Thursday, April 28, 2011

Concept, or My What A Guy That Gaston

            I’ve heard all too many musical numbers that were very obviously written for no better reason than that someone must have said, “we’d better put a musical number here.” If ever you find yourself doing this, stop immediately and think long and hard about concept, which I assert is the single most important element in a good song lyric.
            I will illustrate the importance of concept through a pair of examples from animated musicals. To give you a spot of background, during the late 80’s and early 90’s the musical fueled a remarkable resurgence in Disney’s economic and artistic fortunes. Beginning with The Little Mermaid, Disney churned out a series of masterful and hugely profitable films. Inevitably, this success spawned a host of imitators. Some of these were remarkably good, like 20th Century Fox’s Anastasia. But for every Anastasia, there was a turkey like Rock-a-Doodle, and for every Rock-a-Doodle there was a merely mediocre film like The Swan Princess. It is this last film that I am interested in, as I wish to concern myself here not with sheer incompetence but with a lack of inspiration.
            For our example let’s look at the respective villain songs from The Swan Princess and Beauty and the Beast. At this point, you are probably not thinking, “oh, I can clearly see the distinction between the two songs.” More likely you are thinking, “what the hell is The Swan Princess?” or, at best, “what the hell was the villain song from The Swan Princess?”
            I shall enlighten you. The villain song from The Swan Princess is a jazz number called “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” a song in which the evil wizard Rothbart indicates the general malevolence of his intentions. You think I’m being glib, but no. That is literally all the song is about.

Gosh, it's such a hoot to see them quaking
When I'm king they'll treat me with respect
I can't wait to watch their poor hearts breaking
So much for politically correct
Up 'til now I've pulled my punches
I intend to eat their lunches
No more Mr. Nice Guy, not for me
If you think that I'm hard-hearted
Well, let me by, I haven't even started
No more Mr. Nice Guy, no siree
Soon as my witchcraft has zinged them
I'll gain control of the kingdom
As for Odette, well that's tragic
'Cause I'm going back to that old black magic
Good behaviour is so much duller
Time to show my one true colour
Baby, Mr. Nice Guy's history
Vengeance is what I believe in
I don't get mad, I get even
Odette can't get to the ball 'cause I won't bring her
So I'll zap up a date who's a real dead ringer
Up to no good, I love plottin'
'Cause I'm so good when I'm rotten
No more Mr. Nice Guy, wait and see (wait and see)
I'll become that nasty, naughty, very spiteful
Wicked, wayward, way delightful
Bad guy I was born to be
Lying, loathsame, never tender
Indiscreet repeat offender
No more Mr. Nice Guy, that's not me

There is close to no mention of his actual plan, no idiosyncracies that might distinguish him from other villains, and no indication that the lyricist had any substantial idea as to why the song existed at all. In short, there is a reason why you’d forgotten it existed.
Compare this to the universally beloved and instantly recognizable “Gaston” from Beauty and the Beast.

Gosh it disturbs me to see you, Gaston
Looking so down in the dumps
Ev'ry guy here'd love to be you, Gaston
Even when taking your lumps
There's no man in town as admired as you
You're ev'ryone's favorite guy
Ev'ryone's awed and inspired by you
And it's not very hard to see why
No one's slick as Gaston
No one's quick as Gaston
No one's neck's as incredibly thick as Gaston's
For there's no man in town half as manly
Perfect, a pure paragon!
You can ask any Tom, Dick or Stanley
And they'll tell you whose team they prefer to be on
No one's been like Gaston
A king pin like Gaston
No one's got a swell cleft in his chin like Gaston
As a specimen, yes, I'm intimidating!
My what a guy, that Gaston!
Give five "hurrahs!"
Give twelve "hip-hips!"
Gaston is the best
And the rest is all drips
No one fights like Gaston
Douses lights like Gaston
In a wrestling match nobody bites like Gaston!
For there's no one as burly and brawny
As you see I've got biceps to spare
Not a bit of him's scraggly or scrawny
That's right!
And ev'ry last inch of me's covered with hair
No one hits like Gaston
Matches wits like Gaston
In a spitting match nobody spits like Gaston
I'm especially good at expectorating!
Ten points for Gaston!
When I was a lad I ate four dozen eggs
Ev'ry morning to help me get large
And now that I'm grown I eat five dozen eggs
So I'm roughly the size of a barge!
My what a guy, that Gaston!
No one shoots like Gaston
Makes those beauts like Gaston
Then goes tromping around wearing boots like Gaston
I use antlers in all of my decorating!
My what a guy,

Rothbart’s song is merely a villain song, which is a category and not a concept.“Gaston,” on the other hand, is a grand, chauvinistic hymn of self-praise. In other words, it has a concept. Why do I make such a big fuss about this? Because the lyrics to “No More Mr. Nice Guy” are not that bad. They’re nothing special, certainly, but they’re not that bad either. So why is it not a good song? Concept, concept, concept. Even strong lyrics will falter if used in service of a song with an identity crisis, just as even imperfect lyrics can still be bound together by a terrific concept to form an irrefutably great song like “Gaston.”
Concept, concept, concept.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Nonsense Lyrics, or How To Deny a California Girl

When I warn people to avoid writing lyrics that don’t make sense, most brush it off. We tend to assume that our internal sense of what does and does not make sense will hold steady through thick and through thin. But the rigors of perfect rhyming, correct emphasis placement, and syllable counting can play tricks on our common sense.
While it may seem unfair to place such an easy target in my cross hairs, I will use the example of Katy Perry’s “California Girls” (I omit the idiotic alternate spelling “gurls” deliberately). The beginning of the chorus’s first verse, “California girls, we’re unforgettable,” is unforgivably bland but can at least lay claim to the distinction of making sense. The same cannot be said for the second verse of the chorus, which sports the line “California girls, we’re undeniable,” a statement that is, to put it kindly, unintelligible. A fact can certainly be undeniable, a person can be undeniably something, but what the hell does it mean that a person is undeniable? That we are not able to deny their existence? Is this a trait specific to California girls?
That is not to say that musical theater lyricists are exempt from criticism. As Stephen Sondheim has pointed out in the past, Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics are full of vaguely evocative but utterly mystifying lines like “when the skies are brighter canary yellow” or “like a lark who is learning to pray,” imagery more reminiscent of a particularly vivid acid trip than, say, a tropical beach or the Alps.
One of the major characteristics that distinguish lyrics from poetry is the constant burden of clarity. The ability to convey meaning is one of the pillars of lyric-writing, and so nonsensical lyrics not only confuse the audience but also betray their medium. And if ever your skies are a brighter canary yellow or you are struck with the desire to deny the existence of Katy Perry, call 911.
Scratch that. The second one is perfectly normal.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Pet Peeves: A Girl in the World with a Life of Strife

Few lyrical tendencies irritate me quite so much as the persistent but ultimately fruitless attempt to pretend that “girl” rhymes with “world.” It doesn’t. “Girl” rhymes with “curl,” “pearl,” “whirl,” and “hurl,” plus a handful of others. If none of those suit your purposes, then you might want to give consideration to not ending a line with a word as dull and exhausted as “girl.”
            Even pop lyricists I quite admire, like Billy Joel, have on occasion been guilty of this offense. But the rhyme, apart from offending the ear, is simply lazy. No matter how noble your intentions, you are still resorting to a rhyme that has been used countless times before, never to great effect, and that is not actually a rhyme, for no better reason than that “girl” is hard to rhyme with. If it is indeed that hard to rhyme with, then at least have the good sense not to use it.
            Similar rules apply to “life.” It’s no use complaining that “life” is hard to rhyme with. As a lyrical device it is vague and meaningless, a vain attempt to invest more grandeur in an idea than it truly merits. If none of the rhymes for the word (knife, rife, wife, etc.) suit your needs, do not bend over backwards to make the most abused rhyme (strife). Instead, reconstitute what is obviously a flawed lyrical line until it no longer ends with a word as utterly insipid as “life.”
            Also try to avoid using the following: “heart,” “soul,” “fun,” “I love you,” and really just the word “love” in general. In fact, try avoiding the concept of love wherever possible. There are other, far less distasteful emotions out there. Try one.


These days, it seems as if half of the world and his housepet is a self-declared "singer-songwriter," a term which has lost whatever dubious meaning to which it might once have laid claim. Go to any party in Greenwich Village and you can be sure that at least a solid third of those in attendance will identify themselves as singer-songwriters. Of these, no more than 3 percent or so will be the real McCoy. Why, you ask? Well, most will be intermittent guitar players who use the title in hopes of getting laid. A slightly smaller portion will be pretentious or over-earnest musical aspirants with delusions of grandeur so vast that not even a Magellan could hope to circumnavigate or, indeed, circumvent them. The remaining portion will be singer-songwriters who are at least musically competent. This portion has surely swelled within the last few decades as it has become easier and easier to master at least the basics of music theory and instrumental technique through the resources made available by the so-called Information Revolution.
Consequently, it is not the music that concerns me. True, most pop music is generic in form, but it conveys a sense that it is aware of how bland it is, and that at least implies musical competence. What concerns me is the lack of care and attention given to lyrics. Lyrics can be just as finicky as music, and yet there is a distressing lack of sense and good taste among the masses when it comes to setting words to music. Everyone knows what is highbrow and what is lowbrow in music, who the masters were and which musicians were merely mediocre pretenders, but almost no such general knowledge can be found in the arena of lyrics. In a day and age in which Lady Gaga can be deemed a good lyricist, the time has come for a lyrical enlightenment. To that end I humbly submit my own contribution in hopes that the next generation of songwriters might use their rhymes with reason.