It feels much more bland and generic than his other songs because he throws in all kinds of similes and topics at once. Beginning with someone coming down on himself for his mistakes, he talks about crashing into stone walls, boxing, heart break, and getting your "Second Wind." He could have condensed the song to wind metaphors to stick with the song's title. Toward the end he mentions catching his breath and facing the world. Maybe something about kite flying? waiting for the breeze to pick up so he can fly again? It would have felt more complete and coherent as a result.

Use religion sparingly
These days there are enough Atheists and skeptics who tune out at the mention of any Deity, especially Judeo-Christian. I don't mean to deny or shy away from what you believe, but use care in bringing up religion as the source of your beliefs. Too many songwriters believe you just mention God and the audience will come in droves to hear what you have to say. If I hear a decent song only to discover that it was sung by The Fray, I think twice about listening to it again. Same goes with religion for some people.

If God Himself is the subject of the song, then you're writing a religious song, rather than a plain positive song. That's a separate category altogether, with it's own set of guidelines.

If there are any more guidelines to add to this list, I'm all ears. I got an idea while I compiled mine, though: I've harped on songs before, picking them apart for what's bad, but I don't usually risk putting my own creativity on the line. If I can't do any better, why waste my time tearing something down? Coming soon, I will attempt to re-write lyrics of famous songs, in the hope of making them worth their fame.