Some Standard Excuses for Not Rhyming Properly … And Why We All Still Should (Pt 2)

For background (and a TL;DR summary), see the previous post.

Now, I didn’t go looking for the following songs; I kept my ears open, and they found me. I listened for effective rhymes away from the world of show tunes, and I tried very, very honestly to find a better part of each song that didn’t rhyme properly.

Standard Excuse No.1 – The Unschooled and Ephemeral Nature of Teen Pop

(Note: rhymes are red, off-rhymes are blue)

Here’s how ‘My Boyfriend’s Back‘ (Feldman, Goldstein and Gottehrer) begins its first refrain:

My boyfriend’s back and you’re gonna be in trouble
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)
You see him comin’, better cut out on the double
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)

Three things to notice, this early in the song. One, that the “hey lah-day-lah” response puts extra pressure on each rhyme, because the listener has more time to hear it coming. Two, that the most telling word, in terms of the singer’s character is a non-rhymer, “cut”. That “cut out on the double” rings true to me. Three, that each rhyming line ends with a two-syllable rhyme (I won’t use the term “feminine rhyme”, even though it’s tempting here), and that this two-syllable rhyme challenge is dropped almost immediately, to the song’s detriment:

You been spreading lies that I was untrue
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)
So look out now ’cause he’s comin’ after you
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)

This obliges the singer to sing “untrue-oo”, and “you-oo”, and there are no compensating additions, in terms of fresh ideas or subject matter, to make up for this loss of craft in the rhyme department. It’s just a weak follow-up to the first refrain.

Hey, he knows what you been tryin
And he knows that you been lyin

The two-syllable rhyme returns in the bridge, but it’s not ideal, since both words (tryin’ and lyin’) are, as W K Wimsatt would have pointed out, the same parts of speech, and so not as effective when paired. Sondheim would add that words with the same spelling aren’t as surprising. Yeah, I just made reference to Wimsatt and Sondheim in a blog post about ‘My Boyfriend’s Back’.

He’s been gone for such a long time
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)
Now he’s back and things’ll be fine
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)

Really disappointing. The words don’t rhyme (in fact, they’re a clichéd non-rhyme), the syllables again have to be stretched to fit the notes, and nothing new is said. Happily, better times are ahead.

You’re gonna be sorry you were ever born
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)
Cause he’s kinda big and he’s awful strong
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)

These are still non-rhyming words, and they’re still lazy one-syllable non-rhymes, but “kinda” and “awful” are perfectly in character.

Hey, he knows I wasn’t cheatin
Now you’re gonna get a beatin

That’s more like it! Wimsatt would approve, because a verb rhyming with a verbal noun is better than two verbs. And the rhyming words are in character, too.

What made you think he’d believe all your lies?
(Wahooo, wahooo)
You’re a big man now but he’ll cut you down to size
Wahooo, wait and see

A second bridge! This is actually where the single syllable rhymes belong.

My boyfriend’s back, he’s gonna save my reputation
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)
If I were you, I’d take a permanent vacation
(Hey lah-day-lah, my boyfriend’s back)

That’s it. That’s how good the whole song should be. There they are, two-syllable rhymes, perfectly in character and the syntax is spot on. This is, unsurprisingly, the last couplet: the song closes with ad-libbing over the refrain.

Standard Excuse No.2 – Folksy Insouciance (aka Being Authentic, Staying Real etc.)

This is ‘For the Ages‘, from Paul Kelly’s 2012 album Spring and Fall. The song is credited to Paul Kelly and Dan Kelly.

Darling, you’re one for the ages
I’m glad you live here in mine
Your face and figure belong
To centuries been and gone
Those Renaissance and Roman times

Wise, this, because if you’re gonna not rhyme, you should be a not-rhymer right from the beginning. Notice there are two single-syllable off-rhymes set up here, between the second and last line of each stanza, and between the third and fourth line.

Darling, you’re one for the ages
Long may you live in my rhyme
The years will cut us down,
But they won’t keep us in the groun
Out of the grave we’ll climb.

But wait, now these are true rhymes, since “ground” loses its terminal letter (and rhyme is mentioned explicitly, so it’s probably just as well). Notice, though, that the idea is trite, and a little bit gross?

Oh, darling you’re one for the ages
You’ll never go out of style
You walked into the ball
Dressed by St Vincent de Paul
With that shy, serious smile

This is superb. This is a marvellous example of rhyme leading the mind in fresh directions (a paraphrase of Goethe, I think, but I can’t find a source). The “shy, serious smile” is shopworn, yes, but rhyming “ball” with “St Vincent de Paul” is gorgeous. It scans beautifully, it’s surprising (you won’t find it at rhymezone), and it’s effortlessly in character (unlike, say, “forestall” or “Nepal”).

After a guitar instrumental, this:

Darling you’re one for the ages
Your beauty suits ev’ry clime
There’s a mystery deep within
And in the light upon your skin
I could study for all time

True rhymes all the way, but it’s weak for four reasons. One, nobody says “clime” when they mean “climate”. Two, this rhyme has already been used, but as “climb”. Three, the “mystery deep within” and “light upon your skin” is hackneyed – and no, I don’t care how many listeners swoon at it (having already mentioned face, figure, and smile, the song is now perilously close to a shopping list). Last of all, the syntax means I can’t make sense of it: could you study in the light upon the skin, as if it’s a sort of lamp? Or is there a mystery in the skin-light, and you could study that mystery?

Even though it doesn’t end well, I love this song for demonstrating, so neatly, that not all off-rhymes are bad (the opening verse works well), and that not all true rhymes are good (the last verse is the song’s weakest). But when everything is done just right (tone, prosody, syntax and a perfect rhyme), the song has its finest moment.

Standard Excuse No.3 – Rock Swagger

Now, when it comes to rock, I’ll admit it: we should rhyme sparingly, and rhyme carefully. If rhyme tends to indicate presence of mind, or forethought, or intelligent analysis, then a song encouraging abandon, gettin’ loud, or gettin’ wild, has little use for it.

For example, in a song about boredom, frustration and alienation, Jagger and Richards demonstrate the value of repetition:

I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can’t get no, I can’t get no

Count the rhymes – none. But notice, also, no off-rhymes? And look at that beautiful variation in vowel sounds (vowel-boredom can be a real trap when you’re adopting repetition): short a, short e, long o, short i, long i. I don’t think Mick and Keef said “Man, we better, like, vary the vowels if we’re gonna, like, eschew traditional rhyme in this fashion.” I think they opted for what sounded good, and maybe for what felt good to sing. And they were right.

When I’m drivin’ in my car
And a man comes on the radio
He’s tellin’ me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination
I can’t get no, oh no, no, no
Hey, hey, hey
That’s what I say

And so the rest of the song goes. There are some rhymes (their position moves about in different verses, but they’re true rhymes), and there are off-rhymes, but there’s more repetition than anything else.

Incidentally, my favourite line in the song has always featured one of its few rhymes:

I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no girlie action

Except that’s not the line. I’ve been wrong for forty years, because the line is

I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no girl reaction

At the risk of presumption, I think the first version is better – and I wonder, how many other people think it’s “girlie action”?

We have all heard the opening of ‘Sweet Home Alabama‘ (Ed King, Gary Rossington,Ronnie Van Zant) far too many times, and so we have all forgotten how good it is. Pretend this was written for Assassins, by Sondheim:

Big wheels keep on turnin’
Carryin’ me home to see my kin
Singin’ songs about the southland,
I miss Alabamy once agin, and I think it’s a sin

Look at how beautifully a truck or a bus is implied, while character is created (‘kin’, ‘agin’ and ‘Alabamy’ are terrific), and even religion gets a nod. It’s superb, and all the rhymes are perfect. I think it’s the best part of the song, but I’ll admit that many listeners probably prefer: 

In Birmingham they love the governor
(Boo, boo, boo)
Now we all did what we could do
Now Watergate does not bother me
Does your conscience bother you? Tell the truth

This has only one off-rhyme, but the song has started to weaken at this point, because the verses have begun using the same “oo” rhyming sound as in the chorus:

Sweet home Alabama
Where the skies are so blue
Sweet home Alabama
Lord I’m comin’ home to you

Vowel-boredom! It’s a shame, and it continues into the next verse about the Swampers of Muscle Shoals. I’m happy if people think the Watergate verse is the best, but I’d like to see a rehabilitation of the opening lines’ reputation, because they’re enviably good.

One more rock song which, like Paul and Dan Kelly’s “For The Ages”, demonstrates the virtues and pitfalls of rhyme:

Back In Black
(Angus Young/Malcolm Young/Brian Johnson)

Back in black
I hit the sack
I been too long I’m glad to be back

It’s a pity that “back’ is repeated, but still, there aren’t many rock classics with an inner rhyme in the title, and on a good, hard “ack” sound to boot. I have never understood “hit the sack”, though, because to me it means going to bed, and that’s not very rock. Maybe it’s “hit the sac”?

Yes I am
Let loose
from the noose
That’s kept me hanging about

Best lines in the song. It’s a perfect rhyme, on a fresh vowel sound, it’s in character, and it makes a pun about hanging.

I keep looking at the sky cause it’s gettin’ me high
Forget the hearse cause I’ll never die
I got nine lives, cat’s eyes
Using every one of them and runnin’ wild

Some say it’s “abusing”, not “using”, but that’s not important: how many cat’s eyes do you have? How impressive is using or abusing all of them?

After the refrain, which is largely made up of the title, this:

Back in the back of a
Cadillac
Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack

I don’t mind the repetition of “back” so much here, but it’s used in two different senses, and it’s an inner identity, rather than an end rhyme. “Cadillac” is excellent, and those bullets are a great image, but power packs? Not so much. That sounds like a prepared nerd to me: “It’s alright, everyone, I function as a power pack!”

Yes I am in a bang
With the gang
They gotta catch me if they want me to hang

A new rhyming sound, which is good, but this image was used up earlier, in the much better “oose” rhyme.

Cause I’m back on the track and I’m beatin’ the flack
Nobody’s gonna get me on another rap
So look at me now I’m just makin’ my play
Don’t try to push your luck just get out of my way

You can see the Young brothers and Johnson trying to stick to the “ack” rhymes here, but they know they’ve used several of the good ones, and in any case they know some variety is in order. I think “rap” is a particularly weak off-rhyme, and the clue to what they should have done is right there, in that little word, “luck”. By changing the vowel, while keeping the consonant, they could have mentioned a neck (which you can stick out), and “stick” rhymes with kick, or trick, while neck rhymes with deck (which you can hit, or deal), and if you duck those earlier bullets then duck rhymes with … luck.

Standard Excuse No.4 – The Iconoclastic Nature of Hip Hop and Rap

I don’t listen to a lot of hip hop or rap, and I freely admit I don’t know a great deal about either. I’m middle-aged, so I think Chuck D and Busta Rhymes are really talented, and I can’t understand the fuss over Eminem or Kanye West. But here’s what I hear rappers doing all the time: matching lazy rhymes with lazy ideas. And the better ones also do the converse.

This is the refrain from “Chum” by Earl Sweatshirt (credited writers are Sweatshirt, Taiwo Hassan, Kehinde Hassan, and Hugo), which I heard on NPR’s All Songs Considered - see, I told you I was middle-aged:

Something sinister to it,
pendulum swinging slow, A degenerate movin
through the city with criminals, stealth
Welcome to enemy turf,
harder than immigrants’ work
“Golf” is stitched into my shirt

This last line might seem arcane, but it’s a reference to Sweatshirt’s hip hop collective Odd Future, and its meaning would be clear to his fans. That aside, notice that this opening image is presented in slightly overworked terms, is a little pretentious (to be fair, the performer was only 18 when this released), is made mostly of weak off-rhymes, and is one of the most well-worn in literature: the sensitive poet, alone, an outsider.

It’s probably been twelve years since my father left,
left me fatherless

Personally, I imagine this is devastating, but in literary terms, the absent father is a faithful standby. The lyric improves when the ideas turn to specific details of self-loathing and rebellion, and “fatherless”, which was a clumsy off-rhyme with “left”, rhymes with what comes next [Warning: the N-word is coming]

… left me fatherless
And I just used to say I hate him in dishonest jes
When honestly I miss this nigga, like when I was six
And every time I got the chance to say it I would swallow it
Sixteen, I’m hollow, intolerant, skip shots
Storm that whole bottle, I’ll show you a role model

I realise that poring over every rhyme like this in a rap, and deciding whether it’s true or off, is a bit like listening to Steve Reich for the chord changes. Most rap fans would prefer to let the words flow at speed, but look at how the song gets better as the imagery and observations become more specific and original. That inner rhyme of “hollow” and “intolerant” is good stuff and, since bottle is pronounced “boddle”, its rhyme with “role model” is, I think, excellent. If it’s a rap cliché, I stand corrected, but it’s new to me.

Momma often was offering peace offerin‘s
Think, wheeze, cough, scoffin’ and he’s off again
Searching for a big brother, Tyler was that
And plus he liked how I rap,
The blinded mice in the trap:
Too black for the white kids, and too white for the blacks
From honor roll to crackin’ locks up off them bicycle racks

And there they all are again: specific image, tone, implied character, natural syntax, perfect rhyme, best lines in the song.

But as I said, I don’t know enough rap or hip hop. If anyone can show me an artist who does everything I suggest with true rhymes, but still produces their best work with off-rhymes, I’d be wiser than I am now. At this point, though, I feel perfectly confident saying:

If you get everything right – prosody, tone, syntax, and agreement in sound – a perfect rhyme will always be better than an off-rhyme, no matter what genre you’re writing in.

2 thoughts on “Some Standard Excuses for Not Rhyming Properly … And Why We All Still Should (Pt 2)

  1. There is a variety of terms for a correspondence between words that falls short of perfect rhyme. Such terms include near rhyme , half-rhyme , imperfect rhyme , off-rhyme , partial rhyme , pararhyme and slant rhyme (although the last of these is sometimes used to mean specifically consonance ). Most of these terms tend to sound pejorative, but in fact a poet may well deliberately choose to use a rhyme that is less than “perfect”. A poem with perfect rhymes and perfect metre throughout can sometimes sound predictable and trite; too tum-ti-tum. Don’t you get bored with song lyrics that rhyme love with above? Would you really mind if it was occasionally rhymed instead with enough, or loaf, or leave, or groove, or stuffed, or luck, or off? If you want your less-than-perfect rhyme to sound a more imposing achievement, you can instead call it omoioteleton (or homoioteleuton , or any of several other spellings) – which is just the Greek for “similar ending”.

    • Wonderful Greek words, Davis! I shall use them regularly from now on:

      We spoon on a futon,
      A visual homoioteleuton

      Yep, I am bored by songs that rhyme love with above, but I also really, really would mind an off-rhyme with loaf or leave (at the end of a line, that is). In fact, I’d ask myself why I’m trying to rhyme with “love” at all, since it’s a vague, overused word, and does nothing to suggest the singer’s character.

      As for poets, I envy their occasional advantage, since their work is more often read than spoken, and exists in a kind of non-linear time. I’d love to eye-rhyme “laughter” with “daughter”, for example.

      If I had to rhyme something with love, I’d probably try an inner rhyme with a word we haven’t all heard used a thousand times. Maybe oven, coverall, shovel, government, aboveground, dovetail, bedcover, covenant. “Shovel” suggests lovely possibilities …

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