Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

We are the walrus

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Paul McCartney

Being a parent sometimes feels like an endless series of compromises and workarounds, but I know I’ve done at least one thing right: my daughter may be less than two years old, but she already loves the Beatles. And this has much less to do with me than with Lennon and McCartney themselves. After I picked up a record player for Christmas last year, I gradually came to realize that the turntable I’d gotten for myself could be just as important for Beatrix: it’s easy for me to put on a record at breakfast and play it to the end, and the physical albums and sleeves, which are more interesting to a baby than an iTunes playlist, help lock in the idea of what music really is. Ever since, I’ve been buying records partially with her in mind. At the center of my collection these days are The Beatles 1962-1966 and 1967-1970, otherwise known as as The Red and Blue Albums, and even I’ve been astonished by the effects they’ve had. I’ve caught Beatrix humming along to “Hey Jude” at coffee shops and rounding off the last line of the chorus to “Magical Mystery Tour,” and maybe my proudest moment as a father so far has been when she pointed to a picture of a walrus and said “Goo goo goo joob.”

But what strikes me the most about these songs is how neatly they dovetail with the vocabulary my daughter already has. Take “Hello, Goodbye,” for instance. Beatrix likes to sing the last word of each line, so it starts to sound like a miniature lexicon of baby’s first words: “yes,” “no,” “stop,” “go,” “goodbye,” “hello.” The same is true of her favorite songs by other artists: I don’t think she would have latched on so strongly to “Let it Go” if the chorus hadn’t given her a chance to shout “go,” “more,” and “door.” As a result, I’ve found myself listening to old songs in a new way. Like any Beatles fan, I’ve always been floored by the lyrical complexity on display there, but I’m even more impressed by how even their most extravagant inventions are grounded in an almost primal simplicity. Hearing them now, I can’t help noticing how often the same words and rhymes recur, or how half of the lines seem to end with “you.” (“Love, love me do / You know I love you,” “I’ll send it along / With love from me to you,” “Please please me, oh yeah / Like I please you”—and that’s just from the first side of 1962-1966.)

Stephen Sondheim

Which is really just a reflection of basic songwriting craft. When you’re listening to a pop song on the radio—whether it’s “Happy,” “Wrecking Ball,” “Fancy,” or the summer earworm of your choice—you know exactly what the title is once you’ve heard the first verse, even if you’ve never heard the song before. That isn’t an accident: in the standard AABA structure, there’s a title spot, a moment within the dominant melodic phrase that tells you what the song is called. As Sheila Davis writes in The Craft of Lyric Writing:

Traditionally, there are two title spots in the AABA: in either the first line or the last line of the verse. Skilled lyricists intuitively pinpoint the music’s most identifiable phrase, drop in the title, and work from there, forward or backward.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t important exceptions, and the overreliance on such formulas can lead to boring, interchangeable music. But songwriters have come a long way by relying on similar rules of thumb, and like most creative rules, they serve as a kind of safety net when you’re putting a song together for the first time.

Not surprisingly, it’s all too easy to focus on the formula, as many skeptical early listeners of the Beatles did, and assume that there’s nothing else there. (Which, frankly, is often the case with the Top 40, and that’s just fine.) But what Lennon and McCartney grasped from the beginning, then refined and developed in the full sight of the world, is how a simple hook can be an entry point that allows a song to burrow much deeper. Lyric writing can sometimes feel like the leading edge of writing in general, if only because it’s so linear and transient: once a lyric has been sung, it’s gone, which is why smart writers have developed so many tricks to keep their words and images alive in the listener’s mind. After spending enough time in the crucible of pop songwriting, most lyricists come to conclude, as Stephen Sondheim does, that the paramount virtue is clarity, without which nothing else matters. The “rules” of songwriting are really just a series of tactics for enforcing clarity in a medium that can’t survive without it. And the mark of a great song that it can convey complex ideas and emotions—or even inspired nonsense—while still allowing a baby to sing along.

Written by nevalalee

August 4, 2014 at 9:54 am

2 Responses

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  1. I remember listening to Lady Madonna as a kid and my mother misunderstanding the words. Instead of “Lady Madonna” she thought they were singing “knee deep in donuts”. Go figure.

    MJ Belko

    August 4, 2014 at 9:58 am

  2. I still hear “I can’t hide” as “I get high” in “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”


    August 7, 2014 at 10:57 am

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