Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Line Order Part 2, or One of the Innumerable Reasons Why Billy Joel is Awesome

            Previously, High School Musical demonstrated more than adequately how not to arrange lyrical lines for maximum effect, but it would be unfair not to give an example of how to do this well. First, I feel that I must preemptively apologize for my love of all things Billy Joel. While for a large part this obsession is sentimental, I maintain that Mr. Joel is one of the best pop lyricists of all time. If you are not a fan, by all means don’t stay silent. Just be aware that this is an issue on which I will not be swayed.
            The example I wish to draw from Joel’s oeuvre is the song “Christie Lee” from the album An Innocent Man:

On the first interlude, Joel starts with the setup line “The man knew the Burn like the Bible/you know the man could blow an educated axe.” The heavy and obscure music slang is bizarre at first glance, especially for those unfamiliar with the relevant lingo. He also ends the line with a lyrically troublesome word, “axe,” and one is left to wonder whether he couldn’t have chosen a more easily rhymable word.
But when the second line comes, the reasoning behind the contortion not only becomes clear but pays off in spectacular fashion: “He didn’t see that Christie Lee was a woman/who didn’t need another lover/all she wanted was the sax.” Not only does he hit us with the rhythmic rat-tat-tat-tat and slightly slanted internal rhyming of “another lover,” but he then goes straight for the kill with that rarest of inventions: a pun that doesn’t come off as lame. Had he thrown the clever line out first, the lyric would have ended on a sour note as it would have been all too clear that Joel was desperately trying to make room for his wit. As it is, Joel wisely lets the lamer line build lyrical tension in the first line, and then throws his one-two punch in the second.
You can argue the merits of Joel's comic concept all day, but I include the lyric as an example of a verse that, given its concept, is as ideally arranged as it can be.

Sound Lyrics, or Ga-Ga Ooh-La-La

           While further pondering the points of overlap between poetry and lyrics, I realized that in my previous post I had failed to cover an important idea: sound lyrics. That is, lyrics that are written almost exclusively for the way they sound. Let’s start with an extreme example:

Want your bad romance.

            If you can understand that, stay away from me.

But, of course, Gaga doesn’t use those odd vowel sounds to convey meaning, she uses them because they play with the ear. Syd Barrett used the same method to craft the lyrics to early-period Pink Floyd songs like “Astronomy Domine.” Alright, you say, but that’s Lady Gaga and Syd Barrett, does anyone relatively sane use this technique? As a matter of fact, yes…

            “Stairway To Heaven” is and for a long time has been one of my all-time favorite songs, but let’s look at some of the lyrics:

If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now,
It's just a spring clean for the May queen.

            As profound as those words might have seemed when I was 15, when viewed with an ice-cold eye they don’t make a lick of sense. But, of course, Robert Plant doesn’t use those odd sentences to convey meaning—he admits that the lyrics to the song were almost entirely improvised—they work because the sound of the words alone is so evocative. Inspired by a trip to Wales, they strike just the right tone to become something approaching a musical instrument in their own right. Paul McCartney often does the same thing, most famously in the grating "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da."

            I mention all of this because it constitutes a major oversight on my part. In their sound lyrics, pop songs edge closer to poetry than I had given them credit for. Such lyrics (along with those by greats like Roger Waters or Bob Dylan) hew very close to the poetic tradition. However, I still assert that most lyrics (yes, including most pop lyrics) tend more toward the theatrical than the poetic.

            Thanks for the feedback on the last post and I look forward to treating such issues at greater length in the future.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Division of Forms, or Poetry is Poetry and Lyrics are Lyrics and Never The Twain Shall Meet

            You would be justified in regarding statement contained within the secondary title above with a certain degree of skepticism. After all, poetry and lyrics do bear some striking superficial similarities. Both are often rhymed. Both are often rhythmic. Both can achieve an elegance virtually unmatched in prose.
            The problem is that there the similarities stop. Once you begin looking at concrete examples, any claim of equivalency between the two forms instantly deflates. Let us take for our example one of the most well-known poems in the American repertoire: Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

A lovely poem, I think you will agree, but try writing a melody for it. Rhythmically, of course, it is possible to do so, but tonally it is impracticable. Try setting the poem’s ending to music; you will fail miserably. Like much of Frost’s poetry, it relies on stark understatement for its effect. Adding music would be, at best, an egregious redundancy. It does nothing for the poem that the poem does not already do for itself, and better.
            But there is a more fundamental difference at work here. Poetry, by and large, is intended to be read. In revealing its meaning it burns slowly. The poet is permitted to be elusive and even vague, safe in the knowledge that the reader will be able to read a troublesome line repeatedly and eventually divine its meaning. The lyricist does not have this luxury. Lyrics are a much more immediate art form by virtue of being almost exclusively heard rather than read. When you only have one shot at communicating your meaning to an audience, you had damn well better say what you want to and say it clearly.
            So there is a divide in the required level of clarity in either form, but I would also argue that on a more fundamental level, while poetry is predominately an independent art form, lyrics must by definition be collaborative. Lyrics are not meant to stand alone, nor should that be your goal as a lyricist. The lyrics and the music must combine to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Neither side is at the mercy of the other; rather, the relationship is markedly symbiotic. Each complements and improves the other, and far from rejecting the notion of lyrics as art, this fact affirms it. The measure of a great poet is in the words alone, but the measure of a great lyricist lies in how entirely the words are wrapped up with the music. It is this symbiosis that defines and establishes lyrics as their own artistic entity.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Line Order Part 1, or One of The Innumerable Reasons Why "High School Musical" is Terrible

            We’ve all been there; you’ve thought of a brilliant little line that works perfectly with your rhythmic scheme. The only problem is that the final word of the line has almost no perfect rhymes. As we must take perfect rhymes as a ground rule (I will talk more about this in the future), damage control is now the main priority. Say you manage to put together a workable but by no means particularly good line out of one of the two or three rhymes for your problem word. You now have two lyrical lines, one of them getting along swimmingly, the other still floating but otherwise dead in the water (like an overextended metaphor). This is what I mean by damage control: we must find a way to reduce emphasis on the lame line.
            There are plenty of musical ways to do this. If you construct your melody carefully, you can imperceptibly but very effectively move the emphasis away from a particular word or syllable, but there is a much simpler and much more effective way of achieving this effect: simply place the lame line first. The central problem is that you are saddled with accommodating your good line. The greatest lyrical emphasis always falls on the last line of the verse, and so that is the place where you must deposit your clever line so as to avoid the (admittedly correct) impression that you are accommodating it.
            A terrific example of how not to do this comes from my old enemy, High School Musical. In the closing number, insufferably titled “We’re All In This Together,” we are forced to swallow the lines “Together, together, together everyone/Together, together, come on let’s have some fun.” We will leave alone for the moment the imbecilic redundancy of the “together” portion of the lyric, favoring instead the rhymes “everyone” and “fun.” The word “fun,” in general, is a word that should be used in lyrics seldom, if ever. I am hard-pressed to think of a lyric sporting that word that is not diminished by its presence. “Everyone” is the better rhyme by far. It is multi-syllabic (always good for a second rhyme), its natural rhythms match those of the music reasonably well. Though the song itself is beyond salvation, think of how much better that verse would be, were the lyrics “Together, together, c’mon, let’s have some fun/Together, together, together everyone.” Still not good, perhaps—there is little to be gained in dressing the wounds of a corpse—but still markedly better.

Next time: A positive example, courtesy of Mr. Billy Joel.