[Just to finish the thoughts of the last post, I found this quotation in a collection called Oxymoronica: "Music is the sole art which evokes nostalgia for the future." It's credited to Ned Rorem, an American composer. A little research reveals that the word "nostalgia" comes from two Greek roots: one means "returning home" and the other "pain". It captures that desirable contradiction I was trying to express about pop songs. Listening to great songs can certainly make you think about the past but something about listening to the recorded event or the live performance takes the song out of the past and into the future -- or rather, takes you out of the past and into the future. Anyway...]
I thought I’d try to explain how I take that initial inspiration for a song and craft it into a finished piece. One method I use involves creating a palette of words, phrases, and ideas. Here’s one I created for a song I finished this year called “Aftermath.” All my obsession about words had me thinking about how often words can’t always say what you want them to say, and that perhaps, numbers and math — their concrete nature — could do a better job of describing certain truths. As a concept, I thought it would cool to try and use as many mathematical terms in the lyrics as possible. So I brainstormed some words used in math that could help me tell a story. I tried to select ones that had a possible narrative meaning. Course, I’m picking words and not numbers. If I had any guts I’d write the whole thing in zeroes and ones. [Kate Bush wrote some song about Pi and she just recited it through the whole thing. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time.]
Here’s a list of words/phrases I wrote down: addition by subtraction, tally, divide and conquer, divide in half, multiplying, order of operations, factors, (in)divisible, to the power of, parentheticals, axies, degrees, E=Mc2, relativity (though those last two are getting a bit physics-y — another song), word problems, is this how you measure sincerity, calculated, splitting in two, count me out, greater than, lesser than, equal halves, two by two, angles, intersecting points, carry the one, sequence, percent, solutions, answer key, times table, prime numbers, remainder, odds and evens, fraction, infinity, imaginary numbers (what the hell were they anyway?), variable, aftermath, etc.
I’ve been told that I like to come up with concepts for songs, and I guess in this case that’s true. What if I wrote a song that did such and such? The concern here is that your song ends up just being concept-y and doesn’t have any depth to it. Or worse yet, it becomes a cute idea. But I’ve found giving yourself restrictions with the words you use (or the instruments you use or something else) leads to unpredictable results. So I took those words and phrases and tried to form them into some story. I had some bits of music that I’d been playing around for a while and thought these words might fit them. I realize I haven’t really talked much about music in the songwriting process yet. I’ll get to that later — though I’m not really looking forward to it.
The lyrics to “Aftermath” are here.
After writing about some conversational phrases that have attracted my attention, I realize that I should maybe try to do a better job of describing what it is that attracts me to them in the first place — what makes me think they would make a good song. [Actually, thanks to Steve for pressing me on this point.] Maybe it’s something akin to the woman you fall in love with — or the addictions you prescribe to. An irresistible attraction that sparks something in your head.
The idea of describing this process doesn’t necessarily promise to be very exciting to read about — at least on an individual basis. Instead, I’ll try to address, in very general terms, the kinds of sentiments that compel me to listen to the same song over and over again — the ones that make me want to write songs of my own.
This past weekend we went up to the Poconos. I sat in a camping chair in a shallow stream, holding an un-waterproof boombox and listened to Dr. Dog’s “Ain’t It Strange” on the Takers and Leavers EP. There’s a great line in there that Scott McMicken sings: “Ain’t it strange how a word can’t tell you more than words can say.” Of course, like lots of great lines, I didn’t hear it that way at first. I thought it said “…how a word can tell you more than words can say.” To be honest, I’m disappointed. I prefer the way I heard it. I liked the conflicting nature of how a word could do more than it set out to do — that it could promise something even more than its meaning–that despite its shortcomings, it was still capable of much.
Either way, that song, like so many others–and just for the sake of hyperbole–all pop music embraces a fundamental contradiction in our shared experience: that despite all despair and disappointment, we are hopeful people. If you’ll allow, I’ll borrow Obama’s book title here: The Audacity of Hope. Pop songs are, to paraphrase some of dictionary.com’s definition of audacity, a bold disregard for personal safety, conventional thought, or common sense. And they rejoice in that. In fact I might call them a celebration of acceptance– things aren’t great, but that’s okay.
Back to “Ain’t it Strange” — the chorus starts out, “Oh but I know how bad it can get / But I don’t mind / Baby I don’t mind.” Of course, you don’t mind; if you did, you wouldn’t have bothered in the first place. You wouldn’t have written the song, you wouldn’t have sung it they way you did, and you wouldn’t have bothered with that punchy, punctuated bass bit during the verses.
What happens when you just can’t find any satisfaction? Well, you get what you need, of course. Can’t be with the one you love, honey? Love the one you’re with. Are there rivers and mountains in your way? Don’t you know that there’s no mountain high enough or river wide enough to keep us away from one another? [Try these rhetorical questions on your own favorite songs.]
So I guess it’s no surprise that when thumbing through my Scrabble dictionary and looking across the OUT- words (a hook that you can put on a number of other words), I was struck by the word “OUTDREAM”. [They’re always written in uppercase letters, you know, because that’s the way the tiles are written.) I don’t know if I ever considered its existence as a word. But it’s a beautiful word, really. Outdream?! I want to be capable of doing that. Talk about a celebration of acceptance — I wanna be the guy who can outdream the next guy. Now, it’s a dream, mind you; it doesn’t mean it’s going to come true, but that’s a good way to live.
So maybe it gets mixed in with that other line from the previous post: “Your world must be so crowded”. So the verses for this song I haven’t started are about someone who lives in a crowded, burdened world and they describe all the clutter around them (maybe in the same sort of way Tim O’Brien describes his physical and emotional baggage as a soldier in Vietnam in the novel The Things They Carried.) And then the chorus comes in and reminds that person to OUTDREAM.
Lots of pop music uses that formula — verse = despair / worry, chorus = acceptance / celebration.
I just googled “outdream” — a sermon title popped up: “You Can’t Outdream God”. Damn, why did Johnny Cash have to go off and die?