Friday, June 17, 2011

An Overview of Collaborative Coherency in the 20th Century

(The following is adapted from an essay I wrote on the subject of the development of collaborative coherency (and songwriting in general) throughout the twentieth century. Naturally, this will be far from comprehensive, but I hope that it will serve to illustrate some of the concepts that I believe lie at the heart of lyric-writing.)
              Often overlooked in the rush to praise instrumental music and poetry is the humble art form of songwriting. An institution probably as old as language itself, the practice of coordinating music and lyrics took great leaps and bounds in the 20th century, but in a manner rather different than those of its independent constituent parts. This is because of the inherently elaborate nature of the song. For many artists the relationship between music and lyrics is symbiotic, one of interplay rather than dominance of one over the other. Thus, not only should the rhythms of the music and the rhythms of speech in the lyrics match up, but the emphases in the music (be they of pitch, volume, duration, or what have you) should ideally correspond to similar points in the music. This form of coordination will be referred to from here on out as “collaborative coherency,” and understanding this concept and its development is essential to understanding the development of songwriting as a whole through the 20th Century; from the acceptable but inconsistent collaborative coherency of opera sprang a vast and disparate range of approaches, from Schoenberg’s rejection of collaborative coherency to Weill and Brecht’s refinement of it to a fascinating reconciliation of the two.
(Read the rest of the essay after the jump!)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Pet Peeves: Syllable Fillers

            When writing lyrics, you are forever bound rhythmically by the music, and therefore syllabically by the rhythms of that music. This is a heavy burden for any lyricist, but you must fervently resist the impulse to arbitrarily insert extra words into a sentence in order to fill your syllable quota. Too often have I seen the phrase “it’s only just a [noun]” inveigle its way into song lyrics. Let’s leave aside the fact that “only just,” with both words serving as adverbs, is not a phrase in the English language; far more relevant is the fact that it so clearly screams out what it is: a lazy way to inject extra syllables into a line with too few.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Necessity of Rhyming, or What Does It Get Ya?

           Today I thought I might give a brief argument as to why perfect rhyming is essential in lyrics. Let’s think about musical dissonance for a moment; modern music is fully aware of dissonance, but is also smart enough to use it sparingly. The fully atonal composers saw dissonance as a style, rather than what it actually is: an effect. And any musical effect must be used intelligently and therefore intermittently if it is to maintain its efficacy over time. Thus, dissonance must be saved until the moment at which it will be most effective. At that point, it may be used with abandon.
As a rule, any kind of artistic effect is like bad language: it is deliciously startling if used rarely and disappointingly tepid if applied indiscriminately. So it is with the technique of temporarily abandoning rhyme. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics for the magnificent “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy demonstrate how best to apply this technique. Through most of the show, Sondheim’s lyrics had been conventional musical theater lyrics, but very clever and expertly rhymed. “Rose’s Turn” represents a drastic departure from that style, corresponding with Mama Rose’s mental deterioration:
Why did I do it?
What did it get me?
Scrapbooks full of me in the background.
Give 'em love and what does it get ya?
What does it get ya?
One quick look as each of 'em leaves you.
All your life and what does it get ya?
Thanks a lot and out with the garbage,
They take bows and you're battin' zero.
            Obviously it’s still rhythmic, but the rhyme schemes have completely collapsed, replaced by a stream of regrets and recriminations. It’s a brilliant moment, but imagine if the whole show was written like this; what would happen to this number’s emotional impact without its anarchic departure from the orderly lyrical structures that surround it?
            Doing away with rhyme is hardly taboo and can generate extraordinary dramatic effects, but only if used with moderation and a keen eye. Forcing yourself to rhyme is a wonderful thing; it crystallizes ideas, forces you to express emotions in ways that you might not have thought of, and abets both clarity and concision. Any of those alone would be worth playing for.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Tony Awards 2011: A Thought or Two

            Last night’s Tonys were first-rate, if a tad predictable. Chris Rock, presenting the award for Best Musical, expressed what everyone in the room was thinking when he read out the inevitable winner, The Book of Mormon, in a sarcastic parody of shock. Everyone got it.
            The Tonys often serve as little more than a sad reminder of just how little originality the commercial musical theatre has to offer right now. More often than not, a show wins simply by virtue of not being terrible. In that way, despite the inevitability of Mormon taking home the top prize, it was a considerable comfort to see two excellent musicals (the aforementioned winner and The Scottsboro Boys) alongside the usual generic musicals that fill out the nomination quota (Catch Me If You Can, Sister Act). And Mormon really does have one of the funniest scores on Broadway, certainly the funniest since Avenue Q, which deservedly won the Best Musical Tony at the 2004 ceremony. Some of the lyrics are a tad sloppy, but the concepts of the songs are strong enough that the lyrics don’t have to be impeccable in order for offensively hilarious musical comedy to ensue.
            That said, it would have been nice to see the Tony for Best Score go to The Scottsboro Boys, the last collaboration between John Kander and the late Fred Ebb. Alas, it seems that, just as they did with Chicago, Kander & Ebb have produced a work that may only be appreciated with the passage of time. And The Book of Mormon’s score was also a very deserving work, so I’m far from broken up about the final results. Certainly either of those shows were infinitely more deserving than the generic Sister Act or the disappointingly flat Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
            The biggest turkey of the evening, as it turns out, was a number from a show that won’t officially open until Tuesday: Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. Leaving behind the wire-work (probably wisely), the number consisted of a deathly dull romantic duet between the two leads. I suppose the music was interesting enough, but the lyrics were mediocre at best, and at worst something far more heinous. I fear I may have emitted an audible groan when Mary-Jane declared in song that there was “No such thing as time,” which is not true, and if true is not in any way relevant to her relationship with Peter Parker.
            Neil Patrick Harris was, as always, a terrific host (though that really goes without saying). Brooke Shields managed to make a complete arse of herself twice in the space of an evening. The ATW threw every award it could find at The Book of Mormon, as if desperately signaling, “Hey, we know a good show when we hear one! See?! See?!!” And all in all everyone got a show that the frequently dull Oscar and Emmy ceremonies could stand to take a lesson from.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Case Study: "Iron Man" by Black Sabbath

            This song, I think, needs no introduction. If you haven’t heard it before, hear it now. If you have, hear it again.

The lyrics are unlikely to make sense to you unless you know that this song was written not about the superhero Iron Man, but about a science fiction story in which a man travels to a future in which, to his horror, he discovers a frightful apocalypse. When he returns to his time, he finds that he cannot get anyone to believe him. Things are not helped by the fact that the magnetic field he passed through during his return journey turned him into metal, rendering him mute and making his attempts to warn mankind of the impending danger markedly comical. It was the 60’s. Don’t ask.
Driven mad by the laughter and scorn of his fellow humans, the metallic prophet flies into a fury and takes his revenge on the civilization that rejected him. Only when he has vented his rage does he realize that he was responsible for the apocalypse that he foresaw. All of the above is according to Geezer Butler, who wrote the lyrics and generally seemed to have a better idea of what he was doing than his work would otherwise suggest.
            Musically, the track is very strong. The riff is genuinely interesting and the instrumental work is first-rate. In fact, it is very possible to enjoy this song immensely so long as you make very sure to ignore the lyrics, which are incredibly bad. How bad are they? They are worse than the lyrics to Deep Purple’s “Black Night,” and the lyrics to Deep Purple’s “Black Night” were intentionally written to be the worst lyrics the band could think of.
            Let’s take this line-by-line...
Has he lost his mind?
Can he see or is he blind?
            The first thing you will notice in listening to this song is that the vocal line is just the riff, delivered in the irritatingly strained vocals of Ozzy Osbourne. There is nothing inherently wrong with the reuse of a musical phrase, but such repetition places extra responsibility on the lyrics, which are now unenviably saddled with being the sole providers of surprise and nuance. Unsurprisingly, the lyrics run into problems after just two lines. First, while there is nothing wrong with the question as to whether the subject of the song has lost his mind, the query is just a little too vague to compensate for the lack of surprise in the music. The next line is a textbook illustration of pointless restatement. Can he see? An intriguing question. Or is he blind? Yes, that would be the alternative to being able to see. The line simply asks the same question twice, once positively and once negatively for no other reason than to fill its syllable quota.
Can he walk at all
Or if he moves will he fall?
            First off, the rhyme of “all” and “fall” in a plain couplet is childishly simplistic. The verse also falls into the same trap we saw above and asks a question twice, slightly rephrased. This would probably also be a good time to talk about collaborative coherency and syllable stretching. It is mightily tempting, when syllable count falls short, to simply stretch out vowels until they get you where you need to be. However, this is a temptation that must be resisted at all costs. In this couplet alone, we see “or” stretched over two notes (and rather awkwardly at that), only for “moves” to find itself stretched over three full notes. The result is a verse that sounds like it was written by a creative team consisting of a five-year-old and a particularly insightful gust of wind.
Is he alive or dead?
Has he thoughts within his head?
We’ll just pass him there.
Why should we even care?

He was turned to steel
In the great magnetic field
When he travelled time
For the future of mankind.
            If you already know the story that the song centers around, these lyrics make a trifle more sense than they would otherwise, not that this is saying much, but even the lyrical problems are getting repetitive now… “Is he alive?” I don’t know. “Or dead?” yes, that is certainly the other possibility… “Are there thoughts within his head?” They’re certainly much more likely to be there than in his gallbladder… “We’ll just pass him there,” why add a “there” to the perfectly coherent statement “we’ll just pass him,” or “we’ll just pass him by?” Who says “we’ll just pass him there?”
            “Steel” and “field” don’t actually rhyme, nor do “time” and “mankind.” And don’t we mean “when he travelled through time” rather than the incomprehensible “when he travelled time?” Maybe it’s just me.
Nobody wants him,
He just stares at the world.
Planning his vengeance
That he soon will unfold.
            This verse actually isn’t bad. It isn’t good by any stretch of the imagination, but at least it sounds like it was written by a grown adult. There is no syllable stretching, no awkward expansions or condensations of previously meaningful statements. My only quibble is that “world” does not, as it happens, rhyme with “unfold.” I have expressed my blanket disapproval of using “world” in song lyrics at all in a previous post, but anyway:
Now the time is here
For Iron Man to spread fear.
            …And we’re back, ladies and gentlemen. The music clashes horribly with the natural emphases of the sentence, “for” and “man” get stretched over two and then three syllables respectively, and on the whole we’re back to the lyrical ineptitude that characterized the opening stanzas of the song. I was blindsided, therefore, when the next lyric was:
Vengeance from the grave,
Kills the people he once saved.
            There’s actually a good lyric in this song! True, “grave” and “saved” don’t strictly rhyme, but the couplet manages with gleeful vindictiveness to sum up something approaching the central irony of the story. The high from this verse is often enough to get me through the rest of the song, a desperate slog though it is from here on out:
Nobody wants him
They just turn their heads.
Nobody helps him
Now he has his revenge.
            If I may simply note that “heads” and “revenge” don’t even come close to rhyming, we can move on.
Heavy boots of lead
Fills his victims full of dread.
Running as fast as they can,
Iron Man lives again!
            To start out with, who the hell says “dread” anymore? When did “fill them full” become a phrase in the English language? And when did Iron Man live the first time that this time he “lives again?” These are questions to which we may never know the answers. Nor do I, for one, particularly want to.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Clever vs. Telling Lyrics, or The Gap Between Noel Coward and Spring Awakening

            I posit that lyrics (that is to say, good lyrics) tend to fall somewhere between two polar ends: clever and telling. Clever lyrics can be found in their purest form in the work of lyricists like Noel Coward and W.S. Gilbert. No plumbing of emotional depths is even attempted in such lyrics, for they are dazzling feats of wordplay that tend to be sung either by the lyricist himself (as in Coward’s case) or by characters acting as a surrogate for the lyricist (as in much of Gilbert’s work). Simply put, the lyricist becomes the star.

            Telling lyrics belong in a different class entirely. Paying little attention to verbal aesthetics, they seek to express the pure emotions of a character without any reference to the lyricist. This category can be subdivided into two types of telling lyrics, the elegantly simple (as in the work of Oscar Hammerstein) and the irritatingly self-absorbed (as in Steven Sater’s work on Spring Awakening). 

           Lyricists who can move comfortably between the two are the best off of anybody, but even their examples can prove all-too-instructive. Stephen Sondheim's lyrics almost invariably combine dramatic emotion with marked intelligence and wit. Being very clever, he also excels at writing purely witty and sparklingly fun lyrics, like the cut version of “We’re Gonna Be Alright” from Do I Hear A Waltz?.
           Unfortunately, such irrepressible intelligence does not lend itself to writing purely telling lyrics, as the musical Passion demonstrated. It is a show with some truly admirable moments, and it is certainly possessed of one of the most musically beautiful scores that Sondheim ever wrote, but you need look no further than the song “Loving You” to find the kind of awkwardly maudlin statements that unfortunately define the show. From the opening salvo of “Loving you is not a choice/it’s who I am,” you know what you’re in for and only Donna Murphy's sublime performance as Fosca can elevate the material.

This example should serve not to denigrate telling lyrics; Sondheim’s failure in the area is not a consequence of any deficiency in the form, but rather in the fact that Sondheim never had the same faculty for simplistic lyrical beauty that was always apparent in the work of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein. Sondheim is a lyricist with an unparalleled felicity of expression, but that expression is a function of his intelligence. Take away the intelligence, and not much is left.
            However, telling lyrics can have extraordinary power. Tim Rice, like him or not, is one of the most versatile and workmanlike lyricists alive, just at home in the world of rock-and-roll as he is in Argentina or Jerusalem. His lyrics for Jesus Christ Superstar find him at his most unabashedly emotional. Fortunately, Rice has a talent for the simple but powerful sentiments that define the best lyrics of the telling variety, and it is with this example that I leave you for today.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Collaborative Coherency, or I'm Kinda Busy

            To begin with, I had better define collaborative coherency. It is simply the term I use to describe the extent to which lyrics must coordinate themselves with the music they have been paired with. It is an essential but too-often overlooked concept.
There are two levels of collaborative coherency. The first and most basic level, which this article will seek to tackle, is simply a matter of professionalism: matching musical rhythms with natural speaking rhythms and ensuring that emphases supplied by pitch do not disrupt speech—stress coherency. A good example of how not on pain of death to do this is Lady Gaga’s “Telephone:”

The music isn’t bad, but Gaga appears to have given little or no thought as to how much the music disrupts the lyrics. Take the line, “I’m kinda busy.” First, read that sentence out loud, just as you normally would in conversation, particularly the last word. Unless you suffer from a crippling speech impediment, your pronunciation of “busy” will place emphasis on the first syllable and leave the second syllable briskly clipped. But then look at how Gaga sets the word; both syllables are given a rhythmically equivalent setting, contorting the normal emphases of the word into a tortured monorhythm. Given that, a lovely band-aid solution would have been to place the second syllable of the word “busy” on a lower pitch, thus giving it an appropriately subordinate position. However, Gaga uses the same pitch for both notes, leaving the awkward rhythm to fend for itself.
A subtler example comes from the beginning of the same song. First, read out “Hello, hello baby, you called, I can’t hear a thing” as you would in normal conversation, or as normal a conversation as it is possible to have when you are narrating your beaux’s telephone habits. You will tend to place natural pauses between phrases, breaking up the sentence into coherent chunks. Gaga will have no truck with this, opting instead to render the sentence as one continuous string of speech, absent anything resembling a pause. Before, the flaw was merely jarring. Here it turns the entire line into indecipherable gibberish.
As a general rule, the natural rhythms and emphases of the music and the lyrics must be coordinated if they are to be yoked to each other. If you do break collaborative coherency, it must be deliberate and must serve a purpose…but that is interactive coherency—another article for another time.