Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Sondheim

Life on the last mile

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In telecommunications, there’s a concept called “the last mile,” which states that the final leg of a network—the one that actually reaches the user’s home, school or office—is the most difficult and expensive to build. It’s one thing to construct a massive trunkline, which is basically a huge but relatively straightforward feat of engineering, and quite another to deal with the tangle of equipment, wiring, and specifications on the level of thousands of individual households. More recently, the concept has been extended to public transportation, delivery and distribution services, and other fields that depend on connecting an industrial operation on the largest imaginable scale with specific situations on the retail side. (For instance, Amazon has been trying to cross the last mile through everything from its acquisition of Whole Foods to drone delivery, and the fact that these are seen as alternative approaches to the same problem points to how complicated it really is.) This isn’t just a matter of infrastructure, either, but of the difficulties inherent to any system in which a single pipeline has to split into many smaller branches, whether it’s carrying blood, water, mail, or data. Ninety percent of the wiring can be in that last mile, and success lies less in any overall principles than in the irritating particulars. It has to be solved on the ground, rather than in a design document, and you’ll never be able to anticipate all of the obstacles that you’ll face once those connections start to multiply. It’s literally about the ramifications.

I often feel the same way when it comes to writing. When I think back at how I’ve grown as a writer over the last decade or so, I see clear signs of progress. Thanks mostly to the guidelines that David Mamet presents in On Directing Film, it’s much easier for me to write a decent first draft than it was when I began. I rarely leave anything unfinished; I know how to outline and how to cut; and I’m unlikely to make any huge technical mistakes. In his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman says something similar about screenwriting:

Stephen Sondheim once said this: “I cannot write a bad song. You begin it here, build, end there. The words will lay properly on the music so they can be sung, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper song.” I sometimes feel that way about my screenplays. I’ve been doing them for so long now, and I’ve attempted most genres. I know about entering the story as late as possible, entering each scene as late as possible, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper screenplay.

Craft, in other words, can take you most of the way—but it’s the final leg that kills you. As Goldman concludes of his initial pass on the script for Absolute Power: “This first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.” And sooner or later, most writers find that they spend most of their time on that last mile.

Like most other art forms, creative writing can indeed be taught—but only to the point that it still resembles an engineering problem. There are a few basic tricks of structure and technique that will improve almost anyone’s work, much like the skills that you learn in art books like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and that kind of advancement can be enormously satisfying. When it comes to the last mile between you and your desired result, however, many of the rules start to seem useless. You aren’t dealing with the general principles that have gotten you this far, but with problems that arise on the level of individual words or sentences, each one of which needs to be tackled on its own. There’s no way of knowing whether or not you’ve made the right choice until you’ve looked at them all in a row, and even if something seems wrong, you may not know how to fix it. The comforting shape of the outline, which can be assembled in a reasonably logical fashion, is replaced by the chaos of the text, and the fact that you’ve done good work on this level before is no guarantee that you can do it right now. I’ve learned a lot about writing over the years, but to the extent that I’m not yet the writer that I want to be, it lies almost entirely in that last mile, where the ideal remains tantalizingly out of reach.

As a result, I end up revising endlessly, even a late stage, and although the draft always gets better, it never reaches perfection. After a while, you have to decide that it’s as good as it’s going to get, and then move on to something else—which is why it helps to have a deadline. But you can take comfort in the fact that the last mile affects even the best of us. In a recent New York Times profile of the playwright Tony Kushner, Charles McGrath writes:

What makes Angels in America so complicated to stage is not just Mr. Kushner’s need to supervise everything, but that Perestroika, the second part, is to a certain extent a work in progress and may always be. The first part, Millennium Approaches, was already up and running in the spring of 1991, when, with a deadline looming, Mr. Kushner retreated to a cabin in Northern California and wrote most of Perestroika in a feverish eight-day stint, hardly sleeping and living on junk food. He has been tinkering with it ever since…Even during rehearsal last month he was still cutting, rewriting, restructuring.

If Tony Kushner is still revising Angels in America, it makes me feel a little better about spending my life on that last mile. Or as John McPhee says about knowing when to stop: “What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.”

Revise like you’re running out of time

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Lin-Manuel Miranda's drafts of "My Shot"

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 17, 2016.

It might seem like a stretch, or at least premature, to compare Lin-Manuel Miranda to Shakespeare, but after listening to Hamilton nonstop over the last couple of years, I still can’t put the notion away. What these two writers have in common, aside from a readiness to plunder history as material for drama and a fondness for blatant anachronism, is their density and rapidity. When we try to figure out what sets Shakespeare apart from other playwrights, we’re likely to think of the way his ideas and images succeed each other so quickly that they run the risk of turning into mixed metaphors, and how both characters and scenes can turn on a dime to introduce a new tone or register. Hamilton, at its best, has many of the same qualities—hip-hop is capable of conveying more information per line than just about any other medium, and Miranda exploits it to the fullest. And what really strikes me, after repeated listens, is his ability to move swiftly from one character, subplot, or theme to another, often in the course of a single song. For a musical to accomplish as much in two and a half hours as Hamilton does, it has to nail all the transitions. My favorite example is the whirlwind in the first act that carries us from “Helpless” to “Satisfied” to “Wait For It,” taking us from Hamilton’s courtship of Eliza to Angelica’s unrequited love to checking in with Burr in the space of about fifteen minutes. I’ve listened to that sequence countless times, marveling at how all the pieces fit together, and it never even occurred to me to wonder how it was constructed until I’d internalized it. Which may be the most Shakespearean attribute of all. (Miranda’s knack for delivering information in the form of self-contained set pieces that amount to miniature plays in themselves, like “Blow Us All Away,” has even influenced my approach to my own book.)

But this doesn’t happen by accident. A while back, Manuel tweeted out a picture of his notebook for the incomparable “My Shot,” along with the dry comment: “Songs take time.” Like most musicals, Hamilton was refined and restructured in workshops—many recordings of which are available online—and continued to evolve between its Off-Broadway and Broadway incarnations. In theater, revision has a way of taking place in plain sight: it’s impossible to know the impact of any changes until you’ve seen them in performance, and the feedback you get in real time informs the next iteration. Hamilton was developed under far greater scrutiny than Miranda’s In the Heights, which was the product of five years of unhurried readings and workshops, and its evolution was constrained by what its creator has called “these weirdly visible benchmarks,” including the American Songbook Series at Lincoln Center and a high-profile presentation at Vassar. Still, much of the revision took place in Miranda’s head, a balance between public and private revision that feels Shakespearean in itself. Shakespeare clearly understood the creative utility of rehearsal and collaboration with a specific cast of actors, and he was cheerfully willing to rework a play based on how the audience responded. But we also know, based on surviving works like the unfinished Timon of Athens, that he revised the plays carefully on his own, roughing out large blocks of the action in prose form before going back to transform it into verse. We don’t have any of his manuscripts, but I suspect that they looked a lot like Miranda’s, and that he was ready to rearrange scenes and drop entire sequences to streamline and unify the whole. Like Hamilton, and Miranda, Shakespeare wrote like he was running out of time.

As it happens, I originally got to thinking about all this after reading a description of a very different creative experience, in the form of playwright Glen Berger’s interview with The A.V. Club about the doomed production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. The whole thing is worth checking out, and I’ve long been meaning to read Berger’s book Song of Spider-Man to get the full version. (Berger, incidentally, was replaced as the show’s writer by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who has since gone on to greater fame as the creator of Riverdale.) But this is the detail that stuck in my head the most:

Almost inevitably during previews for a Broadway musical, several songs are cut and several new songs are written. Sometimes, the new songs are the best songs. There’s the famous story of “Comedy Tonight” for A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum being written out of town. There are hundreds of other examples of songs being changed and scenes rearranged.

From our first preview to the day Julie [Taymor] left the show seven months later, not a single song was cut, which is kind of indicative of the rigidity that was setting in for one camp of the creators who felt like, “No, we came up with the perfect show. We just need to find a way to render it competently.”

A lot of things went wrong with Spider-Man, but this inability to revise—which might have allowed the show to address its problems—seems like a fatal flaw. As books like Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat make clear, a musical can undergo drastic transformations between its earliest conception and opening night, and the lack of it here is what made the difference between a troubled production and a debacle.

But it’s also hard to blame Taymor, Berger, or any other individual involved when you consider the conditions under which this musical was produced, which made it hard for any kind of meaningful revision to occur at all. Even in theater, revision works best when it’s essentially private: following any train of thought to its logical conclusion requires the security that only solitude provides. An author or director is less likely to learn from mistakes or test out the alternatives when the process is occurring in plain sight. From the very beginning, the creators of Spider-Man never had a moment of solitary reflection: it was a project that was born in a corporate boardroom and jumped immediately to Broadway. As Berger says:

Our biggest blunder was that we only had one workshop, and then we went into rehearsals for the Broadway run of the show. I’m working on another bound-for-Broadway musical now, and we’ve already had four workshops. Every time you hear, “Oh, we’re going to do another workshop,” the knee-jerk reaction is, “We don’t need any more. We can just go straight into rehearsals,” but we learn some new things every time. They provide you the opportunity to get rid of stuff that doesn’t work, songs that fall flat that you thought were amazing, or totally rewrite scenes. I’m all for workshops now.

It isn’t impossible to revise properly under conditions of extreme scrutiny—Pixar does a pretty good job of it, although this has clearly led to troubling cultural tradeoffs of its own—but it requires a degree of bravery that wasn’t evident here. And I’m curious to see how Miranda handles similar pressure, now that he occupies the position of an artist in residence at Disney, where Spider-Man also resides. Fame can open doors and create possibilities, but real revision can only occur in the sessions of sweet silent thought.

The variety show

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In this week’s issue of The New York Times Style Magazine, Lin-Manuel Miranda interviews Stephen Sondheim, whom he calls “musical theater’s greatest lyricist.” The two men have known each other for a long time, and Miranda shares a memorable anecdote from their friendship:

Sondheim was one of the first people I told about my idea for a piece about Alexander Hamilton, back in 2008…I’d been hired to write Spanish translations for a Broadway revival of West Side Story, and during our first meeting he asked me what I was working on next. I told him “Alexander Hamilton,” and he threw back his head in laughter and clapped his hands. “That is exactly what you should be doing. No one will expect that from you. How fantastic.” That moment alone, the joy of surprising Sondheim, sustained me through many rough writing nights and missed deadlines. I sent him early drafts of songs over the seven-year development of Hamilton, and his email response was always the same. “Variety, variety, variety, Lin. Don’t let up for a second. Surprise us.”

During their interview, Sondheim expands on the concept of “variety” by describing an Off-Broadway play about “the mad queen of Spain” that he once attended with the playwright Peter Shaffer. When Sondheim wondered why he was so bored by the result, despite its nonstop violence, Shaffer explained: “There’s no surprise.” And Sondheim thought to himself: “Put that on your bathroom mirror.”

“The unexpected, the unexpected, that’s what theater is about,” Sondheim concludes to Miranda. “If you had to patent one thing in the theater, it’s surprise.” This is good advice. Yet when you turn to Sondheim’s own books on the craft of lyric writing, Finishing the Hat and Look I Made a Hat, you find that he doesn’t devote much space to the notions of variety or surprise at all, at least not explicitly. In fact, at first glance, the rules that he famously sets forth in the preface to both books seem closer to the opposite:

There are only three principles necessary for a lyric writer, all of them familiar truisms. They were not immediately apparent to me when I started writing, but have come into focus via Oscar Hammerstein’s tutoring, Strunk and White’s huge little book The Elements of Style and my own sixty-some years of practicing the craft. I have not always been skilled or diligent enough to follow them as faithfully as I would like, but they underlie everything I’ve ever written. In no particular order, and to be inscribed in stone: Content Dictates Form, Less Is More, God Is in the Details, all in the service of Clarity, without which nothing else matters.

Obviously, these guidelines can be perfectly consistent with the virtues of variety and surprise—you could even say that clarity, simplicity, and attention to detail are what enable lyricists to engage in variety without confusing the listener. But it’s still worth asking why Sondheim emphasizes one set of principles here and another when advising Miranda in private.

When you look through Sondheim’s two books of lyrics, the only reference to “variety” in the index is to the show business magazine of the same name, but references to these notions are scattered throughout both volumes. Writing of Sweeney Todd in Finishing the Hat, Sondheim says: “Having taken the project on, I hoped that I’d be able to manage the argot by limiting myself to the British colloquialisms [playwright Christopher] Bond had used, mingled with the few I knew. There weren’t enough, however, to allow for variety of image, variety of humor, and, most important, variety of rhyme.” He criticizes the “fervent lack of surprise” in the lyrics of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, and he writes emphatically in his chapter on Gypsy: “Surprise is the lifeblood of the theater, a thought I’ll expand on later.” For his full statement on the subject, however, you have to turn to Look, I Made a Hat. After sharing his anecdote about attending the play with Shaffer, Sondheim continues:

[Shaffer said that] it had many incidents but no surprise. He didn’t mean surprise plot twists—there were plenty of those—but surprises in character and language. Every action, every moment, every sentence foretold the next one. We, the audience, were consciously or unconsciously a step ahead of the play all evening long, and it was a long evening…[Surprise] comes in many flavors: a plot twist, a passage of dialogue, a character revelation, a note in a melody, a harmonic progression, startling moments in staging, lighting, orchestration, unexpected song cues…all the elements of theater. There are surprises to be had everywhere if you want to spring them, and it behooves you to do so. What’s important is that the play be ahead of the audience, not vice versa. Predictability is the enemy.

So if surprise is “the lifeblood of the theater,” why doesn’t Sondheim include it in the preface as one of his central principles? In his next paragraph, he provides an important clue:

The problem with surprise is that you have to lay out a trail for the audience to follow all the while you’re keeping slightly ahead. You don’t want them to be bored, but neither do you want them to be confused, and unfortunately there are many ways to do both. This applies to songs as well as to plays. You can confuse an audience with language by being overly poetic or verbose, or you can bore them by restating something they know, which inserts a little yawn into the middle of the song. It’s a difficult balancing act.

The only way to achieve this balance is through the principles of simplicity and clarity—which is why Sondheim puts them up front, while saving variety for later. If you advise young writers to go for variety and surprise too soon, you end up with Queen Juana of Castile. It’s only after clarity and all of its boring supporting virtues have been internalized that the writer can tackle variety with discipline and skill. (As T.S. Eliot pointed out, it’s better to imitate Dante than Shakespeare: “If you follow Dante without talent, you will at worst be pedestrian and flat; if you follow Shakespeare or Pope without talent, you will make an utter fool of yourself.” And Samuel Johnson, let’s not forget, thought that the great excellence of Hamlet was its “variety.”) Miranda had clearly mastered the fundamentals, so Sondheim advised him to focus on something more advanced. It worked—one of the most thrilling things about Hamilton is its effortless juxtaposition of styles and tones—but only because its author had long since figured out the basics. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Listing to starboard

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It would be nice to claim that the clinky xylophone-like accompaniment of “Little Things” is meant to reflect the brittle hollowness of Joanne and her fellow sophisticates, but in fact it’s the result of where I wrote it: on the Queen Mary during my one transatlantic boat trip. I was en route to deliver the first few songs to Hal Prince, who was shooting a movie in Bavaria, and since ocean liners, like the plays and musicals I had grown up with, were on the way out, I decided to travel in the old glamorous fashion. The purser arranged for me to have a small salon room, complete with piano, so that I could work while I traveled, assuaging my guilt over such luxurious time-wasting. But the ship kept listing to starboard and I unwittingly kept sliding toward it on the piano bench, resulting in a preponderance of treble plinks. Thus is insightful art produced.

Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat

Written by nevalalee

May 20, 2017 at 7:30 am

Revise like you’re running out of time

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Lin-Manuel Miranda's drafts of "My Shot"

It might seem like a stretch, or at least premature, to compare Lin-Manuel Miranda to Shakespeare, but after playing Hamilton nonstop over the last couple of months, I can’t put the notion away. What the two of them have in common, aside from a readiness to plunder history as material for drama and a fondness for blatant anachronism, is their density and rapidity. When we try to figure out what sets Shakespeare apart from other playwrights, we’re likely to think first of the way his ideas and images succeed each other so quickly that they run the risk of turning into mixed metaphors, and how both characters and scenes can turn on a dime to introduce a new tone or register. Hamilton, at its best, has many of the same qualities. Hip-hop is capable of conveying more information per line than just about any other idiom, and Miranda exploits it to the fullest. But what really strikes me, after repeated listens, is his ability to move swiftly from one character, subplot, or theme to another, often in the course of a single song. For a musical to accomplish as much in two and a half hours as Hamilton does, it has to nail all the transitions. My favorite example is the one in the first act that carries us from “Helpless” to “Satisfied” to “Wait For It,” or from Hamilton’s courtship of Eliza to Angelica’s unrequited love to checking in with Burr in the space of about fifteen minutes. I’ve listened to that sequence multiple times, marveling at how all the pieces fit together, and it never even occurred to me to wonder how it was constructed until I’d internalized it. Which may be the most Shakespearean attribute of all.

But this doesn’t happen by accident. A few days ago, Manuel tweeted out a picture of his notebook for the incomparable “My Shot,” along with the dry comment: “Songs take time.” Like most musicals, Hamilton was refined and restructured in workshops—many recordings of which are available online—and continued to evolve between its Off-Broadway and Broadway incarnations. In theater, revision has a way of taking place in plain sight: it’s impossible to know the impact of any changes until you’ve seen them in performance, and the feedback you get in real time naturally informs the next iteration. Hamilton was developed under greater scrutiny than Miranda’s In the Heights, which was the product of five years of readings and workshops, and its evolution was constrained by what its creator has called “these weirdly visible benchmarks,” including the American Songbook Series at Lincoln Center and a high-profile presentation at Vassar. Still, much of the revision took place in Miranda’s head, a balance between public and private revision that feels Shakespearean in itself, if only because Shakespeare was better at it than anybody else. He clearly understood the creative utility of rehearsal and collaboration with a specific cast of actors, and he was cheerfully willing to rework a play based on how the audience responded. But we also know, based on surviving works like the unfinished Timon of Athens, that he revised the plays carefully on his own, roughing out large blocks of the action in prose form before going back to transform it into verse. We don’t have any of his manuscripts, but I suspect that they looked a lot like Miranda’s, and that he was ready to rearrange scenes and drop entire sequences to streamline and unify the whole. Like Hamilton, and Miranda, Shakespeare wrote like he was running out of time.

"Deeply Furious" from Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

As it happens, I got to thinking about all this shortly after reading a description of a very different creative experience, in the form of playwright Glen Berger’s interview with The A.V. Club about the doomed production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. The whole thing is worth checking out, and I’ll probably end up reading Berger’s book Song of Spider-Man to get the full version. But this is the detail that stuck in my head the most:

Almost inevitably during previews for a Broadway musical, several songs are cut and several new songs are written. Sometimes, the new songs are the best songs. There’s the famous story of “Comedy Tonight” for A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum being written out of town. There are hundreds of other examples of songs being changed and scenes rearranged.

From our first preview to the day Julie [Taymor] left the show seven months later, not a single song was cut, which is kind of indicative of the rigidity that was setting in for one camp of the creators who felt like, “No, we came up with the perfect show. We just need to find a way to render it competently.”

A lot of things went wrong with Spider-Man, but this inability to revise—which might have allowed the show to address its other problems—seems like a fatal flaw. As books like Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat make clear, a musical can undergo drastic transformations between its earliest conception and opening night, and the lack of it here is what made the difference between a troubled production and a debacle.

But it’s also hard to blame Taymor, Berger, or any other individual involved when you consider the conditions under which the musical was produced, which made it hard for any kind of meaningful revision to occur at all. Even in theater, revision works best when it’s essentially private: following any train of thought to its logical conclusion requires the security that only solitude provides. A writer or director is less likely to learn from mistakes or test out the alternatives when the process is occurring in plain sight. From the very beginning, the creators of Spider-Man never had a moment of solitary reflection: it was a project that was born in a corporate boardroom and jumped immediately to Broadway. As Berger says:

Our biggest blunder was that we only had one workshop, and then we went into rehearsals for the Broadway run of the show. I’m working on another bound-for-Broadway musical now, and we’ve already had four workshops. Every time you hear, “Oh, we’re going to do another workshop,” the knee-jerk reaction is, “We don’t need any more. We can just go straight into rehearsals,” but we learn some new things every time. They provide you the opportunity to get rid of stuff that doesn’t work, songs that fall flat that you thought were amazing, or totally rewrite scenes. I’m all for workshops now.

It isn’t impossible to revise properly under conditions of extreme scrutiny—Pixar does a pretty good job of it—but it requires a degree of bravery that wasn’t evident here. And I’m curious to see how Miranda handles similar pressure, now that he occupies the position of an artist in residence at Disney, where Spider-Man also resides. Fame opens doors and creates possibilities, but real revision can only occur in the sessions of sweet silent thought.

Note: I’m heading out this afternoon for Kansas City, Missouri, where I’ll be taking part in programming over the next four days at the World Science Fiction Convention. Hope to see some of you there!

Sondheim on rhyme

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Stephen Sondheim

All rhymes, even the farthest afield of the near ones (home/dope), draw attention to the rhymed word; if you don’t want it to be spotlighted, you’d better not rhyme it. A perfect rhyme snaps the word, and with it the thought, vigorously into place, rendering it easily intelligible; a near rhyme blurs it. A word like “together” leads the ear to expect a rhyme like “weather” or “feather.” When the ear hears “forever,” it has to pause a split second to bring the word into focus. Like a note that’s a bit off pitch, a false rhyme doesn’t destroy the meaning, but it weakens it…

Jokes work best with perfect rhymes. Emotional statements are sometimes effective using identities, because the repetition of the sound parallels the intensity of the feeling; it’s a technique particularly favored by Hammerstein (“Younger than springtime am I / Gayer than laughter am I”). I’ve never come across a near rhyme that works better than a perfect rhyme would…

There are reasons not to rhyme, too—not only not to rhyme but to keep the consonant and vowel sounds as different from each other as possible. In fact, songs without rhymes, whose lines end with sounds completely unlike each other, can invigorate the nonrhymed words more than approximate rhymes.

Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat

Written by nevalalee

February 15, 2015 at 9:00 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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