Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Sheila Davis

Just one word

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Taylor Swift

Yesterday, my eye was caught by a post by Dan Kopf on Priceonomics about the increasing frequency of one-word song titles. Anecdotally, it certainly feels like we’re seeing a spike in singles with titles along the lines of “Hello,” “Sorry,” and “Chandelier,” and the article backs it up with an impressive array of evidence, indicating that overall title length has decreased over time, that the number of one-word titles has risen, and that the latter account for a disproportionate percentage of hits that reach the upper levels of the Billboard chart. The piece also ranks artists from the sixties onward by the average length of the titles of their most successful songs, and the top three are all active pop stars. (I was amused to note that the second position on the list, just behind Drake and ahead of Justin Bieber, goes to Taylor Swift, whose songs average 2.48 words per title—a number that must be skewed considerably upward by “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”) And it concludes by suggesting, reasonably enough, that this trend has arisen from the overwhelming commercial pressure on music of all kinds. With producers and record labels seeking every imaginable advantage, it’s no surprise that they prefer titles that are as short as possible, and correspondingly easier to identify, remember, and find online.

Songwriters, of course, have always been conscious of title placement, and they’ve long since developed a bag of tricks for fixing it in the listener’s memory. In The Craft of Lyric Writing, Sheila Davis lists the optimum “title spots” in different song forms, which usually fall in the first or last line of the verse or chorus, and she adds: “Skilled lyricists intuitively pinpoint the music’s most identifiable phrase, drop in the title, and work from there, forward or backward.” (Note that this is both a commercial strategy and a creative one, since it provides a toehold from which the writer can fit the words to the music.) Repetition plays a role as well, as do such tactics as framing the chorus with the title, previewing it in the last line of the verse, and reserving its most important words until the title itself makes an appearance. In many cases, these strategies were originally there as an aid to the performer, who was required to memorize or improvise many standard song types without access to written materials, and later, they were modified to serve the audience. And if a one-word title, repeated throughout the song, takes this tactic to its logical conclusion, this isn’t a new development, either: Davis’s book contains an entire section on one-word titles, which were becoming more common even thirty years ago.

One-word song titles

What’s especially striking is that the trend toward shorter song titles has accelerated just as book titles—at least on the nonfiction side—have become increasingly long. I haven’t seen any formal studies to back this up, but on an intuitive level, publishers do seem to be trying to cram more and more words onto book covers, usually with the aid of a convenient colon. A title is a powerful marketing tool, and with potential buyers discovering books online, rather than in bookstores, it makes sense to treat it as a form of metadata, with as many keywords as possible packed into that searchable field. (You can even see this trend in my own work. I’ve always loved short titles, as you can tell from my stories “Inversus,” “Kawataro,” “Ernesto,” “Cryptids,” and “Stonebrood.” Two of my three novels originally had one-word titles before being changed in the editorial process, and nothing I’ve ever published, of any length, has had a title of longer than three words. Yet the nonfiction book I’m writing now contains a whopping nineteen words, which means that it’s longer than the titles of the stories mentioned above plus all of my novels combined, and with room to spare.) And although a book’s text can now be treated as metadata in its entirety, there’s still an understandable incentive to put as much information as you can up front, in the literary version of clickbait.

So why do the title pressures in music and books run in contrary directions? I suspect that most of it has to do with how we discover different kinds of media. Unless we’re already a fan of the artist in question, we tend to hear a song on the radio, in a store, or in the background of a scene on a television show, and a memorable lyric or title phrase is what allows us to track it down later. A song rarely succeeds on the basis of a catchy title alone—although both Jill Sobule and Katy Perry did pretty well with “I Kissed a Girl.” But a book title can and does attract readers, by evoking either a genre or an exciting plot or a story we’ve read before. (Thanks in large part to Stieg Larsson, Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, and maybe even Lena Dunham, we’re seeing a lot of Girls here, too.) And on the nonfiction side, you could do worse than providing a laundry list of names, topics, or keywords that the book covers, in hopes that at least one will grab someone’s attention, ideally paired with a vivid phrase in front of that indispensable colon. Music and books, in other words, are approaching the same problem from opposite ends, and the title is where those forces crystalize into a visible form. Now that song titles have been reduced to single words and book titles have ballooned into the equivalent of short essays, it’s hard to see how much further it can go, although it’s possible that both will settle back into a reasonable middle ground once searching for music and books is no longer so dependent on the title alone. But until then, as the Bee Gees once put it in a one-word song of their own, words are all we have.

Written by nevalalee

March 22, 2016 at 10:00 am

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

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