This Maclean’s article came out last May, and I nearly wrote about the matter right away, in a high-handed manner. But I decided to try being thoughtful instead, and I’ve been trying ever since.
First, here’s the TL;DR version …
There’s more to a perfect rhyme than merely getting the sounds to agree. Perfect rhymes didn’t become the norm in musical theatre until around the 1940s, and they didn’t hold sway for very long. Perfect rhymes are still worth pursuing, though, in every genre of songwriting. I can back this up with examples.
To address two assumptions in Jaime Weinman’s first paragraph of that article – and these assumptions are made pretty much everywhere, so I by no means lay them at Weinman’s feet:
1. “the last refuge of perfect rhyme”
There are many elements to a perfect rhyme, especially in theatre, and agreement in sound is only one of them. There are also prosody and scansion to consider (songwriters tend to use these terms interchangeably, but what I mean is singable syllables, naturally stressed), syntax (words in the right order should be), and tone (you can’t whip out just any old word, simply because it rhymes). Different songwriters and different eras have valued these elements differently. Early in the last century, for example, this sort of thing was pretty common:
He: In every foreign country I have met my fate.
I’ve met her so much, I am tired.
She: Can you remain quite neutral and to me relate,
Which you most admired?
That’s part of ‘Some Sort of Somebody‘ from Very Good Eddie (1915), music by Jerome Kern, lyric by Elsie Janis. Notice the phrase “to me relate”, which I bet no-one has ever said, ever. Before the First World War (and, indeed, until well after the Second), rhyme often trumped natural syntax in this way.
While I’m using tunes by Kern, ‘How’d You Like to Spoon With Me?‘ was the equivalent of a pop hit in 1905, and interpolated into The Earl and the Girl for that show’s Broadway run. Behold:
I don’t know why I am so very shy,
I always was demure,
I never knew what silly lovers do,
No flirting I’d endure; [syntax]
How’d you like to spoon with me?
How’d you like to spoon with me?
Sit beneath an oak tree large and shady,
Call me little tootsy wootsy baby …
“Shady” and “baby” don’t rhyme; here the jazzy-slang attraction of “tootsy wootsy baby” has upstaged rhyme, and this process still goes on today, especially in pop. Entire songs are built upon it.
Here are two more examples, with music by Kern – although you can do this with many composers of the teens, twenties and thirties – from Roberta. By 1933 Kern had worked with better lyricists, and better lyrics were starting to be the fashionable thing. But in Otto Harbach’s lyric for ‘Yesterdays’, there’s this:
Days I knew as happy sweet
Sequestered days [tone, prosody]
Then gay youth was mine,
Truth was mine,
Joyous free and flaming life,
Forsooth was mine [tone, prosody]
Roberta also offers, in ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’:
So I chaffed them and I gaily laughed …
[prosody, tone and syntax!
This is a category 5 rhymestorm]
The examples could go on, because there are many music theatre lyrics prior to, say, those for Oklahoma!, that demonstrate rhyming without much regard for syntax, or rhyming without regard for a character’s vocabulary. And there are some that don’t rhyme at all, because they’re too busy being slangy. The best lyricists of the ’40s and ’50s (Berlin, Loesser, Fields, Porter, Hammerstein) demonstrated that it’s possible to rhyme deftly without sacrificing character or syntax – and the greats often invented slang. By the late 1960s, though, the various elements had shifted in importance to the point where syntax and character started to matter more than rhyme (look at my favourite song in Hair, ‘Frank Mills’). And that’s what I think we’re hearing in many theatre lyricists’ work today: rhyme dropped in favour of something considered more important, like making a character “authentic” or “relatable”.
So, musical theatre isn’t really the last refuge of perfect rhyme. There’s a corner of musical theatre where perfect rhyme sits, hoping to be offered a drink; just as there are corners of country music, cabaret, comedy, and political satire, where perfect rhymes wait shyly while other more brazen considerations get all the attention.
Which leads me to the second assumption in Weinman’s opening paragraph:
2. “… poetry, which hasn’t had strict rhyming rules since Emily Dickinson”
This is true, but only because poetry didn’t have strict rhyming rules before Dickinson, either. Some forms have developed traditional rhyme schemes, yes, and poets often change or subvert or vary these schemes, for their own reasons. This means there’s now a standard argument, usually heard in defence of the techniques of modernism, which non-rhyming songwriters have learned to use: “I’m attempting something shocking, and new, so why would I soothe the listener with the familiar?”
My problem with this argument is that it’s almost never true of the non-rhyming song. Far from attempting something shocking, the non-rhyming songwriter is usually succumbing to cliche, and trotting out ideas heard in dozens of other songs. Furthermore, every time I hear false/slant/near/off- rhymes defended as “modern” or “acceptable these days”, I cannot help but note that:
Rhyme Has Never Been Denounced By A Songwriter Who’s Really Good At It
At this point, music theatre types tend to produce a list of off-rhymes in some writer’s work and leave it there, as if to say “Really, what can we do? Why can’t the people hear?”
I think that’s dogmatic, and snobby. But what if I could look at some standard excuses for not rhyming properly, and at some successful popular songs where those excuses are in evidence? And what if I could then demonstrate that the best parts of those songs are still the parts with proper rhymes?
Coming Soon, In Part Two …