Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Pleasant Surprise, or I've Still Got A Long Way To Go

I freely admit to being someone so constitutionally averse to risk and the unexpected that the concept of  pleasant surprise seems comparable to the idea of being hit in the head with a brick covered in felt--you are forced to acknowledge that your circumstances are not as bad as they could easily have been, but you had still made rather definite plans not to be hit with a brick today.

But that is my cynical side speaking. With the benefit of hindsight, I am frequently forced to admit the extent to which I relish discovering a great musical number or track in a work that I thought I knew back to front. I knew all my favorite numbers in Fiorello, for instance, and yet until I listened to the score again, I had failed to spot a clever and terrific eleven o'clock number called "(I'll Marry) The Very Next Man." (note: the version below is performed at an unusually fast tempo, but it is also very well-played and captures the spirit of the song quite nicely)

Similarly, on re-listening to Elvis Costello's album My Aim Is True, I realized that between the hits like "Alison" and "Less Than Zero" was a charming little song called "Sneaky Feelings."

I particularly love how well the music and lyrics coordinate on the line "but I've still got a long way to go..." As felt bricks go, this one was relatively gentle. I would also like to add that "Felt Bricks" sounds like the title of an Elvis Costello album.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Musical Site Recommendation: BlueGobo.com

One of the best things about the theatre is also one of the worst things about the theatre; once a show has closed, it’s gone. It can be revived, of course, but only rarely (like with South Pacific) does a revival manage to recapture the spirit of the original. For this reason, BlueGobo is a godsend, collecting rare videos of musical number performances from variety shows, Tony performances, promotional recordings and the like. As might be expected, the site has very little content from before the 1940s and 50s, since prior to the advent of television there was little to be gained from filming a stage performance of a song. That said, some videos go back surprisingly early and the site makes full use of the nostalgic musical numbers from the 1971 Tonys, featuring Tom Bosley performing a number from Fiorello.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Billy Joel: The Great Musical Theater Lyricist Who Never Was

There is a certain species of popular music critic who tends to conflate the genuinely profound with the merely obtuse, and this has bred a culture of pop lyricists whose work is painfully awful, but is granted the luxury of a blind eye because no one wants to admit that they didn’t understand it. In reality, very few pop lyricists manage to combine poetry with meaning. Leonard Cohen did. Pink Floyd did in their best moments. It’s entirely possible that Bob Dylan also did, but I confess that I am not as well-acquainted as I should be with Dylan’s work, mostly because I can’t get past the fact that his voice sounds like an irritable cat in a blender.

My highly belabored point is that in pop music, lucid and emotionally honest lyrics often get left by the wayside, which brings me to Billy Joel. I am far past the point of feeling guilty about liking Billy Joel. He is one of the great melody-writers of our age, musically dexterous and unexpectedly adventurous. But aside from all that, I love Joel’s lyrics. They are specific, relatable, and refreshingly polished. Not to mention that Joel actually tries to use only perfect rhymes or, failing that, intimate assonances, as opposed to the usual pop M.O. of just using an assonance and hoping that if you want it to be a rhyme hard enough, it will actually become one, whereas it actually just makes you look like a prat who couldn’t be bothered giving your work a quick once-over before recording it.

So why are Joel’s lyrics so looked down upon among some critics? Probably because he dousn’t let them pretend that they’re smart. Joel is a storyteller, not a purveyor of senseless metaphor, and that scares them. But moreover, Joel’s lyrics aren’t as close to other pop lyrics as they are to musical theater lyrics. In musicals, you cannot afford to meander or to veil your meaning. It is an art of communication, not flowery elaboration.

I don’t care what consequence it brings,
I have been a fool for lesser things.
In two lines, Joel conveys his character’s rueful optimism with brutal and oddly elegant efficiency. Or take any part of his oddly dark “She’s Always A Woman To Me.”

Or consider the entirety of “Stiletto,” which expresses musically the vicious cycle inherent in not being able to leave an abusive partner.

You rarely see that level of collaborative coherency in a pop song. And there are plenty more good examples: the wryly observational “Piano Man,” the melancholy “Where’s The Orchestra?” and the staggering “Miami 2017 (I’ve Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway).” Which brings me to my assertion that Billy Joel would have made a great musical theater songwriter, had the inclination struck him. Alas, it never did, and the jukebox show "Movin' Out" is small consolation.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Why There Are Only Two Oscar Nominees For Best Original Song

As what promises to be the most tediously predictable Oscar night in years approaches, we must cling to whatever small surprises we may alight upon. For example, when the nominations were announced a few weeks ago, the most significant surprise was that only two works had been nominated in the category of Best Original Song: "Man or Muppet" from The Muppets, and some song that no one even remembered from Rio.

So how did this happen?

Well, the oddities of the category's nomination process made it so. Allow me to preface any snide remarks by saying that there is one aspect of the process that I greatly admire: Academy voters are required to experience the songs in context. I love this, because it means that a film cannot simply scoop up a cheap Oscar simply by hiring a name pop star to play over the credits. Integration of music and drama is rewarded and thereby encouraged.

However, that brings me to what is wrong with the process and how we ended up with two lonely nominees. Every voter rates each eligible song on a scale of 1 to 10, but only songs that score an average of 8.25 or higher will receive a nomination. So if only two songs happened to meet the minimum requirement, then only those two songs will be nominated.

However, I'm not convinced that's what occurred here. You see, if only one song meets the minimum requirement of 8.25 out of 10, then it and its closest runner-up will be nominated, even if the runner-up did not meet the minimum score. I suspect that "Man or Muppet" was the only one to qualify, but inadvertently took its more dubious competitor along for the ride. Certainly, "Man or Muppet" is going to win the award, there can be no doubt of that.

But what this all comes down to is that the Academy has two choices: change the rules, or eliminate the category altogether. Thus far, they seem to have been moving towards the first. Next year we'll see if it was enough.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

#1: On Assonance

This is my first video, an adaptation of one of my earlier articles. If you have any questions or comments, please let me know in the comments section of this post or at thediscerninglyricist@gmail.com.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Dialect, or Tell Me How You've Bean Agayn?

The most maddening thing about people, at least to a lyricist, is the bewildering disparity in their manner of speech. Regional dialects are as numerous as stars in the sky, and twice as poorly understood. Why is this a problem? Because it plays havoc with rhyming.


If you’re from the U.S., chances are you’ll say that these two words rhyme, and you’d be right; by all rights, those vowel sounds should be the same. But what about if you’re a well-to-do Englishman? In that case, those same words are pronounced “pants” and “dahnce.” The first word is still pronounced with the “a” sound, but “dance” is now saddled with a long “ah” sound. The upshot is that if you wrote that verse for a refined English character, congratulations, your rhyme has been revoked for crossing national lines.

The most confusing part in all of this is that even within a country, you can get the same kind of divergence within a country’s own borders. To a native Midwesterner like me, “rather” and “gather” are perfectly legitimate rhymes, but many New Englanders use the British pronunciation “rahther,” meaning that those lines will no longer rhyme.

The same goes for “again,” which many British residents pronounce as “ag-ayn,” but that most Americans pronounce “aghenn,” and for “been,” which many Englishmen pronounce the way it’s spelled, whereas most Americans pronounce it as “bin.”

And let us not forget the stubborn British refusal to pronounce the letter “r,” meaning that the sounds “ah” and “ar” rhyme very adequately in British English.

But now for a positive example: In one song Cee Lo Green rhymes “richer” and “with you.” In any other dialect, this would be a painful non-rhyme, but in Cee-Lo’s idiosyncratic variation on an African-American dialect, the words are pronounced (and abbreviated) as “ritchuh” and “witch yuh.” Much better.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Adele's sweep at the Grammys on Sunday was heartening, even if it did lack that elusive quality of surprise. I feel as if I should say something about her, but what is there to say? That her music is fresh and invigorating? That her lyrics actually sound sincere rather than asinine or cheaply provocative? That her success has given me a renewed (though probably short-lived) feeling of faith in pop music? That her body type helps to move pop music away from its worship of appearance over content?

I could easily say any one of those things, but do I need to? Not especially. Everything that needs to be said about Adele has been said, and then some. So stop listening to the hype; just listen to the music.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Curious Case of Lady Gaga

This hasn't much to do with lyrics, but bear with me.

Lady Gaga confuses me. Her fans insist that she's really musically talented, and they're right.

I mean, good God. She can sing, she's a first-rate pianist, and she can write her own stuff (all too rare in the pop world). So why does an artist who can make songs like this...

...insist on making crap like this?

Some of her critics have theorized that her appeal is really all about her image and how weird she can be. Honestly, the image has always felt like a pose to me, at least compared to the effortless weirdness of psychedelic music like this song by Pink Floyd in their early years:

It's like the difference between Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp in the role of Willy Wonka. Wilder convinced you that, at least through the character's eyes, all of this was perfectly normal--the weirdness was simply part of the character rather than an affectation of the performer. Johnny Depp's Wonka, however, conveyed nothing other than "here's John ny Depp trying to be weird, make of him what you will." Depp was just trying so very, very hard, and it made the result nothing so much as embarrassing.

The upshot of that tortured analogy is that while Lady Gaga does a lot of weird, she doesn't do it very well. And I might as well go on to say that I don't like very many of her hits. I don't like "Poker Face," I don't like "Alejandro," I hate "Telephone" with a passion...I mostly liked "Bad Romance" just for the BWAAHAAH value, in spite of the fact that it is, let's face it, basically just "Poker Face" but massively better.

What all these songs have in common is that they're all intentionally pitched low; she pretends she can't sing, dumbs down her lyrics, and waits for the cash to roll in, all of which constitutes a huge middle finger to those of us who like to listen to good music. I think "Love Game" represents the zenith of this.

To be embarrassingly honest, I can't actually bring myself to hate this song. It's so wonderfully, gloriously stupid that hating it is like hating an unruly puppy--sure, you don't like what it's doing, but it's a puppy, that's just what it does.

No my real problem with Lady Gaga became clear to me after I listened to the two-disc extended edition of her first album and realized that I liked far more of her songs than I didn't. As long as I made very sure to hit the skip button upon hearing the first few notes of any of the insufferable mega-hits, I could easily get through the album without having heard any bad music.

What really tipped the scale for me was when I got to one particular song, and let me tell you, it left me...well...

I don't care who you are, that is just a flat-out good song, one that Elton John would have been proud to write. So why does this song have to languish on the album while we make hits out of things like this?

That was sn excerpt from "Poker Face," her biggest hit. What is wrong with you people? We've been sending Lady Gaga the wrong message, we've been telling her that what we really want is stupid, tuneless, and loud. And if her "Born This Way" album is any indication, she took every bit of that advice to heart. Nearly every song on that album was noisy, overproduced, and grating. I liked "You and I" (I omit the superfluous umlaut deliberately), I liked "Edge of Glory," and after a few listens I can even summon up some affection for the demented "Government Hooker." I daresay some of the other tracks may eventually wear me down, but on the whole I felt like I had listened to the product of an unusually productive collaboration between a pretentious high-school poet and a particularly enthusiastic stadium of vuvuzelas.

Dance music doesn't have to be bad. Everything deserves effort, everything deserves scrutiny, and even the most stillborn songs deserve their day in court. If anyone is going to bring truly great dance music to the masses, it will be Lady Gaga. I just wish she would.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

...And Of Course.

Selfishly ignoring my rabies-flecked post of a few days ago, the American public has gone and given Smash solid ratings for its pilot show, and believe it or not, I don't begrudge it that. Despite what I said here, the "Smash" pilot wasn't absolutely terrible, it was just mediocre. So why did I hate it? Because it seemed so bloody pleased with itself for being mediocre (though I am aware that in the humility sweepstakes, I live in what looks suspiciously like a glass house).

And, hey, if people enjoy the show, that's great. If it continues to pull good ratings, fantastic. Granted, it's going to be a very long few months for me, but with any luck by then the American public will have grown a sense of good taste.

Yeah...let me know when that happens. If you need me, I'll be on the floor in a fetal position.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Rant: 5 Reasons I Hated The Pilot For "Smash" With Every Fiber Of My Being

            To say that I haven’t been updating my blog lately is an understatement akin to saying that the Atlantic Ocean is vaguely moist. However, if anything was to break through my shell of real-world responsibilities and good old fashioned apathy, it would have to be another aborted attempt to bring musicals back to the small screen.
            Not that I have anything against the idea—in fact, my hope that a consistently good musical television show might finally become the next big thing springs, if not eternal, then at least for a few more years. Viva Laughlin, while noble in intent, stumbled in execution, and Cop Rock is such a legendary disaster that I almost feel bad beating it further into the ground.

             I said almost. Anyway, the only show to come close to fulfilling this dream in recent years was Glee, which had its moments but grew steadily more insufferable by the day until I stopped watching out of sheer frustration. Nevertheless, when I saw the announcement of NBC’s new series Smash, I was excited in spite of myself. Sure, it looked a little derivative, but if it was smartly written and well acted, I wouldn’t care.
            And then I watched the pilot, and my mood sank from hopeful to ambivalent to frustrated to genuinely furious.
I hate this episode, and I fully expect to hate the show just as much. It follows a group of people trying to produce a musical about Marilyn Monroe, as well as the struggles of two determined and vaguely desperate young ladies to secure the lead role, and if this plot sounds familiar it’s probably because you have seen a musical before. I don’t really expect anyone else to understand why I despise this show so entirely, but I will certainly try to convey the reasons for my resentment to the best of my ability.