Scene: Me and Sir Tim Rice, rewriting ‘Chess’

A spacious lounge room, wooden floor, old, weathered furniture. SIR TIM, attractively rumpled,  is in an armchair, watching something on a laptop computer. ME enters, pulling a script and another laptop from a satchel, a little too keen.

Me: (setting up) Morning, Sir Tim. Day 1, ay? I’ve got the 1990 Sydney script here.

Sir Tim: (pausing the video) Where on earth did you get that? And please, it’s Tim.

Me: Tim! Great. Well, I know people, Tim. Chorus-folk. They hoard stuff.

Tim: (of the video) So are these just sitting there on YouTube? All these versions, out in the open?

Me: Yep, until someone takes one down, and someone else puts it up again. People bloody love that score.

Tim: I know, I know. Every time we do a concert version, it’s “Oh, those songs … shame about the book.” And they look at me as though someone else wrote it.

Me: Could be worse. Could be the other way around.

Tim: What no-one seems to understand, though, is that it’s not just the dialogue.

Me: No, no, it is just the dialogue, Tim, I’m sure of it. We tweak a little here, move a bit there, make everyone nicer –

Tim: (Of the script) May I see that?

ME hands it over.

Tim: (reading) I’d forgotten this. Director’s note: “Chess is virtually unique among modern musicals, in being neither nostalgic nor a period costume drama.” Well, I suppose it is now.

Me: Let’s talk love triangle: Freddie, Florence, Anatoly. Go. Hit the musical beats for me.

Tim: Tea first? Coffee?

Me: I’ve had four already. Love triangle. Beats.

Tim: (reading, sighs) “One or two less mistakes.” It should be fewer.

Me: What? No, no, don’t change ‘The Story of Chess’. People bloody love that song. Get to Freddie and Florence.

Tim: Righto. (leafing) Arbiter announces where we are, who everyone is – dear God, the exposition! The clunking of it. Freddie is this, Florence is that, blah blah blah. Have we another version?

Me: I thought you’d like that one! It’s yours.

Tim: How about the latest fan version?

Me: (swivelling laptop to show) I’d say Wayne Rossi is a bit more than a fan. This is from 2015.

Tim: (reading from screen) Prologue with little Florence and her father, then the lullaby. So two prologues, really. Then Freddie at  – ah, yes, a press conference! Refuge of the destitute. Probably my idea.

Me: Stop being so hard on yourself! It gets the job done. Now, give me love triangle.

TIM stands up and begins pacing.

Tim: No matter which version we’re talking about, when we meet Freddie and Florence, they’re together, after a fashion, and they bicker a lot, sometimes in song.

Me: (typing) Great. One side of the triangle.

Tim: Then, when Anatoly meets Florence, he calls her nice and civilised.

Me: (nodding) Yes, yes. ‘Model of Decorum and Tranquility’. People love that song.

Tim: Later, Florence and Freddie fight after Freddie misbehaves at the first chess match, and – most of the time – Florence sings ‘Nobody’s Side’.

Me: (typing madly now) That’s the one, baby! Goddamn best keyboard riff, makes me want to climb halfway up a staircase to nowhere and stick one hip out. I bloody love that song.

Tim: (undistracted) And in it, Florence sings “the one I should not think of keeps running through my mind” – which I’ve always felt was a bit rich, because all Anatoly has done is treat her with politeness and respect, while Freddie’s been a complete twat. I mean, these are her options?

Me: No, you’re doing great. Second side of the triangle, done.

Tim: Well, then the third side follows almost immediately in the Mountain Duet. Freddie doesn’t show up, and Florence and Anatoly discover they like each other, and sing about it. Then they kiss.

Me: Boom. Three sides, triangle sorted. OK, so let’s just look at the dialogue –

Tim stops pacing.

Tim: See, this is my point, though. It’s not just the dialogue, because it’s all book, all of it. Having a Hungarian prologue, a press conference at the start, the fact that Freddie’s surname is Trumper. God-awful, what was I thinking? The decision not to show Florence and Freddie in love. We’re supposed to care that Florence is thinking of leaving Freddie, but really, who wouldn’t? We never learn what she likes about him, so good riddance, Yank. And then, a couple of compliments from the only man onstage who isn’t a right bastard, and she’s snogging away! That’s all book. I could rewrite every line, I could stop pretending that Persia rhymes with inertia, and none of that would change. Bloody hell, I’ve got a woman singing about seeing her “present partner in the imperfect tense”! Is this someone on the horns of a dilemma, making grammar puns? It doesn’t even make sense!

Me: Don’t you say a word against ‘Nobody’s Side’. That’s a solid-gold hit!

Tim: It’s a bloody albatross around my neck! Nearly as bad as ‘One Night in Bangkok’. This show is supposed to be a love triangle with the Cold War in the background, but instead it’s pallid jokes about the Cold War with a love triangle in the background. No, the only way to fix this is to cut some songs –

Me: No!

Tim: Yes! Cut some songs and write some new ones. That’s what you do when you rewrite the book, you rewrite the score too. Because it’s all book.

Me: But –

Tim: All of it is the book!

A pause. Me is aghast, adrift.

Me: But –

A long pause.

Tim: I know. People bloody love that score.

Tim slumps back into the armchair. Me quietly closes his laptop. Slow blackout.

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A Note to Lyricists, on Behalf of the Word “Behalf”

“Behalf” is a handy little word, and lyricists like it because because it rhymes with “laugh”:

I’d like to say a word in her behalf
Maria makes me laugh

That’s Oscar Hammerstein, in The Sound of Music.

When I see depressing creatures
With unprepossessing features,
I remind them on their own behalf
To think of celebrated heads of state
Or ‘specially great communicators …
Did they have brains or knowledge?
Don’t make me laugh!

And that’s “Popular”, obviously, from Wicked, by Stephen Schwartz.

The world stands still
On my behalf
And I find that I’m in love
With Lucy’s laugh

And that’s “Lucy’s Laugh”, lyric by Christopher Dimond, from the song cycle Homemade Fusion.

Of these three, only Hammerstein gets it right. “In her behalf” means “in her favour” or “for her benefit”. “On their own behalf” means while acting as their representative, and “on my behalf” means the world stood still because I was going to do it, but I got held up by traffic or something.

Schwartz and Dimond mean “for their/my benefit”, but of course, that doesn’t rhyme. I suppose you could argue that Galinda makes the error, not Schwartz, but I don’t buy it.

Slant Rhyme: A Mathematical Approach

Let y=mx + b

m represents the slantiness of the rhyme, its change in y over its change in x, its ability to get a rise out of me over its likelihood of making me run away.

For m=0, or no slant at all, a rhyme for ‘peace’ would be true: geese, niece, Rhys, fleece.

For small positive values of m, a slant rhyme for ‘peace’ would be close but not true: appease, freeze, heats, peaks.

As m increases, slantiness rises to the heights of bravery: leers, dweebs, mist, pizza, pickle, Pynchon, fisticuffs, moonlight.

Negative values of m produce reverse rhymes: seep, Streep, peeps.

This is, of course, in only two dimensions. We’ll consider the z-axis (produced when singers distort their vowels) next week.

Writing In My Own Accent is Fun

I’ve been writing songs for ‘The Lizard of Oz’, an Aussie adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s novel, crafted with kids in mind, and to be performed outdoors next January. There were two challenges for me: forgetting the songs from the famous MGM movie, and forgetting the songs from the famous MGM movie.

Helpfully, the script (Mark Grentell and Peter Cox) is fancy-free, ratbaggy and unselfconscious. This is very much a traditional style here in the real Oz, and a happy legacy of our who-gives-a-stuff theatre of the 1970s.

This, and the fact that Dotty’s companions (an emu, a kookaburra and a platypus) are uniquely Australian, means that I get to play in my own accent.

How To Sing Aussie

We don’t like the letter ‘r’ at the end of a word. Too much hard work. Actually, we don’t pay it much heed in the middle of a lot of words, either. Thus, if your Aussie accent is pretty strong, these two words are identical:

minor

Mynah

Also:

father

farther

And neither “father” nor “rather” comes close to rhyming with “bother” (sorry Lerner, sorry Sondheim).

Also, if one of Odin’s sons were frozen, and you had to un-freeze him, an Aussie would

thaw Thor

That’s the same sound, twice, and it rhymes with pore, paw, shore, sure and Shaw.

Now, I won’t rhyme all these words if I’m writing something for the whole world to sing, but I will for a character from Straya (we also tend to ignore any letter L that’s in the middle).

There are also great words that only Aussies use, like “nong”, which a stupid sort of person, a bit of a galah. “Brung” is great, too: not uniquely Australian, but very popular with Aussie kids.

Hence, Bitza the platypus, who cannot figure out where he comes from, since he seems to be made of bits of other animals, and so he keeps dropping in and out of other accents and foreign phrases …

See, I swim like el pez (that’s fish),
But fish don’t have a lung.
They look at me and say
“Who brung this mongrel?”

I don’t know what the future holds, but I bet I never, ever get to bring off an inner rhyme of “brung” with “mongrel”, ever again.

Rhyme Challenge: Music

It’s easy to off-rhyme with “music”, and plenty of songs do. Oooh, that music, you can’t abuse it, or refuse it. And so on.

It’s also easy to fudge the “z” sound in the middle, by adopting an “s” sound instead: grew sick of music, for example.

What about a perfect rhyme, though? And none of this rhyming-each-syllable-individually nonsense, like “who’s Rick?” or “ruse hick”. No, I desire a two syllable rhyme, emphasis on the first syllable, and a zzzz sound in the middle.

Here’s the best I can come up with. Imagine a sign-on day for college courses, and a banner for the Biology Department:

Music? Theology?
Choose Ichthyology!

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.

 

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 …

A Nice, Hummable 32-Bar Standard about Foreplay

I was waiting at the coffee window at Tilley’s, and heard this coming from the speaker above me:

something something bark
What a perfect something park
something no moon
would you like sugars with that?

How lovely, I thought. Someone has written a whole song about the quaint custom of necking in cars. That should have been me.  I must look it up when I get home.

So I did, and it was Doris Day doing No Moon At All, written by Redd Evans and Dave Mann.  It’s more of a celebration of darkness in general, and its value to kissing couples, and only mentions necking in cars very briefly:

Don’t make a sound, it’s so dark
Even Fido is afraid to bark
What a perfect chance to park
And there’s no moon at all

A-ha, I thought. So the whole song about parking is still fair game. And off I went and wrote one.

Evans and Mann were smart, because making the whole song about parking means you need rhymes for “park”, and if you are being traditional about these things (as I am), you can’t repeat a rhyme once you’ve used it.  That means, if you use “bark”, you can’t use “embark”, or “disembark”. This may sound fussy, but it’s how some great, great songs were written.  Seek what the masters sought and all that.

I picture this one being done late, maybe last in the set, by a woman – or man – with confidence, wit and a tempting neck:

Now, at the tail-end of the evening,
Might I make a casual remark?
It’s far too late to stay and much too soon to go home,
So let’s park
Ooh, baby, let’s park

You drive, I’ll provide the navigation,
But, Captain, before we embark,
The course I’ve charted has one little stop on the way:
Let’s park
Ooh, baby,

Right there, secluded and inviting,
Or there, where all the lights are low.
And there, there’s even lower lighting.
Hey, you talk a lot, and the time for talk
Was over long ago
So, baby,

Now, as this story’s resolution
Completes our emotional arc,
The mandatory high-point hasn’t happened, not quite,
And if a thing’s worth doing, I am worth doing right,
With just a little temperature, we two could ignite
A spark
Ooh, baby, let’s park

For an especially Aussie touch, check out the magpie in the background at about 1:06!