What Can We Steal From Sara Bareilles’s “Gravity”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Gravity,” pop song/music video
Author: The song was written and performed by Sara Bareilles (along with other musicians).  I can’t find the name of the man or woman who directed the video.  Please feel free to tell me who it was.
Date of Work: 2008
Where the Work Can Be Found: The song first appeared on Careful Confessions, Ms. Bareilles’s debut album and was subsequently recorded for her follow-up, Little VoiceYou may also listen to the song and watch the video courtesy the Sara Bareilles VEVO page.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Emphasis

Discussion:
Gosh, what a beautiful song.  “Gravity” opens in a simple manner: only Ms. Bareilles and her piano.  The first line of the lyric introduces the song’s central metaphor: “Something always brings me back to you…”  Remember all that stuff you were told in high school physics when you were wondering how to get a date for the prom?  All matter in the universe exerts a gravitational force on the other matter that depends on its mass.  (Right?)  Personally, I assume that Ms. Bareilles is singing to a significant other, but the song can mean whatever you wish it to mean.  The narrator of the song knows that the lover is bad news, but can’t help but return to him or her, feeling pulled by an inexplicable force.

One reason the song is so great is that the arrangement spotlights Ms. Bareilles’s world-class voice.  Writers of all kinds need to understand their strengths and play to them, just as Ms. Bareilles’s sound engineer knows that he or she needs to boost the level of the boss’s microphone.  Hollywood screenwriters do this a lot; there are writers who are known as “character writers;” these folks will be called in to punch up the characters in a script.  There are writers who get paid very well to add jokes to scripts.  Decide what comes easiest to you and emphasize that facet of your work.

“Gravity” ends with a reprise of the opening of the song, bringing the narrator’s experience full circle.  By doing this, Ms. Bareilles brings symmetry to the piece and to the story she’s describing.  Ending a short story is always difficult.  (Well, it always is for me.)  Maybe what you need to do at a story’s end is to return to its beginning.

The music video for “Gravity” is a very powerful piece of filmmaking.  The whole thing is done in one shot.  The director focuses his or her camera on Ms. Bareilles as she walks through an alley.  Now, this would be a good choice on its own.  Ms. Bareilles is a compelling performer and there’s something about her face that makes you want to watch her.  The real genius takes a few seconds to kick in.  Before long, you realize that Ms. Bareilles has started on Earth and is walking through the Solar System.  The mural behind her looks like a map and a young child zooms an airplane in front of her.  A pickup truck pulls in behind the singer carrying a large inflatable Earth.  Before long, Ms. Bareilles is passing Mars, stars and comets are flying by her (carried by extras).  The director was incredibly inventive in his or her use of objects; an opened fire hydrant provides the rings of Saturn, bicycle taillights paint parallel lines around the singer as she leaves the gravitational pull of the Sun.  Goodness, what a way to make use of the central metaphor of the song!  As the video ends, Ms. Bareilles is as alone as she was in the beginning.  (There’s that symmetry again.)  I’m certainly not an expert with respect to the cost of music videos, but the director found a relatively inexpensive way to pack an emotional wallop; all he or she needed were some flashlights and some flares.  The video also allows the song to work its magic on you.  Instead of distracting the viewer with countless MTV cuts, the video emphasizes the simple and bare emotion in the song.  It can be very easy to get bogged down in all of the “stuff” we put into our work; sometimes it’s best to let our story or our words stand on their own.

What Should We Steal?

  • Play to your strengths and showcase your particular talents.  Ms. Bareilles is wise to put her voice front and center.  What should you emphasize in a piece?  Your facility with language?  Your propensity with plot?
  • Finish your work with symmetry.  Human beings are innately attracted to symmetry; we find these patterns in our lives and are attracted to them when looking for a mate.  Perhaps your poem, short story or song wants to end the way it began.  
  • Allow a simple story to stand on its own.  A well-cooked steak (fine, or a well-cooked eggplant) is a fine meal unto itself.  Maybe your poem or short play doesn’t need a baked potato or a side of creamed corn.

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