On December 19th, 1925, in New York City, a letter arrived in Al and Rose Sherman’s mailbox. The envelope contained Al’s first royalty check as a songwriter. “Save Your Sorrow” provided the Shermans $500, and now they could pay the hospital delivery costs for Robert, their first born. Only the day before they had borrowed a dollar from Rose’s mother so they could eat. But by the end of the decade, buoyed by more songs, the Shermans had another son, Richard, and a more comfortable bank account.
Robert and Richard would follow their Tin Pan Alley dad into the family business and write more motion-picture song scores than any other songwriting team in film history. If Dick Van Dyke has instructed you through “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” you know their work: Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Junglebook, Winnie the Pooh, The Parent Trap. They have two Grammys, two Oscars and 23 gold and platinum records. The Sherman brothers’ work has delighted children and families with songs for over sixty years. And they also have the distinction of writing the worst song of all time: “It’s a Small World After All.”
By the stillness of Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau wrote that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Surely this won’t be the case for the Shermans, but if they had left us with only “It’s a Small World,” most of us would be wishing for the quiet desperation. Thoreau would have agreed to pay his taxes.
Songs have wonderful ways of attaching to places. Many of us associate a favorite song with a certain apartment we used to live in, a car we drove, a school we were expelled from. Some connections are regional. We hear a city when we hear a certain band. The Beastie Boys are Brooklyn, Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins sound like Memphis. Motown’s got Detriot. Even if you weren’t in Central Park to see Simon and Garfunkel reunite, sometimes, when listening to “Homeward Bound,” it’s hard not to imagine your attendance, on a blanket under a tree, in the center of the city.
“It’s a Small World” is attached however, like the plastic boats that run through it, to the most godawful, condescending amusement ride in recorded history. (How an amusement ride even manages condescension is extraordinary.) When you climb aboard the boat, you set sail past nearly 300 costumed dolls and animals, singing the same song over and over. Because the song is sung in the round, it never really truly has an ending; it’s a snake eating its own tail. The boats bob through the Seven Seaways that, as the ride explains, “embrace this miniature globe.” The ride claims to dissolve boundaries and connect continents. The repetition of the song in at least five languages, does bring unity: a unity of madness. The ride states that “children under age 7 years must be accompanied by a person age 14 years or older.” This may be for safety reasons but really no child should have to bear this misadventure alone. Children, however, tend to enjoy this sort of repetitive melody and research says songs like these aid in the ability to retain information. Just watch an episode of Barney. Television and radio jingles have the same effect; we hum all the way to the store. They are the niggling little ditties that penetrate our subconscious. Chain gangs, digging ditches and building roads, sing them to dull the pain and keep the pace.
The puppets that greet the ride’s passengers feature animatronics, a technology new in the 1950s. Electric motors, pneumatic and hydraulic cylinders, and cable driven mechanisms instruct the movements of the figures. The unity of the world is in the cogs of an awkward technology whose stilted movements create a moving lifelessness. Mannequins wave in time, their eyelids wink, their mouths gape and close. The English dolls are Cockney, the African puppets play drums, and the ones from the South Seas are mermaids. They sing,
It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears
It’s a world of hopes, it’s a world of fear
There’s so much we share
that it’s time we’re aware
It’s a small world after all
It’s a small world after all
It’s a small world after all
It’s a small world after all
It’s a small, small world
There is just one moon and one golden sun
And a smile means friendship to everyone.
Though the mountains divide
and the oceans are wide
It’s a small, small world
While most sing in their own language, they eventually give way to English; their unity quickly becomes assimilation.
Like other failed songs of unity, “It’s a Small World” presumes a sameness about the world. Twenty years later, pop stars, many of questionable talent and fleeting fame, gathered around a few room mikes, to sing “Do They Know it’s Christmas?” a song that intended to bring attention to the famine in Africa. The lyrics curiously muse that the jungles and plains of Africa “won’t have snow” and that the 47% of Muslims that make up the continent won’t know “it’s Christmas time at all.” A year later, led by the writing of Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Quincy Jones, “We Are the World” didn’t assure the world of much more. Most notably that change, we were reminded, wouldn’t come until “we stand together as one.” Given its purpose, the song was a success. It raised $63 million for humanitarian aid in Africa. Even though the performance was self-aggrandizing and the song didn’t address why the famines were occurring, it still is a little ungenerous to really criticize it. “Masters of War” or “We Shall Overcome” it is not.
But while “We Are the World” was written at the end of Reagan’s first term, as the economy climbed its way out of a recession, “It’s a Small World” was written during the Cuban missile crisis, for the 1964 World’s Fair. As nuclear weapons aimed themselves squarely at Havana, and the world imagined an imminent future of nuclear fallout, the song and its message of closeness must have seemed like quite an understatement.
Even Robert and Richard Sherman, commissioned by Walt Disney to write the song that would benefit Unicef, were at war. Robert haunted by his service in WWII never could see eye to eye with his younger brother, Richard. The two and half years that separated them were long enough to send Robert to Germany. He would be one of the first American soldiers to arrive at Dachau and witness the atrocities there. He was only 17. “I didn’t know anything about anything. But I learned,” Bob said later. Meanwhile, Richard was enrolled in Beverly Hills High School where he played the flute, clarinet, piano, and piccolo. At his 1946 high school graduation, Richard played flute in a duet with classmate Andre Previn on piano.
When the brothers wrote songs, Robert would sit quietly with his notepad, across the room from his brother at the piano. He gripped his pen, often silent for many minutes, and would jot down lyric ideas as they occurred to him. Robert pounded out melodies and chord progressions, blurting out words in his baritone as fast as Richard would suggest them.
This would be the scene when they wrote “It’s a Small World.” Co-writers, or any good collaborators, while bringing different perspectives and experiences to the table, find ways to marry their thoughts together. They bob and weave, compromise and concede, encourage and accommodate. Bob and Dick were able to do this but I can’t help but think that their inspiration for the “small world” sentiment came from different places. Richard’s life was small. Beverly Hills and Hollywood were closed communities. It was who you know, not who you didn’t know. Parties gave way to other parties and you and your car connected you to anywhere you wanted to go. To Richard, “It’s a Small World” must have seemed familiar, a celebration of the simplicity of the world. But for Robert whose world opened up in terrible ways during the war, the sentiment must have been wistful, longing, an elegy with a deceiving melody. Both agreed that the song was a prayer for peace. But peace from what?
In the 2009 documentary The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story, AJ Carothers, a playwright, television writer and friend to the Shermans and Walt Disney, described the brothers’ relationship by invoking F. Scott’s Fitzgerald who wrote, “A sentimental person thinks things will last, a romantic person hopes against hope that they won’t.” Robert, the Romantic, knew the world wasn’t small and had long given up on a Disney ending to things.
The fairy tale ending is a sentimental notion. It is lovely to see order restored and to witness loved ones reunited, but living happily ever after prevents a real ending to the story. At the end of Mary Poppins when her work is done, Mary, her umbrella in hand, takes to the air and bids a fond farewell to Bert. Bert tells her not to stay away too long. Although a sentimental viewer can imagine that she returns one day, we never see it happen. A Romantic interpretation of the same ending isn’t bleak by comparison. There is a beautiful humility in that ambiguity, in the acceptance of not knowing what will happen next, in having no expectations. A Romantic can enjoy the time Mary and Bert spent with one another and not worry if they ever see each other again.
And this is why I hate “It’s a Small World” so much: it lies. This world is anything but small. It is a Massively Large World After All would be a truer title. I get what’s it’s getting at. It’s an admirable intention. As human beings we should look to find similarities, to realize that it is indeed a world of laughter and a world of tears and that yes, there’s so much that we share. But I’m more struck by our differences. Because saying it’s a small world has its ramifications. If the world is small then that assumes that we are big, running into one another in the darndest of places. If we are bigger for this small world then we are more important, less humble.
What if we realized we were incredibly small—that we played incredibly small roles in the grand scheme of things? Wouldn’t that force our involvement in it? Wouldn’t that force us to find connections and not assume that they exist? Wouldn’t we celebrate our differences as a way of embracing our diversity? Or if not embracing, at least respecting it? Isn’t that a richer conclusion?
This conclusion has been reached countless times in popular music, in better songs. It’s what I find so valuable about the art form. Most pop songs concede that life is difficult, frustrating, and often lonely, but the good ones work hard to prove why we should persevere anyway. Perhaps you can’t get no satisfaction, but you can get what you need. If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with. It’s this shared commiseration that bonds us so closely to song.
Ned Rorem, an American composer, said that “Music is the sole art which evokes nostalgia for the future.” The word nostalgia comes from two Greek roots: one means “returning home” and the other “pain.” 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 you out of the past and into the future. That’s what it feels like to live in the present—aware of the past and the future, but feeling the weight of neither.
It was Al Sherman who taught his boys the three rules of songwriting: simple, singable, and sincere. “Save Your Sorrow (for Tomorrow),” the song that brought Robert Sherman home from the hospital, captures this sentiment. “If it’s tears you want to shed, take this tip from me / Save your sorrow for tomorrow / Smile awhile today.” It is the song of a Romantic, someone who hopes against hope that things won’t last. The world might be a massively large and complicated place but good songs come to those that wait.
Most of us will never know the entirety of this world, nor will we know its people as best we should. Maybe like Robert Sherman, we wouldn’t like everything we found. But surely the comforting smallness should be in humanity, not the world.
I’m reading Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, about a writer who’s struggling to write the introduction to a new anthology of rhyming verse. In making a case for rhyming poetry, Baker writes that “rhyming is the avoidance of mental pain by addicting yourself to what will happen next.” The call and response of rhyming creates a suspense and sets up a puzzle–for both the writer and the listener. He writes that “poetry is a controlled refinement of sobbing” and when poets find themselves “descending into one of their personal canyons of despair, [they] use rhyme to help themselves tightrope over it.” [By the way, what a nice verb "tightrope" is, especially in the present tense. It looks good, too.] I don’t have enough interest in the academia of poetry to step into the old debates over to-rhyme or not-to-rhyme. In songs there is the expectation of rhyme and so, even when a line breaks with that expectation, I tend to hear the absence of it. Some songwriters may write a number of verses without any rhyming just to hit you with one during the chorus–maybe on the last line–just so we can all breathe a sigh of relief. More than poetry, lyrics are more transparent about their intentions. In the end, you want to connect with an audience and rhyming helps create that connection.
But I realize it’s this puzzle idea that excites me too. As I’ve described in previous posts what most inspires me to write is an overheard line or phrase. I want someone else to be as excited about that line as I am, to sense whatever bit of truth I heard in it. So from a mechanical aspect, sometimes the first thing I think about is pairing a rhyme with that phrase’s last word or words. If it’s used in a chorus for example, the preceding line leading into the line I love, doesn’t even need to be that important to the overall idea of the song. It’s just a transition; it’s just a means of getting to what I really want to say. The effect of the rhyming though, makes that line sound indispensable, profound. You can work it the other way around too. My friend Dom was once describing someone from his childhood who taught him how to swim. The conversation went on and we all agreed that was a pretty important lesson. I mean, learning how to swim is not only a very useful but also potentially life-saving skill. So I wrote in a notebook, “There’s nothing as important as learning how to swim.” Trying to work it into a song later that week, I looked for a rhyming line that could round off that idea a bit. I went with a near rhyme with “in” and the couplet became There’s nothing as important as learning how to swim / cause you never really know the kind of trouble that you’re in. Not terribly profound but I liked the bigger picture it tried to suggest. Often with those sort of exercises, you’re also trying to balance the specific with the general. In other words, if you’re going to write about something as specific as swimming lessons, you need to broaden it back out to the universal, so you don’t lose your listeners as they recall their own swimming lessons. (A great song should never be too specific–just a few deja vu parts.) Of course, by the time the two lines are paired, it’s not really about swimming anyway–the metaphor has taken over and the melody’s got you floating downstream.
And here’s what I do when a rhyme doesn’t come quickly: outsource it. I’m a big believer in rhyming dictionaries. I have a few different ones and also a program called Master Writer. They are curious books. Since the words are catalogued only by sound, it conveniently removes all logic, context, meaning, and knowledge–factors that can get in the way of brainstorming. The pallet of words I have at the tips of my tongue and brain don’t change enough to allow new ideas. There are words and phrases that I know but would never remember nor depend on. Right now I’m working on a song called “Dead Actors” — about a sort of purgatory our (classic) movie stars must wander around in because we never really let them go (or even think they’re real). Anyway, the verses are three lines and the last line of each rhymes with the previous verse’s last line. At one point, I had used mankind, sublime, and daylight — but still needed one more near rhyme for the group. In the Master Writer program, I can just click on the word, in this case sublime, and I can page through pages of exact and near rhymes. It can also provide me with rhymed common or cliche phrases and popular culture references–it’s a real hodgepodge. And this hodgepodge works to my advantage because there on the second page is pantomime. A very pretty word and perfect for a song about actors. I know the word and its definition, but I never would have thought of it on my own. And now since I’ve used that word, it makes me think of a more Elizabethan kind of acting and I picture an actor and the way he might clutch at his heart in an melodramatic death scene. So, not only has outsourcing my brainstorming helped me find the perfect word, but that word has jogged my memory in another direction. Basically, you’ve got to do everything you can to get unstuck, finish an idea while it’s still interesting to you.
Baker writes that rhyming is like “chain-smoking–you light one line with the glowing ember of the last.”
They say most writers have one story to tell — and that they spend their careers just rewriting it over and over again. That’s why it’s so great to find a writer you like. Or a film director. Or a songwriter. You want to be a part of that story again, get to know its characters, walk around in its world one more time. You develop a relationship after awhile and, as with all relationships, it has its benefits and drawbacks. The closeness allows you intimacy and insight that strangers and acquaintances might not be privy to, but your ability to forgive and your eventual decision to love and the commitment that follows can blind you to certain flaws. For instance, I am no longer qualified to really comment on the merit of a Wes Anderson film anymore. Yeah, I know his films are caught in these precious, claustrophobic, elitist worlds where characters do their best to hide any real emotion–but everything looks so pretty and is framed so nicely, the songs selected so lovingly, that I can’t help myself. That’s a story I want to see repeated over and over again. Perhaps, if you believe what the writers of Stuff White People Like suggest, it must be be something in my DNA.
We’re often even more forgiving of our songwriters. (After all, they usually only ask for 3-5 minutes of our time, as opposed to a two-hour feature film.) Like old friends, we have a history together. We can listen to the opening bars of a new song and already know not only where it’s going, but where it’s been–know that it’s part of a conversation that started a while back–during countless car trips, summers on the back porch, walking down the sidewalk. Frankly, that’s what I look for in songs and songwriters–a shared history. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has be a songwriter I’ve known for a long time. Every once in a while you’ll listen to someone new and get the distinct feeling that you’ve met before. Sometimes, the highest compliment I think I can offer a new song is, “Whoah, deja vu”–that spooky feeling that you’ve been there before, but you’re just not sure when or why or with whom.
Though, what happens when the songwriter starts to have that relationship with himself? More than the normal amount of self-reflection, sometimes there’s an intentional incestuousness of alluding to your own work either lyrically or musically. The Beatles were clever about it when referencing other songs or their own mythology in songs like “Glass Onion.” Famously, of course, there is John Fogerty, sued by his former label for plagiarizing one of his own songs. Bruce Springsteen can’t write a song featuring a down and out character without exhuming every John Steinbeck-Studs Terkel type hero he champions so well. Maybe what changes is just the character’s understanding of himself and what he’s capable of– balancing the burden of hope and fate–like alternate realities or parallel universes. After a certain point, for a songwriter that’s been writing for awhile, it’s impossible not to walk around with these ghosts; it’s impossible not to mix all these ashes together. Surely, this is a fate that suits some writers better than others–the difference between someone who explores all the possibilities of his ideas and characters, as opposed to someone who wallows in self-fulfillment and certainty.
In a very modest way, I was trying to write about this idea in the song The Reprise and The Reprisal. First of all, it was a rewriting of a song I wrote years ago for the Share the Pain project. It had some of the same feel and a number of the same words, but revisiting it 3 or 4 years later, laid up in a hospital in Las Vegas made me think of the song in a new light. It was called Hold Your Breath in its first life — and literally struggling for breath during that hospital stay, it seemed new to me. I liked the idea that it was a “reprise,” in the way that musicals have a reprise of a song at the end of the show. I also appreciated the meaning that the word”reprisal” adds to that idea. A “reprisal” is a retaliation for injury–one that calls for an equal amount of damage in return. So the song for me was a reprise, in its reworking of an old tune, but a reprisal too–in this case, me against my body and its illness, in the way that I felt I needed to retaliate.
So to continue the thread of previous posts, if many songs seem to embrace an acceptance for the way of things (either through the wise reflection of experience or just the need the need for survival), perhaps equal amounts of songs should seek a more satisfying retaliation against those same “things”–even when you know you’re just shadow boxing. So the choice is Old Testament/New Testament, whether to go with “turn-the-other-cheek” or “eye-for-an-eye”—just know that in either case, you’re going to get hit.
I write almost entirely at the piano. Songs written for the piano are completely different than those written for the guitar. There’s a different mindset about rhythm and form and feel and notes. I think if you really studied the familiar pop songs we know were written for piano, you’d find a many similarities among them–ones that span across genre and hipness and importance. There are players of both instruments that are so good that they might be able to confound some of these familiarities — find new, innovative ways of approaching their instruments. But, for the most part, they don’t dabble much in pop music. Frankly, it’s best that they don’t. As I’ve written about before, too much musicianship can really get in the way of the song.
Brian McTear of Miner Street Studios where we mixed the new album, “Shoveling Smoke”, made an observation about piano songs that I knew instinctively, but had never really heard described before. His remark had to do with the”downward-only strokes” that the piano makes, as opposed to the guitar player who can create rhythmic phrasing on both upward and downward strokes, can mute the strings entirely, etc. — who has, in general, more dynamic and rhythmic range than someone like me who hammers away in one direction on the piano. If you think of Jerry Lee Lewis and the way he pounded away, you get the right mental image. And while piano players can achieve subtlety and variation in other ways, they are left to only “push” their instrument away. There’s rarely the sense that the piano is countering your moves. You strike it and it responds. At its best, this relationship between player and instrument is profound — in ways that guitars can’t quite emulate. Visually speaking, this is true too, of course. The piano as major piece of furniture, as an immovable object. Its stubbornness is something you’ve got to beat up a bit.
Learning pop music on the piano, you became accustomed to certain styles and procedures. The left hand plays octaves and the right fills out the chord and runs through the changes. You’re always trying to create the sound of the whole band from the bass on up. That formula for forming pop music this way is hard to break and there are a few things that I envy about songs written for guitar, in addition to flexibility and mobility. The proximity of the notes on the guitar, the fact that the available notes do not span over several octaves and 88 keys, creates an intimacy that doesn’t always come naturally on the piano. The temptation to spread out the notes can bring about wondeful space, but it can often bring about a lack of intimacy. The guitarist’s notes reverberate physically and sonically at close intervals; they sort of lay on top of another and are more aware of each other.
So for the last song on the new album, “Can’t Find No Purchase,” I think for the first time I tried to voice each note I played on the piano a bit closer to one another to try and get that guitar sound. In an effort to make something sound more guitar like, my hands stay fairly close to one another, the voicings of the chords more akin to some four-part choir peace. Subconsciously, I must have emphasized hammer-on like phrases to get that more intimate guitar sound– where passing and leading notes pass a bit closer to one another. I don’t know if it really sounds more “guitar-y”, but it feels more intimate when I play it.
The song was inspired by a line from the Coen Brother’s “Raising Arizona.” Nicholas Cage’s character, H.I McDonough, explains to an adoption board that he and his wife Edna (Holly Hunter) are not able to conceive children. Of course, the Coen Brothers’ characters have their own language — one that subdues any perceived ridiculousness with terrible sincerity — so H.I. puts it like this: “My wife’s womb is a rocky place where my seed can find no purchase.” And I was so struck by the use of the word “purchase” and the personal sadness of their situation that I arranged a song idea around it. Lyrics are here.
Whoever does the branding for Canada has done a great job. They’ve got a great national anthem and a pretty flag. They have mounted police in bright red jackets. And we Americans love to romanticize the place. Vancouver as Valhalla or something. From draft dodgers to prescription pill-popping senior citizens, there’s something for everyone. And a lot of us Americans like to use it as a threat-destination: “if [such and such] happens, I’m moving to Canada”–like we can run in there and claim sanctuary or forgiveness.
The popular trend of these threats certainly comes from recent elections and I tried to capture the sentiment in the song “Coast is Clear“. It was written sometime after the 2004 re-election of George Bush when many of us were depressed, convinced that things couldn’t get much worse. But these threats in most cases are pretty empty ones. As much as we idealize the Canadian Rockies and their clean water and their humane, universal health care, most of us would never really imagine moving into Canada. Most of us that live on the east coast of the US don’t even want to give up Eastern Standard time for our own West Coast, let alone packing it all up for the Great White North; we like the fact that Canadians are watching our tv shows. But we are nowhere without a good threat. Our country was founded on them. All change requires threats.
The song I wrote was intended to sound like a drinking song. Something that would sound good to bearded men slamming their mugs together. And so it was meant as a farewell celebration, a fare-thee-well, if you will. It’s one of the more schizophrenic songs I’ve written. The verses are this barroom barrage of imperatives–a “have one for the road” kinda thing. Scott and Craig did a great job of recording those acoustic guitars; there’s a good drunk quality to them. The pre-chorus, a term I use a little too liberally these days, tries to bring on the sentimental aspect behind the escape — and its musicality abruptly changes to match. All leading to a chorus that promises that this excursion is only temporary until the “coast is clear.” It’s almost like I couldn’t quite keep up the masquerade of the threat of leaving and so I have to provide some sort of stipulation for return. And so, nowadays, when I sing the song, with the image of Bush in his helicopter, leaving the white house forever, I don’t quite feel the same way.
Part of me would like to think the “coast is clear” now–but I’ll reserve judgment for awhile.
Because of its split personality, I’ve never really felt comfortable performing the song. I can only imagine what it’s like to listen to. But I’m sure that it’s sincere and for that reason alone, I’ve found it to be successful. It captures exactly what I feel from time to time: great indignation followed by great resignation. And I make no apologies for that. It’s what happens after a couple of beers.
This is the first (actually maybe second) attempt at doing a VH1-Storytellers for each of the songs were about to release on our next EP, “Shoveling Smoke”. This one’s about “Split the Difference”…
Like a lot of songs, I just heard this phrase and liked it. It’s a cliche I guess; though it seems more popular now than I never noticed before. I distinctly remember the first time I heard it. The Gilroys, a band I was in in the late 90s, were recording an album at Creep Records in Downingtown, PA. Arik Victor, who was engineering the session for us, used it while getting our feedback on some track level or EQ setting or something. It represented the balance between something too loud or too soft–a compromise. Recording is often just a series of compromises when you have a lot of people offering opinions; though I remember the phrase becoming somewhat of a joke when one of us was out in the room recording a track–if Arik thought it sounded good one way, you might give in a little and suggest changing it just a bit, and then Arik would kind of pretend to twist the knob and so you wouldn’t hear any difference, but you didn’t want to keep being a jerk about it and you were paying by the hour anyway so you would just go ahead with it as is. So it was a punchline to any situation you weren’t likely to resolve; it had as much meaning as “agree to disagree”.
So I tried to find phrases for the song Split the Difference that suggested compromises. As I’ve written about in previous posts, for me, a lot of pop music is about hopeful acceptance and in some ways this became my first politically minded song–in the light of our war in Iraq. It’s vaguely political at best, but it came together as Bush and his minions were trying to discredit Democrats by claiming that they all wanted to “cut and run”. Maybe my political angle would get across more stongly had I chosen to go with that phrase instead. (Sometimes, when I sing it live I do little vocal “cut and run” mantra at the end of the song.) Perhaps it is naive to think that you can just cut and run your way out of some awful, tragic mess your country has gotten you into; but that’s the kind of tone I wanted the song to have–that sticking to your guns (a phrase maybe I should have also considered for the song) seems like a really stupid idea when men and women’s lives are at stake. Out of a problem with no solution, maybe it’s a good idea to stop looking for one–or at least stop being so in love with your own opinions. Anyway, so then I collected those other phrases about compromise, reconciliation, and acceptance and strung them together.
Musically, I like having the “chorus” of the song just be this very simple, singable melodic line. Writing words for the chorus in this song would be against the whole idea. Having two guitarists playing intersecting lines seems more appropriate. Musically, my only idea was to have it sound like some 80s Molly Ringwald movie. I wrote the line as if it were a synth line–in fact, I wanted the whole thing to sound like it had been conceived on a sequencer. (And I guess the first demos in GarageBand do just that.) I was thinking along the lines of The Cure or New Order, where there’s this really recognizable melodic, instrumental hook. Parts would come in and out, like they were being turned on and off by a computer. It probably had something to do with listening to a bunch of M83, who do hypnotic repetition with big pay off as well as anyone. I don’t think the song sounds anything like them, but that repeating little ostinato that the piano and cello play was my attempt at creating some sort of organic, electronic music.
The song’s final verse also features something I keep doing in songs–perhaps to a point where I shouldn’t do it anymore. I just extend the number of repetitions of the verse structure to build more momentum and anticipation. Lately, it’s been an odd number of times–instead of the usual 4 or 8. I think it happens because I have more words I want to say and I want to get them out. Speaking of which, as that last verse shows, the political nature of the song, and in my opinion the nature of almost any pop song, becomes more about relationships. It’s almost impossible to sing about “us” and “you” and “I” and not think of the woman that’s standing next to you or the one over by the bar or the one you met over some summer. The song could be about anything, but those universal pronouns are just so familiar and attractive; they’re the words that make us connect with songs in the first place. So in that way, every metaphor gets extended back to you and me and us. And it’s useful to think of your country like the woman you love. You should treat her like you want to be treated. You should shower her with affection and an occasional backrub and never come home with another country’s lipstick on your collar. And you should learn to split the difference, bury the hatchet and let bygones be bygone when it comes to international affairs because most accidents occur within a mile of your home and home is where your heart is and other cliches.
[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?
The inevitable question–which comes first? Words/egg or music/chicken? In my case it is almost always the egg. There have been so many occasions when my friends have casually laid out some seemingly profound (or maybe just catchy) turn of phrase while sitting outside at some restaurant in the summer or stuck in traffic somewhere between here and Philly. My friend, Scott, perhaps struck by a nice stretch of weather and sitting amongst relaxed diners enjoying cold drinks outside in West Chester, remarked, “This could be anywhere.”
There’s always a phrase or two that hangs in the air during any good conversation — this one seemed significant for some reason. I was struck by the whole delivery. It was a line that wasn’t part of some larger ongoing conversation; it was delivered at a lull and after what I thought was a studied survey of the surroundings. A moment when you’re able to see the town you’ve lived in for years in some sort of different light. The comment felt good. It wasn’t necessarily a statement on the sameness of small town America, though that’s certainly true of this place. It was something about the word “could” — “This could be anywhere” — that made it attractive to me. It was more about the possibility of the day and the setting. You might imagine it to be somewhere else if that’s what you wanted. Or not. The song I wrote, “Anonymous” ended up being about how sometimes it’s nice or preferable to be anonymous, without any clear definition.
In any case, it’s this kind of phrase that makes me want to write a song. So as many people do, when moments like this come up, I reach for a pen and something to write on–usually my hand, despite the number of fine notebooks I own. (Never on the palm because sweat might remove it–just left of the space between my thumb and forefinger on the back of my left hand works nicely.) I’m sure texting it to yourself is a good option; I just haven’t gotten into that yet. I suppose people carry notebooks with them, but I find that a bit rude and a conversation killer. I like treating it like it’s a reminder to pick up milk (though, I’ve actually never done that; I think I’m a little lactose intolerant). Still I’ll admit, I think it gets on people’s nerves sometimes. People don’t really want their winning lines transcribed by some guy. My friend Dave had a great line (don’t know if it would really work in a song)– delivered after I had written a number of things down on a particular night: [paraphrasing--damn, should have written it down] –”I feel like Ben is playing some game by himself but no one knows the rules or who’s winning.” Some nights it does seem like a scorecard. Often it makes no sense the next morning. Like songs, these phrases sometimes depend on the setting, all the “verses” that came before it, the time of night.
So the other night, out on Marc and Krista’s porch, the conversation turned to insects and whether or not we kill them and under what circumstances. Personally, I have no qualms about squashing the occasional bug–not senselessly mind you, but when they are crawling somewhere they shouldn’t (subjective, I know). I’ve learned not to kill spiders; I understand the role they play in controlling the population of other insects and so I’ve shooed a few through a door or window. After living in NYC and Boston, I have no problems killing cockroaches–mostly because I know if they could, they’d do it to me. While we are without cockroaches here, we do get frequent “baddies” — that’s what Jess calls them. She does not like them to put it mildly. It’s one of the few moments I get to act chivalrous and protect my wife from harm.
Where is this going? Anyway, Rosalie, also sitting on the deck and no doubt due to her vegetarian beliefs, wants no part of the senseless killing of insects. I admit to a bad habit of prodding vegetarians from time to time with stupid questions like, “Why don’t you have a problem killing lettuce? It’s alive? What, because it doesn’t have eyes? Because it’s not pretty?” She was nice enough to ignore me. But after considering Rosalie’s world — my warped interpretation of it — one where nothing ever dies and everything gets to live — I said, “Your world must be so crowded.”
And so before you knew it I was looking for a pen. Could be a good line in a dialogue type song. Maybe it’s just a title: “Crowded World”. Maybe it’s about how people never clear out all that builds up around them. I’m often attracted to accusatory or confrontational lines. Lots of pop songs try to call people out or indict.
To Rosalie’s credit, her reply to my “crowded world” line was, “Yes, but it’s happy place.” [Let's hope Bobby McFerrin wasn't walking by.]
This site exists to discuss songs. That being said–
I can’t even imagine writing a novel. Think of the years it must take to get the thing off the ground–the enormous work of all that writing and the inevitable burden of getting it published. Or before that, consider just handing the first draft off to your mother or father or your husband or wife or your best friend and waiting for a reaction. And what if it’s terrible and you know it but, man, look at all those pages.
Maybe a poet has it easier. The idea of crumpling up a single page and starting over might actually feel liberating. You’re just capturing a moment after all and there are lots of other moments and other pieces of paper. (Apologies to epic poets.)
Songwriters have the advantage of not having to rely entirely on their words. Music adds weight where there is none and air when there is too much. There are exceptions of course, but if you ever leaf through the pages of the collected “songs” of a songwriter in a bookstore somewhere, they’re pretty limp. [Jewel: tell us more about Alaska.] Frankly, this balance struck between words and music serves to prop both elements up — often to an extent they wouldn’t have reached on their own merit. For instance, there isn’t any argument about how great a song “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is. [At least, there shouldn't be.] But reading the words, “When you’re weary, feeling small / When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all; I’m on your side. when times get rough / And friends just can’t be found / Like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down” — you aren’t necessarily struck by some original idea. If you’re more cynical, you might even roll your eyes at the the sight of clichés like “tears in your eyes” and “times get rough”. But in that sweet tenor voice of Art Garfunkel, you never once doubt the sincerity of any of those notions. A lot can be said for inflection and delivery and attitude in a performance; sometimes that’s all that can be said.
But in creating something that you can listen to in a couple of minutes, the song also has the advantage of being less demanding. You could let your girlfriend/mother/wife/etc. listen to it and she can continue to drive her car or order something online or have a conversation. Songs sneak up on you in a way literature can’t– [I know it's possible, just not as likely.] They actively involve more of the senses. And perhaps, as a result, they are harder to describe and examine from a craft perspective.
Anyway, the point is songwriting is a completely different bird and most songwriters are bad at describing the process but I want to try anyway — maybe for selfish reasons. [I'm not sure what that means; I just want to make sure I cover myself here.] So: I’ve started writing down all the devices, strategies, and inspirations I use to write songs. I thought about what goes on in my head when I’m coming up with an idea for a song or when I’m stuck with something unfinished. The process is ongoing and like a lot of writing, it’s probably more about self-validation than anything else.
My ongoing list is made up of observations about both music and words. I won’t pretend that I’m an expert in either, but I’m fascinated by the strange power songs have and spend most of my time thinking about how I could write a better one. Maybe there’s something helpful about being neither a great musician nor a great writer. Great musicians often have a hard time reigning in all that talent. When there are few limitations to your talents as a musician, the basic song format might become a real bore. They same must be true of great writers. How could the verse/chorus structure of popular song really allow all the space they would require?
Wow. Talk about self-validation: I’ve just legitimized my songwriting abilities by proving that my limitations as a musician and a writer might actually make me an ideal songwriter. If only Salieri (from the film Amadeus), who proclaimed himself “The Patron Saint of Mediocrity” could have enjoyed the importance we put on popular music today, he might have found real satisfaction as a songwriter and could have avoided the suicide attempts and insane asylums.
So let’s celebrate the imperfect art form of the song. I hope readers feel willing to share what “it” is they like so much about a certain song and maybe other songwriters could give us some insight into their process.