A Collection of Chandler Songs

Sometimes you might want to emphasise the word ‘be’. Here’s a famous instance:

To be or not to be that is the question

Nice work from Shakespeare there, letting the iambs do their job of emphasising the important words.

Imagine, by way of contrast, this line, set to music:

I want to be free.

Imagine, as a songwriter, which syllables you might emphasise in this line, through your choices of pitch and rhythm.

I want to be free.

I WANT to be free.

I want to be FREE.

These are all good possibilities. This next one is, I think, not – if you do this, you’ve written what I call a Chandler song:

I want to BE free.

Rules of the Chandler Song Game

1. Modern pop songs don’t count. Scansion is not amongst their chief concerns.
2. If, as in the Shakespeare example, the emphasis is intentional, Chandler-status will not be granted.

As an example of Rule 2, witness this doggerel at the end of With One Look, from Sunset Boulevard:

This time I’m staying
I’m staying for good,
I’ll be back where I was born to BE
With one look, I’ll be me

Although that’s awful, it’s intentional, and the song is not a Chandler song.

(Sidebar: ‘WITH one look’? Not ‘with ONE look’, or ‘with one LOOK‘? Why emphasise the preposition, Don Black? Or is it Amy Powers?)

Also, this, from Tim Rice, gets a reluctant pass …

I want to BE a part of B A, Buenos Aires, Big Apple

… because Eva is using emphasis to make a pun.

(Sidebar: why is Eva making a pun?)

3. Other verb forms will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Also from Evita, there’s the perfect infinitive form:

You let down your people, Evita,
You were supposed to have BEEN immortal

It’s Chandleresque, but it’s not enough for a Chandler song. (Don’t worry, Tim Rice will have his moment later.)

Some Chandler Songs, In No Particular Order

Your cares and troubles are gone
There’ll BE no more from now on

– Jack Yellen, Happy Days Are Here Again, from the film Chasing Rainbows.

Sometimes I wish I could BE more like you

– Michael Korie and Amy Power, Two Worlds, from Doctor Zhivago.

It shall BE completely criminal for a man to break a date

– the generally impeccable Sheldon Harnick, Marie’s Law, from Fiorello!.

It’ll BE so quiet, that who’ll come by it

But a seaside wedding could BE devised.

– the generally impeccable Stephen Sondheim, By the Sea, from Sweeney Todd.

Just stay alive, that would BE enough (six times!)

Let this moment BE the first chapter

– Lin-Manuel Miranda, That Would Be Enough, from Hamilton.

OK, I fibbed about the order, because here, as promised, is my choice for grand champion. It wins because it’s a question:

Did you know your messy death would BE a record-breaker?

– Tim Rice, Superstar, from Jesus Christ Superstar.

Why We Don’t Need a ‘Dubstep’ Musical, a ‘Punk’ Musical, a ‘Metal’ Musical …

Many years ago, I was in the pit band for a production of Merrily We Roll Along. I played 2nd keyboard (meaning I sounded like woodwinds, strings, a typewriter), and one afternoon a substitute bass player sat in on the gig. He played the show deftly at sight – no mean feat – and said this of the score as he packed away his instrument:

Some nice lines, but no real grooves.

He’s right, of course: there are some cool bass lines in Merrily, but if you’re hoping to hear them settle in for a funky jam of three or four minutes, you’ll be disappointed. This is a show about time marching on, even if it does so backwards, and characters who change their minds need music that changes with them.

This is why, whenever someone remarks that stage musicals haven’t embraced a comparatively recent music genre like, say, dubstep, I always wonder “Well, what would that ‘dubstep’ musical be about?” The whole point to dubstep is intricate rhythms, forward drive, repetition, bowel-loosening bass notes. That might work really well for a scene, or a number, or part of a number, but for a whole show?

This genre problem with musicals, their “granny sound”, is always presented as a post-rock ‘n’ roll phenomenon: showtunes have failed to keep up with the kids, we cry. We’re guilty of generational blinkerism, though, because there’s no ‘jazz’ musical either. Oh, sure, there are jazzy musicals, with chords and riffs and ideas borrowed from jazz. But a bona fide jazz musical? With improvised, extended solos, different every night, and an over-riding focus on instrumental ability? Loose, spontaneous invention for ninety percent of the running time, eight times a week? Singers scatting, and trading fours with the band? Nup.

There aren’t many ‘rock’ musicals either, no matter how they’re marketed. Hair certainly isn’t rock. Yes, I’m serious. Compare the experience of listening to these two albums:

HairOriginal Broadway Cast
Disraeli GearsCream

For all the orthodoxy that has sprung up about Hair, about the devastating daring of the sound of electric guitars emerging from a Broadway pit, it’s a ‘folk-rock’ musical if it’s anything. That’s because composer Galt MacDermot is no dummy; he knows that folk-rock is far more emotionally flexible than rock.

Emotional flexibility is what theatre songwriting is all about, and I don’t mean flexible over the course of an evening. No, I mean flexible within a song, within a line, between two words. An actor should be able to take a theatre song lyric and do what every first-year actor is taught to do with every dramatic spoken monologue: mark the beats, the thought changes.

But a great rock groove is not about changing your mind. It’s not emotionally flexible, and shifting its mood is like turning a powerboat: it takes time, and it needs space. That’s why progressive rock sounds the way it does, and it’s also what most critics of prog-rock dislike about it. The more it progs, they say, the less it rocks.

What, then, to do about our granny sound? Could today’s writers of musicals, just as earlier writers pinched things they liked from jazz, borrow stylistic elements from today’s popular music genres, and use them in emotionally flexible ways? Yes. Here are Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jason Mantzoukas and Quiara Alegría Hudes, the writers of In the Heights, pinching useful things from rap and Latin dance, and moving briskly from character to thought change to plot point. Near the start of the show, Usnavi introduces himself to the audience:

Reports of my fame
Are greatly exaggerated
Exacerbated by the fact that my syntax
Is highly complicated cuz I emigrated from the single greatest little place in the Caribbean
Dominican Republic

[character right here]
I love it,
Jesus, I’m jealous of it
And beyond that,
Ever since my folks passed on,
I haven’t gone back

[thought change right here]
Goddamn, I gotta get on that

[plot point right here]
Oh! The milk has gone bad, hold up just a second
Why is everything in this fridge warm and tepid?

This is not a rap musical. This is a musical with characters who express themselves through rap, but they’re still being emotionally flexible and telling stories while they do it. Big difference.

So, which music genres are useful and which ones aren’t? That probably comes down to taste and craft, but I would argue that the more certain a popular music genre is, the less useful it is in the theatre. This is why, amongst many other considerations, it’s easier to write a Carole King bio-musical than it is to write a Spice Girls bio-musical. In fact, here’s a really broad, but useful rule of thumb:

Good popular music is mostly about certainty.

Good theatre music is mostly about doubt.

Like I said, it’s broad. Many exceptions. There are theatrical popular songs, like 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love”, Eminem’s “Stan”, Adele’s “Someone Like You”. Also, there are weirdly effective theatre numbers containing one, simple, unchanging idea, presented over three or four minutes. Turkey Lurkeys, if you will.

Nevertheless, we don’t need an ’emo’ musical, or a ‘progressive trance’ musical. Instead, we need songwriters with voracious listening appetites, routinely stealing useful things from all kinds of genres, and listening to more than just cast recordings.

And, as our musicals start to sound more varied and contemporary, whenever we see a show marketed as a ‘dubstep’ musical, we can think “Well, best of luck to all involved, but I really hope that’s just marketing guff.” Because if that description is literally true, the show is either bad dubstep or a bad musical. Probably both.

Some Old Musical Theatre Songwriting Tropes We Should Be Using More

1. Flip the Title Around, and/or Gently Pun Upon It

Punning on a song’s title used be quite the thing, back when lyricists were allowed to be clever for the fun of it. Here’s an attention-getting example from Ira Gershwin:

Beginning of refrain …

They’re writing songs of love,
But not for me.
A lucky star’s above,
But not for me.

By refrain’s end …

When every happy plot,
Ends with a marriage knot
And there’s no knot for me

That’s “But Not For Me”, from Girl Crazy (1930), and I doubt you could get away with that sort of pun today, outside of a cabaret act or a topical revue. It throws character aside, and pulls the audience out of the story. But Ira Gershwin could be beautifully subtle when he wanted to. This is “Long Ago (and Far Away)”, from the movie Cover Girl (1944):

Refrain starts …

Long ago and far away
I dreamed a dream one day
And now that dream is here beside me

Refrain ends …

Just one look and then I knew
That all I longed for
Long ago was you.

Notice how, apart from the downright dreamy sentiment, playing with the title like this gives Gershwin a fresh rhyme for the final syllable, and on a lovely vowel?

One more: here’s Stephen Sondheim in “Good Thing Going”, from Merrily We Roll Along (1981), avoiding the trap of rhyming the last word of a song with the pinched sound of “going”, while also breaking our hearts.

Beginning …

It started out like a song.
We started quiet and slow, with no surprise,
And then one morning I woke to realise
We had a good thing going.

Ending …

It could have kept on growing,
Instead of just kept on.
We had a good thing going, going,
Gone.

Advantages of this trope: It obliges you to move the song’s ideas forward. Let me repeat that. It obliges you to move the song’s ideas. Forward. An AABA theatre song should do something like this:

A – only some of what you need to know,
A – a little more of what you need, extra details, elaborations,
B – a fresh perspective, alternative view, dissenting opinions,
A – the last of what you need to know, maybe with a revelation, or a twist.

Here’s what too many contemporary AABA theatre songs do:

A – everything you need to know.
A – what I just told you, only more of it.
B – what you already know, seen from a different vantage point.
A – what you know, louder and higher.

A score that coulda used it: Catch Me If You Can (2011, Shaiman / Wittman)

The central conceit of Catch Me If You Can is that Frank Abagnale, Jr is presenting his life story, through the 1950s and 1960s, as an old-fashioned TV variety special, so it’s understandable that most of the songs use some variation of AABA form. But out of sixteen numbers, guess how many songs end their refrains by rhyming with the title, or the same few words added to the title, every single time? Go on, guess.

Eleven. And that number goes up to the thirteen if I include two songs in verse-chorus form (“Seven Wonders” and “Fly, Fly Away”) that use a repeated ending line which happens not to be the title.

In these thirteen songs, there’s no playing with the words in order to push ideas forward, or to create fresh rhymes at the end. Over and over, these thirteen songs do this:

Here’s a thing I think, and in a style you might enjoy,
Couched in all the language you’d expect me to employ,
So the thing I have concluded is (and was there any doubt?):
The Title of This Song is What This Song is All About.
Yes, The Title of This Song is What This Song is All About

2. Not Much More Than An Octave, And Not Often

I’m going to assume you don’t read standard music notation, but if you don’t, I’ll also let you in on a little secret: the little diagrams you’re about to see work in exactly the same way, as far as timing and pitch go. From left to right, they show when the notes occur. From bottom to top, they show how high they are.

But first, here’s Fred Astaire introducing Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners” in the 1938 movie Carefree. The song is near the start of the clip, and if you stay for the dance routine I’ll understand completely.

Here’s a diagram showing how this song’s melody works, through its AABA form – I’ve joined the phrases together for simplicity. Look at how beautifully Berlin tackles a practical and commercial consideration of melody: his leading man does not have a big singing range, and neither does the average music customer, so Berlin is very careful about where his tune ascends to an octave or more above the melody’s lowest note. Click if you like full size:

change partners

By heaven, that’s how you write a tune that doesn’t go much over an octave, and doesn’t do it often.

Advantages of this trope: Let’s say you have a character who won’t be hitting the big notes – and a leading character, too, not a bit of Thénardier comic relief. Without the applausebait of loud, high belting near the end of the tune, what will you give this character’s performer to help put the song across? How will you convey emotional intensity and depth of feeling?

Maybe you’ll use dance, as above, or explore more specifics of character, or reveal some new plot, or give better fodder for acting. It’ll have to be real acting, too, and not just emoting. It’ll be worth it, though, because you’ll end up with a character (and a show) that doesn’t sound like all the others. But even better, you’ll have more casting choices, since it won’t be all about the eight bars of high F. One of your stars won’t need so many days of vocal rest. More performers will be able to sing your song, reliably. More audience members too.

A score that coulda used it: Chess (1984, Andersson / Ulvaeus / Rice)

All the main characters in Chess have big singing ranges, and all of them indicate emotional intensity by singing loud and high. Fair enough: a singer can’t croon in a rock/pop score; they’d never be heard over the instruments. Also, scores that use repeated melodic chunks often ask one character to sing another character’s tunes, so if one character sings over a wide range, chances are the rest will too.

And yet. And yet.

Consider the Russian, Anatoly, who does not express his feelings as readily as his American counterpart, Freddy. Anatoly’s first big number is “Where I Want To Be”, and the melody of its verses is in a nice register, and prettily shaped, as you’d expect from Benny and Björn. But in the chorus the vocal melody does this:

where i want

This number actually has a smaller range than Berlin’s “Change Partners”, but as any baritone will tell you, it’s not about the height, it’s about how long I have to stay up there. It’s about the tessitura. In the case of “Where I Want To Be”, maybe the Musical Director could transpose the whole thing down, but that wouldn’t help much with Anatoly’s big aria at the end of Act One. Look again at how Berlin prepares the singer’s voice (and your ear) for the higher notes in his song, and then consider this, near the end of Anatoly’s “Anthem”. You know the bit – “how could I leave her …”

anthem

That’s almost the song’s entire range, within four beats. It’s the melodic equivalent of a doctor with cold hands. Later, in “End Game”, Anatoly will traverse an even wider range, an octave and a major sixth – the entire range of “Ol’ Man River” – within six bars. And this is the guy who doesn’t have to sing “Pity the Child”.

3. The Song That’s Not About Sex (Except It Is)

In Guys and Dolls, the rakish gambler guy Sky Masterson takes the Salvation Army doll Sarah Brown to Havana, thereby winning a bet. He plies her with a local drink, “Dulce de leche”, including its “native flavoring” of Bacardi, and she elaborates on its effect with the following examples of the subjunctive mood. In summary:

Ask me how do I feel
Ask me now that we’re cosy and clinging
Well sir, all I can say, is …

If I were a bell I’d be ringing
If I were a lamp I’d light
If I were a banner I’d wave
If I were a gate I’d be swinging
If I were a watch I’d start popping my spring
If I were a bell, I’d go ding-dong-ding-dong-ding
If I were a bridge I’d be burning
If I were a duck I’d quack
If I were a goose I’d be cooked
If I were a salad, I know I’d be splashing my dressing
If I were a bell, I’d go ding-dong-ding-dong-ding

We know Sarah is physically attracted to Sky, but look at how composer/lyricist Frank Loesser flirts with, yet avoids, overtly sexual imagery. That’s because he knows two things about a crass possibility like “If I were a camel, I’d hump”:

1. Drunk or not, Sarah Brown would never say such a thing.

2. Sexy songs are sexier when you let the audience supply the sexy details.

Advantages of this trope: I know, it’s no longer 1950 – surely we can be more candid? But if you have a character who, deep down, wants to dance the no-pants dance, and you make them sing a song all about how, deep down, they want to dance the no-pants dance, what have you given the actor to play?

Nothing. There’s no tension. They, and their director, will be forced to come up with all sorts of “comedy” “business” to help the time go by.

On the other hand, if you have a song about two characters buying the firm’s annual office supplies together, and one character deeply, deeply wants to jump the other one’s bones, you’ve got possibilities. Think of what a gift this situation could be to a performer and a director. Think of all the wholesome joy your audience can have supplying filthy, sexy details.

A score that coulda used it: Victor/Victoria (1982, 1995, Mancini / Wildhorn / Bricusse)

Victor/Victoria is all about sexual attraction, from Victoria, who’s attracted to a real man’s man, King Marchand – but can’t reveal it because she’s masquerading as a man herself – to King Marchand, who’s attracted to Victoria, thinking she’s really a man, and is wrestling with this hitherto unsuspected side of his sexuality.

The score gets it right at first with “Le Jazz Hot”, a song all about the hotness of jazz, but really about the hotness of Victoria. Then, later (and to everyone’s credit, this song was later cut), King Marchand’s lover Norma tries to tempt him into bed with “Paris Makes Me Horny”:

Rome may be hot –
Sexy it is not!
Paris is so sexy!
Ridin’ in a taxi
Gives me apoplexy.

Been ta Lisbon
An’ Lisbon is a has-bin!
Schlepped ta Stockholm
An’ brought a lotta schlock home!
Also Oslo
An’ Oslo really was slow!

Paris makes me horny!
It’s not like Californy
Paris is so dizzy, Jack,
It’s such an aphrodisiac!

There it is. A character who wants sex singing about how she wants sex. Even if the song were good, there’d be no tension, and sure enough, performer Rachel York and her director Blake Edwards were forced to come up with all sorts of “comedy” “business”.

There’s a simple fix, though, if this scene is to contain a song, because the wrong character is singing: it should be King Marchand. After seeing Victoria as Victor, he should be singing about he’s not worried about that handsome Victor guy, because King Marchand is a real man, who likes manly things, like football – yeah, King Marchand, grabbing other guys, pulling them to the ground and … no, wait … poker – yeah, poker, King Marchand, with all the fellas, staying up all night, drinking, sucking on cigars, gazing at each other’s hands, looking real deep into each other’s eyes … no, wait, dammit … a sharp, tailored suit – yeah, King Marchand, buying expensive fashionable clothes, and all the guys saying how good he looks …

Then Norma can invite him into bed.

Some Musical Theatre Songwriting Tropes That Need a Rest. Maybe Forever.

1. The Song That Fixes An Argument

Here’s how it works. The two of you are fighting. Then one of you starts singing something. The other resists at first, but eventually joins in. Now you’re both singing, and damned if you don’t go into an ol’ soft-shoe together! Magically, once you reach the song’s button, whatever you were arguing about has gone away.

Egregious example: Grey Gardens (“Two Peas In a Pod”)

Edith has just had a big fight with her father, Major Bouvier, in which her daughter Edie firmly took the Major’s side. As a peace offering, young Edie starts singing an old song to her mother, the first song her mother ever taught her. They’re soon singing it together, with Edith’s accompanist George Gould Strong lending two helping hands at the piano. Problem solved.

But not really. After the song, it’s their next bit of dialogue that establishes a truce.

Ingenious subversion: Merrily We Roll Along (“Old Friends”)

Charlie, Frank and Mary are arguing about – well, pretty much everything. Mary starts up an old bit of schtick with the words “Here’s to us …”. Soon, they’re all singing together, but – and this is neat – the song breaks down into an argument midway, before pulling it together for the final button. Also, since the show’s chronology is in reverse, we in the audience have already seen this friendship group break up: no matter how chummy they might be at the end of this song, dramatic irony dangles overhead.

Why this trope needs to die: it’s bogus. And I don’t mean that it’s bogus in the way that all musicals are, by any realistic measure, bogus. No, it’s bogus on its face. If these characters are to resemble real, motivated people (and ever since Show Boat, that’s what the best writers have been trying to achieve, from high drama to low comedy), then it’s the quintessence of bullshit to have characters’ desires and fears allayed, however briefly, by a tune. On the other hand, if the argument were actually resolved in the course of the song, that’d be different. And much better.

2. The “I’m Happy To Be a Slut” Song

She’s brassy, she’s leggy. She likes men and she wants you to know it. Also, she’s … no, that’s it. There’s nothing more to this dame, and she won’t do much in the show to follow. She’ll either be conquered by domestic love or die helping the hero.

Egregious examples: The Producers (“When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It”), Steel Pier (“Everybody’s Girl”)

In The Producers, Ulla turns up at Max and Leo’s office to audition with a song she’s written. She performs it for Max and Leo’s pleasure, they lust after her, and then they compete for her. Her job is to be dumb, and lusted after. I could write – nay, will write – an entire post about the wasted opportunity that is Ulla in this show.

In Steel Pier, the MC of a dance marathon is trying to drum up interest in the competition, so he spruiks the additional talents of some of his contestants. One of these is Shelby, who is pretty fast, as they used to say. She sings a song about how fast she is. It is meant to be ghastly, bursting with second-rate, second-hand jokes; and it is ghastly, since there’s no subtext or other aspects of Shelby’s character to alleviate the ghastliness. Later, Shelby falls in unfulfilling love with a younger man.

Ingenious subversion: Sweet Charity (“Big Spender”)

On paper, this is a come-on from the ladies of the Fan-Dango Ballroom. But as performed it’s clear they don’t mean a word of it, instantly adding layers to their characters. Brilliant. This was in 1964, more than thirty years before my two egregious examples.

Why this trope needs to die: Sure, it’s sexist (where are the male slut songs?), and yes, its time has passed (a female character can now simply say “I like sex”, so why should we sit through an entire song of sniggering jokes about it?), but most importantly, it’s dramatically inert. If you’re going to write a one-joke song, you’d better be Cole Porter. In the 1930s.

3. The Mad Scene Made of Dissonant Reprises

We’re near the end of the show, and a person, or possibly the world itself, is going insane. How to depict this musically? Maybe we’ll use a bunch of tunes we heard earlier in the night, but chopped up and layered over one another, with no concern for dissonance. In fact, dissonance is wanted: we’ll put long, wrong notes under previously pleasant tunes. If the tune’s in C, shove a loud F sharp or an A flat in the bass. (Composer’s confession: these are really easy to write. With some decent notation software, you can whip one up while the kettle boils.)

Eregious example: Sunset Boulevard (“Final Scene”)

Norma just shot Joe dead. The cops have come to take her away, but a journalist helpfully tells the audience that Norma’s “in a state of complete mental shock”. In lyrical terms, what is Norma given to work with? This:

This was dawn.
I don’t know why I’m frightened.
Silent music starts to play.
Happy new year, darling.
If you’re with me, next year will be…
Next year will be…
They bring in his head on a silver tray.
She kisses his mouth…
She kisses his mouth…
Mad about the boy!
They’ll say Norma’s back at last!

To be fair, there’s no dissonant accompaniment to this, which is a series of lines from a bunch of earlier songs, all spliced together. It’s even less work than the sort of thing I’m complaining about.

Ingenious subversion: Cabaret (“Finale Ultimo”)

This is one of the earliest examples I can think of, and it works a treat by undermining the traditional appeal of reprises. Clifford Bradshaw, supposed novelist, hasn’t written anything as far as we in the audience can tell; then, as he takes the train out of Berlin, he starts reading from his latest effort. Songs are heard in reprise, and this is justified as Cliff sorts through his memories. His later experiences of rising Nazism and soured romance justify the dissonances. There’s so much scope for directors in this part of the show that it keeps developing, from mirrors wherein the audience see themselves, to the cast being led off to concentration camps. It’s almost impossible for later writers to repeat this fine achievement, so why bother trying?

Why this trope needs to die: If anything should be personal, and distinctive, it’s madness. But if all madness sounds the same, how mad is it? This trope is almost always an example of writing that mimics other writers’ writing, instead of coming up with something unique to a particular character, at a particular time. Write a brand new song, folks. The Cray Cray Megamix is lazy.

Let’s Call Them ‘Platitunes’

With some songs, you know how nearly every line will end, even if you’ve never heard that particular song before. That’s because the song is made of clichés. I call these songs “platitunes”.

Pros of the Platitune

  • The songwriter need not rhyme. Each line is carried forward by its own pre-fabricated inevitability. If the listener doesn’t pay too much attention, this forward motion can sound like structure.
  • The listener need not pay close attention, since the lines don’t refer to each other, only to themselves. The sensation is one of repeated, short-term, small-scale resolution.
  • The song feels friendly, non-confronting, relatable. Like, totally relatable.

Cons of the Platitune

  • Despite their instant familiarity, the lyrics of the platitune are really hard to remember, since they’re all so similar.
  • Platitunes struggle to build. There’s no cumulative effect of story or dramatic structure, just more of the same. So the only way to reach a climax is to get louder, or higher. Or louder and higher.
  • The platitune, because it relies on over-used phrases instead of minting its own, does not age well. It sinks back into its decade of origin, and is later dredged up only in the service of nostalgia.

Some examples? My pleasure. The following aren’t all pure platitunes, but they demonstrate the essentials at important points. I found them by listening to the Top 20 songs in the current Billboard Hot 100 [all added ellipses are … mine]

Sam Smith – Stay With Me (Sam Smith, James Napier, William Phillips)

Guess it’s true, I’m not good at a one-night … stand
But I still need love ’cause I’m just a … man
These nights never seem to go to … plan
I don’t want you to leave, will you hold my … hand?

As platitunes go, this is not too bad, because it’s still logically coherent, and it’s made of clichés that actually rhyme.

Maroon 5 – Maps (Adam Levine, Ryan Tedder, Benjamin Levin, Ammar Malik, Noel Zancanella)

But I wonder where were you?
When I was at my … worst
Down on my … knees
And you said you had my … back
So I wonder where were you?
When all the roads you took came back … to me

Mix your clichés well, and you get this kind of incoherence, at which the platitune excels. To review: she said she had your back, and all the roads she took came back to you, so when you’re down on your knees, she’s probably behind you, dummy.

So I’m following the map that leads to you
The map that leads to you
Ain’t nothing I can … do
The map that leads to you

Not to be a pedant, but a map doesn’t lead to anything. A map shows where things are. That’s why the preferred cliché is “the road that leads to you” or “the path that leads to you”. Philosophical query: is a botched cliché worse than a correct one?

Jessie J, Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj – Bang Bang (Max Martin, Onika Maraj, Savan Kotecha, Rickard Göransson)

She got a body like an hourglass, but I can give it to you all the … time
She got a booty like a Cadillac, but I can send you into over … drive
See anybody could be bad to you, you need a good girl to blow your … mind

It’s encouraging to see these puns being attempted, but lazy clichés have undone them. Are hourglass bodies typically noted for their lack of stamina, or fussiness as to the time of day? I should have thought the opposite. Likewise, is the Cadillac-booty necessarily associated with low gears and slow speeds? And what is the nature of this mind-blowing that only a good girl can execute? Perhaps the chorus will clarify:

Bang bang into the … room
Bang bang all over … you
Wait a minute let me take you … there
Wait a minute ’til ya
Bang bang there goes your … heart
Bang, back seat of my … car

Hmmm. Whatever this “bang bang” is, it’s quick. And yet overdrive-girl, previously critical of slow speeds, wants you to “wait a minute”. Also, it turns out the “good girl” will “blow your mind” in the back of her car, where she believes your “heart” will be gone. I don’t presume to speak for all men, but I don’t think it would be my heart.

John Legend – All Of Me (John Legend, Toby Gad)

What would I do without your smart mouth?
Drawing me in, and you kicking me … out

Her mouth draws him in. Within that mouth, presumably, are her feet, which then kick him out.

You’ve got my head … spinning, no … kidding, I can’t pin you … down
What’s going on in that beautiful … mind
I’m on your magical mystery … ride
And I’m so dizzy, don’t know what … hit me, but I’ll be … alright

This is OK. It’s deeply unoriginal, but at least it makes sense. In the chorus, the song tries to avoid clichés, and promptly comes a cropper:

‘Cause all of me
Loves all of … you
Love your curves and all your edges
All your perfect imperfections

This ‘My Funny Valentine’ approach is commendable, but take a moment to look at your body. Do you see any edges? No, you don’t. You might see the tip of a nose, or the blade of a finger, or the heel of a palm. But you don’t see any edges unless you’re from a race of diamond aliens, or you have suffered a dreadful injury.

(Defenders will say this could be a metaphor, for the edges of a personality. I don’t buy it.)

Give your all to … me
I’ll give my all to … you
You’re my end and my … beginning
Even when I lose I’m … winning
‘Cause I give you all of … me

This sensitive guy schtick always plays well to the back row, but “lose” what? You didn’t lose yourself, you gave yourself. It’s right there in the next line, so what did you “lose”? Even when I give, I’m getting – that would make sense.

I’ll let George Orwell have the final say on platitunes, even though he was writing about prose. From “Politics and the English Language,” 1946:

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.

prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

 

Dear Mr Croce ….

Many thanks for your submitted song, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”.

We feel the song has great promise musically, but we would like to see further work done on its characters and dramatic arc.

The setting is well established at the outset, and the character of Leroy is effectively drawn. However, many of his personal details are extraneous to what follows. You state that Leroy “stan’ about six foot four”, but his height doesn’t factor into the ensuing action. Is it possible that, in the conflict that follows, Leroy’s height might become pertinent? Perhaps there could be some amusing comedy involving a ceiling fan?

Similarly, Leroy is a gambler, and he likes his fancy clothes, and he likes to wave his diamond ring in front of everybody’s nose, but none of these is developed later. Perhaps Leroy’s later conflict with the “jealous man” might be over gambling and fashion, in addition to Doris, the girl who looked nice? This would considerably raise the dramatic stakes in what follows.

In much the same way, Leroy’s cars are mentioned, but not used again. Might there be a thrilling chase scene involving the custom Continental and the El Dorado? And could Leroy actually use the .32 gun in his pocket for fun, and the razor in his shoe? It seems odd that he is so heavily armed, but never uses his weapons in the song’s climactic fight.

This brings us to our greatest concern: Leroy, for all that he is badder than old King Kong, and meaner than a junkyard dog, is not the victor in this fight. The listener knows a great deal about him, including his basic desires, but we know nothing of the “jealous man”, who proves to be even badder and meaner than Leroy. Is the song, in fact, about the wrong person? Leroy demonstrates an appealing vulnerability by losing, and we wonder if he could be re-written as “Good, Good Leroy Brown”? Perhaps he was looking to rescue Doris, the girl who looked nice, because she was a prostitute who married her pimp, and he knew and loved her when they were younger? If the two characters had this kind of backstory, we could feel more invested in the fight, and Leroy’s eventual fate could spring from a powerful conflict with his image of himself.

Meanwhile, the “bad” character, the “jealous man”, needs more detail, so we can see him. Who is he, and what is his name? What does he want? What is his inner motivation, in contrast to his simple external desire to maintain status by holding on to his wife? Is there also something vulnerable about him, to offset the rage he feels when another men merely casts his eyes upon Doris?

Your details and imagery are excellent, and we’d like to see them retained. But, in order for you to enjoy the commercial hit that your talents warrant, we feel that more attention must be paid to these characters, and in particular their inner lives.

Regards, etc.

 

Feeling the Feels

Last New Year’s Eve, the family visited a local community event, where a fairly adept wind ensemble played many nice tunes, including “I See the Light”, from Tangled. I have complained about the impossible blandness of this song in the past.

Then it occurred to me that, with a little effort, one might craft a Disney lovers’ ballad so generic, so bereft of identifying features, that it might thenceforth serve as a suitable ballad in every Disney film yet to be made.

So here it is. You’re welcome, songwriters.

What’s that? You’d like a piano/vocal chart, complete with boy/girl harmonies? Oh, alright.

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 off-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 off-rhyming words, and they’re still lazy one-syllable off-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.

Some Standard Excuses for Not Rhyming Properly … And Why We All Still Should (Pt 1)

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”

For me, 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:

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” are an off-rhyme; here, the jazzy-slang attraction of “tootsy wootsy baby” has upstaged any true agreement in sound, 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:

Yesterdays,
Yesterdays,
Days I knew as happy sweet
Sequestered days [toneprosody]

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 …

Listening to the Australian Top 40, 1990-2009 (Artists A-C)

My current job (producer at a radio station) allows me access to a music library that is – as the title of this post might suggest – pretty darn comprehensive. It’s a mighty batch of mp3 files, arranged according to the first name of each artist. I’ve been listening to the songs in the car, in order, with the following strict rules:

1. If the song is familiar – that is, if I think I’ve heard it in the last couple of years – I skip it. Even if I like it.

2. Any unfamiliar song has until the end of its first chorus. That’s it. If a song doesn’t grab me by then, I move on.

3. If the kids are in the car, they get to vote on whether a song lives or dies.

4. If the kids are in the car, an exception is made to the first rule. But the third rule is still ruthlessly enforced.

The point to this exercise is to discover worthy songs I have missed or gems I have forgotten, within the limits of Top 40 success.

Some observations and discoveries, artists A-C:

Number of Songs Played In Full

About one in ten, I reckon.

Surprised I Quite Liked It

I’m not a fan of young women singing “baby, take control of me” songs; even when they’re wrapped in empowerment cliches, they’re still icky.

But I liked the guitar sample, and the production on the backing vocals. So that’s what I listened to.

Liked It More Than Everyone Else Seems To

This didn’t get a great response (“sucks” – Rolling Stone), but I don’t think Jack White’s song is the problem. Male/female duets are always tricky, because there’s usually only one or two keys that will work for both vocalists, and the solution is almost always a high vocal for the guy, with low-mid notes for the female. She’ll spend most of the song sounding comparatively dull, then get to wail later on (as is the case here). Meanwhile, whenever the male and female sing together, it’s hard for both singers to pitch identically. Hence the deliberately ragged vocals on the chorus in this recording, with a meticulously arranged and produced backing. That’s what disappointed Bond theme purists, I reckon, rather than the song itself.

You know what would have worked, for a song like this? Drop it a couple of keys, and have Michael Buble sing it.

You know what would have worked even better? Slow it down, and have Leonard Cohen speak/sing it. Rolling Stone would have loved that.

Bon Jovi

Have had a lot of hits. I am no fan of the band, because in 1987 I liked The Beatles and everyone – everyone – at my school was playing the album Slippery When Wet. But I have to give it to Bon Jovi: a lot of hits. And a surprisingly wide range of rhythmic feels and production styles over the course of their career. Their singles do not simply boil down to rocker-rocker-power ballad-rocker-power ballad.

Creed

There is no excuse for them. Just awful.

Color Me Badd

In their own way, as bad as Creed.

Annie Lennox

No More “I Love You’s”, from 1995, is a cover! I had no idea. Here is the original, from 1986, by The Lover Speaks:

I notice that the arrangement of the Lennox cover (which I’ve always liked) comes almost entirely from the original. Also the two versions are barely a semitone apart (cover – E flat major; original – a very sharp D major). Lennox sings the same melody, with some octave shifting to accomodate the fact that she’s female.

So here’s my theory: The Lover Speaks played support for The Eurythmics, and Lennox used to hear this song, sang along with it backstage (hence the octave shifting), and thought to herself “I’ll record that some day”.

But there’s more: the Lennox cover is (like much of her stuff) arch and mannered; surrounded in her music video by ballerina men with fantastic cheekbones, she delivers the chorus in a pose. Shorn of any irony, however, consider the first lines of this song’s chorus:

No more “I love you’s”
The language is leaving me.

That is a devastating sentiment, in twelve beautifully singable syllables.