Category: Song

Meghan Trainor and the Power of Pastiche

In my opinion, a life is best lived when one enjoys the best of all fields of creative endeavor.  I’m not the world’s biggest fan of rap music, but I enjoy a number of the better rappers.  Country music isn’t my bag, but it’s silly not to enjoy some of the great examples of the genre.  Writers are particularly charged with having a wide frame of creative reference.  Everything under the sun has been done before; no idea that you have will ever represent an example of soil untilled by the human imagination.

So why resist the possibility of influence by great works from the past?

Meghan Trainor certainly doesn’t resist.  Now, I’m not exactly in the target demographic for this music.  I am, however, unable to turn down bright melodies, good songwriting and compelling performances that are presented by a solid and confident singer.  In case you don’t know who she is, you do.  She’s the young woman who co-wrote and performed that “All About That Bass” tune you’ve heard a trillion times.

Ms. Trainor is from Cape Cod (lucky!) and unless I’ve been tricked, she’s a natural-born songwriter whose parents introduced her to all kinds of music.  Ms. Trainor is also very good at channeling these melodies swirling in her head and turning them into something new.  For example, check out Dion’s “Runaround Sue:”

What do you notice?  The song begins with a slow introduction of the song’s conceit sung emotionally over angelic-sounding chords.  Then the band kicks in and the lead singer discusses the power of love, interrupted on occasion by rhythmic scatting of a sort.

Now listen to Ms. Trainor’s “Dear Future Husband,” co-written with her producer, Kevin Kadish:

Hmm…the song begins with a slow introduction of the song’s conceit sung emotionally over angelic-sounding chords.  Then the band kicks in and the lead singer discusses the power of love, interrupted on occasion by rhythmic scatting of a sort.  Ms. Trainor borrows all of the elements of 1960s girl group music, 1950s soul, late-model R&B and even some of the Tin Pan Alley vibe to create something new and fun.  Most of all, the song is helped by the fact that Ms. Trainor can actually sing.  (This is just about my highest compliment!  I’ve always been annoyed when a singer who can’t sing makes it big.)

How about a deep track?  Here’s a song that Ms. Trainor wrote and performed for an independent album called Only 17:

And a live performance of a song called “Walkashame:”

What are some of the musical elements that Ms. Trainor has in her arsenal?

  • Walking bass lines
  • Girl group harmonies
  • Doo wop harmonies that serve as rhythm
  • Classic Broadway ways of finishing phrases (particularly in “Walkashame”)
  • Those great quarter-note piano chords you find in Motown music
  • Hip-hop/rap breaks
  • Classic Motown Holland/Dozier/Holland middle-eights
  • Absolutely solid pop songwriting structure

Ms. Trainor is exceptionally skilled in the art of creating the musical pastiche, blending elements from different styles to create something interesting and new.  What makes pastiche so exciting?

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is so cool because it shows off the abundant talents of everyone in the band.  Freddie Mercury builds from operatic recitative to all-out arena rock and back to grandiose orchestral emotion.

Danger Mouse’s Gray Album somehow manages to make Jay-Z’s rap even more hardcore and the Beatles’ proto-heavy metal more rockin’.

I used musical examples to demonstrate my point, but pastiche occurs in all other media.  Breaking Bad is awesome, right?  I know.  Why wouldn’t it be?  It’s a gangster story mixed up with a father-son story imbued with more than a little bit of the immigrant narrative.  I would contend that Kubrick’s The Shining represents something of a pastiche; it’s a supernatural horror film at heart, but the film is also very much a dark comedy, an addiction narrative and a parenting tutorial.  (I’m kissing about that last one.)

Pastiche is so effective for the same reasons that fusion food is so good.  American pizza is so different from its Italian forebears; could you really do without New York Style or Chicago Style?  When you fold in elements from other genres and styles, you avail yourself of the conventions of the new genre or style.  The Shining would still have been great without the dark humor, but it would have been a very different film without the Lloyd scene.

Kubrick empowered himself to use a number of different creative toolboxes, just as Meghan Trainor puts a bunch of musical ideas into a blender and hits the “liquefy” button.  Perhaps it’s a strange metaphor, but creating a pastiche ensures the work has greater genetic diversity than a single-genre/single-form work.  Aristotle may warn you against mixing tragedy and comedy, but doing so can make the work even more potent.

What are some of your favorite examples of pastiche?  When have you employed this technique in your work?

 

The GWS 10: Borrowing from the Beatles (Part 1)

It was fifty years ago that those four lads from Liverpool took the United States by storm with a blend of rock-and-roll and Tin Pan Alley that made young women swoon and made James Bond beg for earplugs.  (Seriously; Sean Connery’s Bond dissed The Beatles in Goldfinger.)  For the next several years, the Fab Four churned out album after album, playing a large role in redefining pop music.  Alas, it was over in 1970; the band broke up and fans were enjoined to “Let it Be.”

Whenever I think about pop culture issues, I try not to be a stick in the mud.  I am aware that my disdain for the “music” of Nicki Minaj is the same pain felt by parents who heard their children blasting “Love Me Do” from their bedrooms.  Many contemporary critics were annoyed by Frank Sinatra in the same manner that One Direction’s “music” irks me.  Each new generation will have their own clothing and music and language.  I get it.  Creative people, of course, do their best to understand the craft and ideas behind all kinds of human expression, regardless of era.  Our focus, of course, should remain closest on timeless works that define and defy the times in which they were created.

Writers must understand the passion behind Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and they should learn what they can from The Beatles.  Here are just ten lessons in writing craft that John, Paul, George and Ringo have to teach us:

1. Repetition is powerful and allows you to get a big affect out of small changes. – “I Saw Her Standing There” (Lennon/McCartney)

Can you believe that this is the first song that Lennon and McCartney wrote together?  Amazing.  Now, the song flat-out makes you want to move, so you may have missed a cool trick that Paul and John played with the lyrics.  Like many of the Beatles’ early love songs, the rhymes and the concept aren’t very complicated.  The narrator sees a beautiful woman across the dance floor.  Got it.  The rhymes?  “Boom/room.”  “Night/tight.”  “Me/see.”  (Well, I will admit that “seventeen” and “what I mean” make a pretty cool cretic rhyme.)  The chord structure is pretty darn simple: a basic rock I-V with a few IVs thrown in.  None of this is a knock; simple can definitely be awesome.  Besides, don’t we all want a love life that is as easy as “I Saw Her Standing There?”

Importantly, the simplicity of the song allows the few complicated elements to take center stage and to have a much bigger effect.  Don’t you love the playful, insistent bass line all the more because George’s rhythm guitar part is so simple?

Writers will want to take a look at a lyrical move that John and Paul make at the end of each verse.  I believe that I noticed this cool bit myself a long time ago, but I’m a big fan of Alan W. Pollack’s Beatles scholarship, so I’m happy to give the gentleman a shoutout either way.  Go see his site.  It’s awesome.

VERSE 1: How could I dance with another when I saw her standing there?

VERSE 2: She wouldn’t dance with another when I saw her standing there.

VERSE 3: Now I’ll never dance with another since I saw her standing there.

Paul keeps the music chugging along with that exciting bass line and uses the words to add momentum, too.  The changes I’m pointing out create a narrative.  In the first verse, the woman is a stranger to the narrator.  Eventually, he asks her to dance and she begins to develop reciprocal feelings.  In the third verse?  The coupling is formalized; the narrator proclaims his joy that he’s found a mate.  The listener is grabbed because, inspired by these small changes in the context of repetition, he or she subconsciously wants to see what happens to a character who expresses longing.

2.  Experiment by writing in the voice of an author you admire. – “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (Lennon/McCartney)

Isn’t that music video beyond charming?  If you listen to John’s pinched tone and the circuitous nature of the verses, you’ll definitely hear the influence of Bob Dylan.  (Who seems to have introduced the boys to some other things, too.)  Compare “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” to an early Dylan hit that was likely swirling around in John’s head in 1965:

What was one of John’s intentions when composing the song?  Here’s what Paul said in a 1980s Playboy interview:

That was John doing a Dylan–heavily influenced by Bob. If you listen, he’s singing it like Bob.

We each have our own unique voices as writers, but what happens if you play around and pretend to be someone else for a little while?  (In John’s case, you get a hit song.)  Look back at the body of your work to see what kinds of themes and archetypes and even words you usually use.  What would happen if you try ditching some of those crutches?  I’ve done this in my own work.  For reasons that are obvious to anyone who knows me, I tend to write about unrequited love and characters who feel abandoned.  For the past couple years, I’ve tried to play around with other themes and other tones in the same way that John wanted to see what it would be like if he ditched some of the bright tone of his previous songs and tried a chug-chug-chug folk song in 3/4.

If you write romance stories, why not consider writing a hard-boiled crime story to see what your voice sounds like when you’re describing murder instead of love?  (Here are some cool audio renditions of stories from Ellery Queen.)  Say you love Alice Munro, but most of your work is more like the horror output of Stephen King.  What would happen if you try to write your own “Munro” story?

3. Find a writing partner or first reader who complements you well. – “Getting Better” (Lennon/McCartney)

One of my many writing-related regrets is that I never found a writing partner.  Can I do a lot on my own?  Sure.  But I love what a partnership can do and how the whole can be bigger than the sum of its parts.  Lennon and McCartney pushed each other with the friendly competition they shared.  I’m a longtime fan of The State; Tom Lennon and Robert Ben Garant have done some amazing things in collaboration.

An honest and occasionally brutal writing partner or first reader can tell you where you’ve gone wrong and can even contribute to the final product in meaningful ways.  “Getting Better” is a great example as to how the Lennon/McCartney partnership resulted in a better song than would have emerged had Paul been on his own.  It’s too simplistic to say that Paul was the “happy/melodic” one and that John was the “melancholy” one focused on creating an atmosphere and evoking emotion.  In this song, however, you have a great example of how the two men came together.  Here’s what Paul said about the song in that Playboy interview:

PAUL: Wrote that at my house in St. Johns Wood. All I remember is that I said, “It’s getting better all the time,” and John contributed the legendary line “It couldn’t get much worse.” Which I thought was very good. Against the spirit of that song, which was all superoptimistic–then there’s that lovely little sardonic line. Typical John.

In this case, John was keeping Paul’s optimism in check.  Adding “can’t get much worse” adds a layer of complexity that ensures the song possesses more philosophical weight than it might otherwise have.

How do you find a close collaborator?  I have no idea.  Like I said, I’ve never really had a partner in that way.  I guess it all comes down to hanging out with other people who create works you love and developing a mutual relationship with them.  Maybe a little luck, too.

4. Create a modern version of a classic form.  – “For No One” (Lennon/McCartney)

I hope you had a hanky while you were listening to the song.  (Surprisingly, the piece is not performed in D minor, which is, as we all know, the saddest of all chords.)  As Mr. Pollack agrees, “For No One” features a number of attributes of the nineteeth-century lieder that have long been a part of the repertoire of the classical singer.  Here’s an example I know about because of my late and much-beloved German teacher:

“Der Erlkönig” is an art song and art songs are cool because they are often a musical representation of a piece of literature that is composed for the vocal repertory; the point is to show off the voice of the singer.

Here’s another art song from Schubert.  I afflicted a few folks with a terrible rendition of this in high school.  (My much-beloved music teacher did her best; you can’t turn lead to gold.)

I don’t know if this is technically an “art song,” but Igor Keller earned my eternal respect by creating an oratorio out of the court documents that were released in Bill O’Reilly’s sexual harassment case.  (You’ll never look at felafels in the same way…)

The point is that art songs don’t HAVE to be something that we don’t write anymore.  Look what (primarily) McCartney did with “For No One.”  Can’t you see the song being performed by a classical singer in a beautiful recital hall?  Wow…look what Moran Meisels did with the song…

Did you dry your tears again?  Okay, good.  What are some other “forgotten” forms that are still perfectly good?  The epic poem?  The silent film?  The five-act Elizabethan-style play?  It may be the twenty-first century, but there’s no reason you can’t write a good, old-fashioned “ode.”

5. Nail down the fundamentals…then deconstruct the form you just mastered. – “I’ll Follow the Sun” (Lennon/McCartney)

If you look at the Beatles canon, you can tell how quickly Lennon and McCartney reached a level of expertise in songwriting.  “I’ll Follow the Sun” was an early song that Paul wrote primarily on his own.  The gentleman was weaned on Broadway songs and folk songs: pieces that have (or at least had) a well-defined structure.  Compare “I’ll Follow the Sun” to one of George Gershwin’s best.  (Here’s the song…sung by one of the best.)

The song has what is called a “32-bar structure.”  I’ll let Wikipedia tell you some of the music nerd stuff that I don’t know.  The point is that while McCartney goofs around with that traditional structure, the song is clearly in the tradition of those great musical theater songs.  (A tight rhyme scheme, 8-measure verses…)  Once Paul and John had mastered the very basics of creating songs, they were able to create great works that DIDN’T conform to the long-established conventions of popular song:

So short stories, poems, essays and novels resemble songs in the sense that there are structures and conventions that most great works have in common.  Once you research these “rules” and have written good stuff in compliance with the “formula,” you can experiment with much more confidence.  (Just don’t take any psychedelic drugs.  No one wants to imagine that an area rug is going to eat them.)

To be continued in Part Two…

GWS Mini: John Lennon and Omitting Quotation Marks in Dialogue

So I’m working on a The GWS 10 essay about The Beatles.  It’s a ton of fun, primarily because I have no excuse but to listen to a ton of Fab Four songs over and over again.  I’ve come up with an interesting idea that won’t bear the weight of a full essay, but is perfect for a shorter post.

I’m thinking of the 1965 Lennon/McCartney song “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.”  The song was primarily written by John and was a conscious effort to ventriloquize Bob Dylan.  Here’s the charming music video the boys made for the song:

A cool piece and a cool performance, right?  So the song is pretty straightforward.  The narrator laments that his or her relationship is being judged by others.  The narrator must therefore hide his love away and the choice of pronoun in the chorus and title seems to indicate that he is giving you advice based upon his experience.  What is society judging about the relationship?  That’s up to you.  Perhaps this is a gay relationship, perhaps the lovers came together after joint infidelity…you decide.

Check out some of the lyrics in the second verse (punctuation mine; John Lennon won’t answer my calls):

How can I even try? I can never win.

Hearing them, seeing them in the state I’m in.

How could she say to me love will find a way?

Gather ’round, all you clowns.  Let me hear you say…

(chorus)

It seems that many writers of fiction are making the stylistic choice to omit quotation marks in dialogue.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with any stylistic choice, of course; it’s a writer’s job to try and figure out which combinations of letters, words, symbols and white space will communicate the feeling in his or her head.  Now, this is a song, so we can’t really be sure where John would put the quotation marks in the dialogue in Verse 2.  The lines do, however, offer a good example of the risks and rewards of breaking convention.  So consider the snippet of lyric as I’ve typed it out; pretend it’s a poem or a bit of a short story.  What’s the effect of the omitted quotation marks?

Reward – The artist wrote whatever he darn well pleased in the way he intended.

Look, if you want to leave out the quotes, go for it.  It’s your work and you can do anything you like.

Reward – The prose ends up looking a little more like a “wall of text” and seems more stream-of-consciousness.

If a character is supposed to have disconnected thoughts or is trapped in an illogical situation, omitting the quotation marks can communicate some of that feeling to the reader.

Risk – Your reader may be alienated because your dialogue doesn’t look like dialogue.

As the great Lee K. Abbott says, it’s the writer’s job to do all of the work so the reader can have all of the fun.  In general, we don’t want our readers wondering what the heck we’re trying to say.  Instead of being confused about the literal fundamentals of the work, we want them to grapple with our big themes or to empathize with the plights of our characters.

Risk – It may be impossible to distinguish dialogue from narration. 

The end quotation serves an important purpose: it tells the reader when the speaker is done speaking.  Any prose outside of the quotation marks counts as narration and isn’t literally spoken aloud by a character.

Here’s my point.  What are the literal words spoken by the character who is talking to the narrator?  Without the quotation marks, all we have are educated guesses that are born out of meta-level thought that is disconnected to some extent from the song’s actual story.  So which is it?

How could she say to me…

  • “Love will find a way?” – Aw, poor narrator.  Either she’s challenging him or she’s blowing him off.  Sad.
  • “Love will find a way?  Gather ’round, all you clowns.” – Whoa, there are clowns around, too?  Did “she” invite them?  It seems a bit cold to interrupt a discussion that is meaningful to the narrator by inviting clowns in.
  • “Love will find a way?  Gather ’round, all you clowns.  Let me hear you say…” – What do you want the clowns to say?!?!?!
  • “Love will find a way?  Gather ’round, all you clowns.  Let me hear you say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to hide your love away.'” – Okay, now that’s just straight-up cruel.  This guy pours his heart out to a woman and she calls over a bunch of clowns and enjoins them to chant that he shouldn’t have said how he felt.

So what’s the diagnosis in the end?  I guess there isn’t one.  Asking writers not to play with words and how they appear on the page is a fool’s errand.  It seems to me as though leaving out the quotation marks is a tool in the writer’s toolbox; he or she must use it as judiciously as any other.

What do you think?  Leave a comment or discuss the issue on the Great Writers Steal Facebook page.

What Can We Steal From Kayleigh Goldsworthy’s “Where the Summer Goes”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Where the Summer Goes,” song
Author: Lyrics and Music by Kayleigh Goldsworthy (on Twitter @kayleighgolds)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  I am old and don’t do iTunes, but I think you can buy Ms. Goldsworthy’s album Burrower here.  (The song is on the album.)  You can also buy the single of “Where the Summer Goes” here.  You know what?  It’s probably just easier if you go to see one of Ms. Goldsworthy’s gigs and buy the album from her.  The artist was kind enough to put this song on YouTube, as well.  Listen and enjoy:

Bonuses: It’s well within your interest to check out Ms. Goldsworthy’s YouTube page.  You will find a nine-part documentary series about the artist’s life and the recording of Burrower.

Here is a video in which Ms. Goldsworthy performs her song “I Want You Around” (and don’t worry, the sound quality is great):

One of the great joys of being a fan of music is hearing different artists sing some of the same great songs.  Here is a very chill cover of Loretta Lynn’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough”:

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tone

Discussion:
This essay will be a lot of fun, friends!  Not only do I get to celebrate, analyze and share great music, but I get to write about one of my personal favorite musicians!

Several years ago, I was driving on 690 in Syracuse, heading home from my copywriting job, wondering if I’d ever achieve all of my goals in writing and in life.  (I’m still a work in progress.)  I flipped through the radio stations and found the FM signal of my old high school.  I heard a really cool song with a solid structure, great harmonies and a circuitous melody that was somehow also simple and graceful. The song was over far too quickly.  I hoped the DJ would announce the artist and song title–no dice.

Who wrote the song and how could I hear it again?  In those olden days, you had to use Google to figure these things out.  I repeated the lyric over and over, hoping it would stick in my Swiss cheese memory: I can’t sleep tonight and I won’t dream again, And I’m waiting for you to stop acting like them… I can’t sleep tonight and I won’t dream again, And I’m waiting for you to stop acting like them…

I popped a few of the phrases into Google, expecting to see results filled with those terrible lyrics sites.

But I saw nothing.

Identifying the song took several minutes of searching because the awesome song that affected me deeply was from a local band!  And it turned out they went to school with my younger brother!  There’s talent all around, friends, and it’s up to all of us to be good literary citizens.  I saw The Scarlet Ending play a bunch of times and bought their albums and even wrote about them for the Syracuse New Times. The band was fronted by sisters Kayleigh and Kaleena Goldsworthy and were notable for their excellent musicianship and great songwriting.  TSE even performed through the USO, playing music for military servicemembers across the globe.

The band is currently on hiatus, but it’s well worth getting their albums or checking them out on YouTube.  Here’s a beautiful performance of their awesome song “Cities by the Ocean”:

After that celebration of the past, let’s celebrate the present and future.

Kayleigh Goldsworthy’s “Where the Summer Goes” is a song that draws inspiration from and builds upon the tradition of American country and folk music.  You can hear the acoustic guitar blending with the banjo, some simple percussion and the persistent, close harmony; a setup that certainly isn’t out of place at any point in American history.  This is music that offers comfort, whether played on a front porch or in the dive bar where you drown your sorrows. Compare the instrumentation and tone to that of some old-timey bluegrass music:

“Where the Summer Goes,” like so much American folk and country music, has an upbeat and hopeful tone that softens the sadness of the narrator’s situation.  She (or he, who knows?) laments the departure of an unfaithful lover (or at least one who won’t commit).  The narrator reaffirms her love for the man, but tells him that she will seek a better and more fulfilling partner.

What can Ms. Goldsworthy teach us?  Quite a bit, actually.  I wish that I could tell you all kinds of advanced music theory stuff we should steal from the song (sorry, Ms. Jacobe), but writers of poetry and prose would do well to steal the way Ms. Goldworthy has made her sad song happy.  As I’ve said before, the reader should have an emotional impact as a result of the characters and situation you construct.  You can’t expect a reader to be sad just because you are.  No, you have to tease those feelings out…you have to earn them.

Here’s an example of a songwriter who put zero scrim between his own feelings and those he wished to express in the song:

We’re laughing at Adam Sandler’s character when he sings the song.  The character, on the other hand, wants us to feel the same sadness and loss that he feels.  “Where the Summer Goes” actually provides catharsis (a purging of negative emotions) for the listener because the sadness is delivered by a narrator (and performer) who is inviting the audience on a mutual journey, not just shouting “BE SAD FOR ME” for three minutes.

I’m fairly sure that Patsy Cline never said “fucking” on one of her albums.  Where does the word “fucking” appear?  Hey…this means I get a chance to break down the structure of the song.  Whoo hoo!

Lyric Notes
INTRODUCTION Instrumental, banjo line establishes this is a bluegrassy tune.
VERSE 1 “Riding by the river…”
VERSE 2 “So these days I stay awake…”
CHORUS “Two rights; well, they’ll never make a wrong…”
VERSE 3 “Still I’m waiting every day…”
CHORUS “’Cause two rights…”
VOCAL SOLO “Oooooo…” Ms. Goldsworthy sings a new melody over the same chords she used for the chorus; this prevents a little repetition and shows off her voice
VERSE 4 “You say you’d rather be alone…” The accompaniment gets far softer, adding dynamic contrast to the song.  As Ms. Goldsworthy sings “it’s your fucking loss,” everything goes back to forte to pound the sentiment home.
CHORUS “’Cause two rights…”

The songwriter put the word “fucking” in the fourth verse.  Now doesn’t that make sense?  Think of it this way: remind yourself of an ex who really mistreated you and hurt your feelings.  You’re not too angry right now.  Let those memories percolate for a few minutes.  Oh yeah, she broke up with you and then wore a rainbow miniskirt to show everyone else the legs you never got to see.  That’s right; he told you that he tucked your sister into bed, but failed to mention that he was in the bed with her.  See?  Now you’re angry.  Now you’re apt to use, as George Carlin put it, “heavy” words.  The judicious use of the “naughty” words may turn off some listeners, but that’s their problem.  The word “fucking” in this song is a magic incantation that undoes the narrator’s emotional dependence on the bad guy.  We hear the chorus for the third time and the narrator finally believes it and has finally broken the spell.

As I said, one thing I love about Ms. Goldsworthy’s songwriting is the way she can create melodies that are both languorous and exciting at the same time.  Upon first listen, you’re not really sure where the line is going…but when it’s over, the line seems perfect and natural.  Unfortunately, I can’t write much about the musical aspect of the music, but I can unpack the structure of the lyric.  Check out the first verse as posted by Ms. Goldsworthy:

Riding by the river, I don’t know where the summer goes
Or why you stayed the night and then you left me all alone
Still, I couldn’t stay away even though you wouldn’t change
Up your mind or your story in the morning

So these days I stay awake through the twilight every day
Take another hit of something just to ease the pain away
But I couldn’t bear to breathe in the dust from when you leave
so I cried and told my heart to just keep beating

Uh oh.  I want to get under the hood of the meter Ms. Goldsworthy uses in the verse.  Let’s look at another table:

LYRIC

METER

Riding by the river, don’t know where the summer goes trochaic septameter
Or why you stayed the night and then you left me all alone trochaic septameter
Still, I couldn’t stay away (ignore “still) two iambs
even pyrrhus
though you wouldn’t change two trochees
Up your mind or your story in the morning iambic pentameter

Maybe all of the songwriter’s verses fit together so beautifully because she’s always changing the rhythm of the lines.  Perhaps the freshness and novelty is what I admired in that song so many years ago.  I love that she alternates between trochees (STRESSED/unstressed) and iambs (unstressed/STRESSED).  You’ll also notice that the song comes together very well because of the complicated rhyme scheme; there’s end rhyme and internal rhyme and the lines of each verse end in “-ing.”  (Not technically a rhyme, but doing so makes the song come together in a satisfying fashion.)

What Should We Steal?

  • Adjust your tone so as not to ENFORCE an emotional state on your reader.  Show your reader what they need in order to feel what you want them to feel, don’t just tell them how they should respond to your work.
  • Build up to the big emotions, the big actions and the “heavy” words.  “Naughty” words are like spice in a pot of chili.  They can make a work more powerful and delicious or they can just burn your mouth.
  • Switch up your sentences, rhythms and meter to keep your audience listening and guessing.  Your reader wants to wonder, but he or she also wants to know that you have a plan in mind once the meandering is done.

GWS Mini: Rhyming “Orange” with Eminem

I am not sure how many of my kind readers are fans of rap.  I’m not exactly the world’s biggest fan of rap, either, but you really can’t dispute that great rappers (Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, Snoop…Lion?, Eminem) do an awful lot of interesting things with words and meter.  It’s also important to note that there’s no inherently bad medium.  There are good comic books, good movies, good novels, good rap, good country music…it’s sad when someone dismisses a whole genre.  (Except for dubstep.  There’s no good dubstep.)  I plan on writing a proper essay on what we can steal from an Eminem song, but here’s an amuse bouche.

Years ago, Eminem did an interview for a 60 Minutes profile.  During the course of the conversation, this happens:

I love that Eminem gets visibly annoyed by people who say that there are no words that rhyme with orange.  He’s passionate about language and wants other people to understand the beautiful opportunities for expression that are afforded us by our common tongue. 

I’m not sure if Eminem has taken any classes in the field of linguistics, but he’s having a lot of fun with language and thinking of words and phonemes in a number of fun ways:

“I put my orange four-inch door hinge in storage and ate porridge with George.”

Eminem, like Emily Dickinson and Sappho and Denise Duhamel, employs off-rhyme and enjambment and internal rhyme to keep his work interesting.  Who better than a rapper to use as an example of how to manipulate words?  That’s all they do, right?  You may or may not be a fan of the books, but James Patterson and his co-writers are experts in creating suspense.  If you’re writing a story about white people almost kissing, you’ll do well to study the works of Nicholas Sparks, right?

whitepeoplealmostkissing

But seriously, it’s within our best interest to have an appreciation for all genres so we can steal their strengths and avoid their weaknesses. 

So even if you don’t like Eminem’s music or the violence depicted within, try to open your mind a little bit to appreciate the elements of craft at which he excels.

What Can We Steal From Barenaked Ladies’s “Odds Are”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “Odds Are,” song
Author: Performed by Barenaked Ladies.  Song composed by Ed Robertson and Kevin Griffin
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The song first appeared on the album Grinning Streak.  (An awesome summer spin.)  You can purchase the album on iTunes if you do that whole thing.  Buy the album or check out tour dates at BNL’s official site.  Here are a couple seemingly BNL-sanctioned ways to hear the song on YouTube.  Here is the studio version, posted on the BNL YouTube channel:

Here is a live performance on Breakfast Television, a Canadian morning program.  They have their requisite energy, even though I’m guessing the show airs a little early in rock star time:

Bonuses: Where to start?  All of the members of the band are fun and clever men, but here is Ed doing an interview in an elevator:

It started out as a favor to Chris Hadfield, apparently, but here is BNL rocking out with an astronaut who was on the International Space Station.  The future is NOW:

As will soon be apparent, I’m a long-time fan of the band.  Here is a “Bathroom Sessions” version of one of my favorite BNL songs, “Some Fantastic:”

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Textual Tension

Discussion:
Well, BNL doesn’t CC: me on any marketing e-mails, so I can’t be sure, but it seems as though “Odds Are” is the second single from their new album, Grinning Streak.  (They seem to be playing it in their promotional appearances.)  The structure of the song is solid (of course) and the acoustic guitar/vocal core of the song is augmented by the kind of sonic sweetening that great musicians can do.  It’s not a Phil Spector “Wall of Sound,” but the verses are accompanied by handclaps and the chorus is backed by the theremin-esque wail of a synthesizer wail.  (The work of Kevin Hearn?)  Tyler Stewart’s drums are solid and keep the listener chugging along and Jim Creeggan’s bass line is, as usual, melodic and interesting without calling too much attention to itself.  The lyric is pure BNL/Ed Robertson; it’s straightforward and complicated at the same time.  “Look,” Mr. Robertson seems to sing.  “You could indeed be struck by lightning or hit by a train if you try to enjoy your life.  The odds of these misfortunes, however, are so small that you may as well try to be happy.”  Here is a cool behind-the-scenes video in which Mr. Robertson says as much:

Where are the complications in the song?  Mr. Robertson employs a classic lyrical form.  I’m sure real songwriters have a name for it, but I call it “internal rhyme and release.”  Here’s an example with a bit of a rhyme scheme noted:

Struck by lightning,                                                                A

Sounds pretty frightening,                                                      A

But you know the chances are so small.                                 B

Stuck by a bee sting,                                                               C

Nothing by a “B” thing,                                                          C

Better chance you’re gonna bite it at the mall.                       B

The A and C rhymes come so close together, creating some “tension” in the listener.  The abrupt syllables are diffused by the very open vowel sound of the B rhyme.  You’ll also note that the A and C rhymes contain two syllables, while the C rhyme only consists of one.  This is what writers of all kinds do.  They create tension and release it through the use of words and images and situations.  (I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to get struck by lightning or stung by a bee.)

Let’s examine the tone in the lyric:

Hit by the A-Train,

Crashed in an airplane;

I wouldn’t recommend either one.

Killed by a great white

Or a meteorite;

I guess there ain’t no way to go that’s fun.

But somewhere in the world someone is gonna fall in love by the end of this song…

We all agree that being struck by lightning and shark attacks are serious problems, right?  We certainly wouldn’t make fun of a family member who experienced such a thing.  But they are extremes and extremes are fun.  Mr. Robertson injects more “fun” into the lyric by twisting “meteorite” slightly to rhyme with “great white.”  Further, in case you had forgotten, Mr. Robertson did indeed crash his plane a few years ago.  By including such a personal detail, Mr. Robertson emphasizes the theme of the piece.  If someone who has experienced a plane crash can get over the accident, you, dear listener, should be able to take the risk of being shot down by a potential love interest or something.  Mr. Robertson (through his narrator) takes the same tone you might take with a child who is scared of a monster.  Evoking an extreme specter takes the power away from the smaller ones.

When is BNL releasing the album?  Summer.  When are they going to be playing this song every night on their tour?  Summer.  What a perfect time for an upbeat song such as “Odds Are.”  Short story writers and poets aren’t exactly like rock bands.  We do, however, have albums (short story/poem collections) and we do release singles (short stories and poems) and we do give interviews and try to promote our work.  If you are a writer who tries to promote him or herself online, think about what you can do to release your own “singles.”  Me?  Occasionally, I’ll write a GWS essay about something that is kinda topical in the hopes that others will be interested because of the work being in the news.  On these lazy summer days, I will probably start posting some playlists of songs that help you actually write when you’re staring out the window into the sunny beautifulness.  Think creatively to release your own “singles.”

One final point: I made my longtime BNL fandom clear in my post about Steven Page’s “Indecision” and briefly discussed what I like about the Page/Robertson catalog.  Songwriting is a little bit more collaborative a process than is writing a novel.  Mr. Robertson collaborated with his bandmates to craft the final version of the song.  The other three men in the band are great musicians and must have added to the work a great deal.  The song was co-written with Kevin Griffin, the lead singer of Better Than Ezra.  You remember them.  Their big hit was “Good,” but I prefer “Rosealia.”

Mr. Robertson has written with Jason Plumb, too.  Here’s their AWESOME song, “Satellite.”

Why mention all of this?  Maybe writing short stories and poems and novels and creative nonfiction doesn’t have to be a solitary process.  Yes, people already do collaborate on prose, but maybe we should all make more of an effort to be like  songwriters, to lock ourselves in a room with a writer we respect and see what ends up on the page?

What Should We Steal?

  • Create tension in your work and release it at the proper time.  We pay attention to conflict and things that jar us, right?  And we feel good when someone tells us that everything will be okay.  (Sometimes literally.)
  • Evoke extremes to demonstrate more mundane ideas.  Yes, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is about aliens making contact with humans.  That’s not likely to happen in real life, but this extreme can help a person understand how to deal with in-laws.  You will never, ever find yourself in the dying Apollo 13 command module.  Reading about the mission (or watching the Ron Howard movie) can help you figure out your own much more mundane problems.
  • Release “singles” to show people what you are about and to gain attention for your whole body of work.  Now that you’ve heard “Odds Are,” don’t you want to hear the whole album?
  • Sit down with another writer and pound out a short short or a poem.  Who knows what will happen?

What Can We Steal from Mike McKay’s “Imaginary Stop Signs”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Imaginary Stop Signs,” pop song
Author: Lyrics and Music by Mike McKay (on Twitter @MikeMcKayBand)
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The song appears on the Mike McKay Band’s 2013 EP Fortress.  You can also view the official video here:

Bonuses:  Here’s a cool article about Mr. McKay from the Syracuse New Times.  Aw, guess what Mr. McKay did for Valentine’s Day?  He distributed Love-o-Grams!

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Hooks

Discussion:
You know, you’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs.  I look around me and I see it isn’t so.  In fact, some people want to fill the world with silly love songs. And what’s wrong with that?  I’d like to know.  So here I go:

“Imaginary Stop Signs” is a sentimental ballad in which the first-person narrator is singing to the person he (in this case) loves.  The song begins with an arpeggiated guitar and voice alone.  The second time we hear the chorus, Mr. McKay layers in a harmony vocal.  During the bridge, there is a multiple-part harmony accompanying him; this set of additional voices accompanies Mr. McKay through the rest of the song.  And what is Mr. McKay singing about?  Well, it’s a relatively simple love story that isn’t cynical or dark in the least.  (I have trouble relating.  Ha ha, it occurs to me that had I wrote the song, the narrator would be singing it to a stranger or a stuffed animal or something equally strange.)  He promises to care for the woman who loves so long as she reciprocates the treatment.

From time to time, I mention “hooks.”  I’ve stolen this concept from pop music because it completely relates to all other kinds of writing.  A hook is a little riff or a powerful lyric or particularly visceral image…something that hooks the listener.  They’re something “shiny” that attracts and/or holds an audience. I’m not going to say that Cher Lloyd’s song “Want U Back” is the most awesomest song ever, but it’s hooky as heck.  Every four measures, Ms. Lloyd adds a “frustrated grunt” to the track.  You can’t help but listen to the song because that darn… “frustrated grunt” has captured your attention.

Motown songwriters were (and are) masters of hooks.  Check out the Jackson 5’s “ABC:”

The lyrics are a hook.  (A-B-C, 1-2-3, do-re-mi the focus on childhood school stuff in comparison with love.)  That crazy awesome repeated fuzzy guitar riff keeps you listening.  That three-chord piano riff.  That repeated bass note James Jamerson plays during the bridge.

Here’s where I prove how hip and current I am.  Danger Mouse took The Beatles’ White Album and mixed it up with Jay-Z’s Black Album.  Check it, yo:

What do you think are the hooks?  The elements are taken from “Helter Skelter.”  There’s the descending guitar riff.  That fat bass beat is totally compelling when it’s repeated (and boosted) during the verses.  The screaming guitars that sound like howling voices.  (Or the spaceships from Star Wars as they pass you.)

How does this apply to people who don’t want to write songs?  A nonfiction writer can have a great hook for their memoir if they grew up in a cult and were held in a Turkish prison for twenty years after smuggling drugs.  See how shiny those concepts are?  I want to know what it’s like to grow up in a cult!  I want to know how it felt when the person smuggled drugs!  (The abject terror, of course, smuggling is bad, mmmkay?)  What was it like to be in a Turkish prison?

Mr. McKay has packed “Imaginary Stop Signs” with a few hooks.  First of all, that title.  I didn’t hear it in the first couple verses and I was hooked by wondering when it was going to appear.  Finally, Mr. McKay sings: “And you seem to stop the time/ When you make me stop to kiss you at imaginary stop signs.”  It’s an abstract mental image; when we are in our cars at a stop light, we’re in our own little world, even though we’re in public.  Mr. McKay is singing about a relationship in which reality can be whatever the couple wants it to be.  There’s a hook.

Mr. McKay uses a capo on the eighth fret of his guitar.  (I think it’s the eighth.  I’m getting old and so are my eyes.)  When he strums, the guitar sounds a little like a mandolin, a slightly exotic instrument whose sound sets the song apart a little.  You’re also subliminally reminded of Hawaii and beautiful places.  (Appropriate for lovers, no?)

The lyrics primarily consist of rhyming couplets.

And I’ll wake you every morning/ Take pleasure in the little things in a life that can get boring.

And I’ll love you every day/ And we can talk about how neither of us have ever felt this way.

The couplets create a sense of anticipation…what will be the rhyme?  (Think about a TV show like Desperate Housewives.  Every time someone new moved in, you knew they were in trouble.  You just didn’t know what would happen.)  You’ll also notice that the first lines of each couplet are simpler than the second; this structure requires him to change up the rhythm in a manner that grabs us.

Mr. McKay’s song builds in a very traditional way.  The song begins with just him and a guitar and other voices join in and the volume and passion has increased.  This makes sense because every piece of writing consists of the many elements the writer introduces.  Shouldn’t these increase in intensity as they interact throughout the piece?  The climax, after all, is where you begin paying off the hints you’ve dropped throughout a work.  Think of Beethoven’s Ninth.  The gentleman spent an hour introducing melodies, harmonies, instrumentation?  The end of the symphony is a natural place for everyone to sing and play at high volume and with maximum passion.

And the end of a pop song like Mr. McKay’s is the perfect place to take some of the emphasis off of wordplay, allowing him to simply harmonize his most important point for the young lady he has in mind: “I’m yours.”

What Should We Steal?

  • Hook your reader like one of those evil genius songwriters.  Once you’ve won over your audience, you can do anything you like with them.  A novel or a short story can be just as much of a “shiny thing” as a Kelly Clarkson song.
  • Establish a structure that creates natural suspense.  Rhyming couplets encourage your reader to wonder what will come next.  Creating a TV show set in a neighborhood rife with murder and duplicity ensures that your audience will suspect murder and duplicity at every turn.
  • Increase the amperage on each element of your piece as it crescendos to its endingA little mystery or confusion can be good for a reader…but only a little bit.  Don’t sacrifice the reader’s understanding of the piece as a whole.

 

What Can We Steal From Steven Page’s “Indecision”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Indecision,” pop song
Author: Stephen Duffy and Steven Page (On Twitter: @stevenpage)
Date of Work: 2010
Where the Work Can Be Found: The song is included on Mr. Page’s album Page One.  You may also view the song’s official video below.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Poetic Meter

Discussion:
The narrator of “Indecision” is singing to a lover (or prospective lover).  The narrator could easily be a woman, but I will use the male pronoun for simplicity’s sake.  He knows that he is indecisive—hence the title—and understands the negative emotional impact he has on the person he loves.  His inability to make a firm choice could, at some point, lead him to leave.  On the other hand, his inability to commit also prevents him from leaving.  The lyrics are set to a good old-fashioned upbeat rock tune; the narrator is trying to put a favorable spin on the situation that he knows is hurting the person he loves.  I can certainly relate; you put on a bright smile as you tell a sad story so as not to push people away.  The music contains about a zillion hooks and the chorus is straight-on rock.  The verses keep your attention by employing a jazzy, Latin, syncopated feel.

Mr. Page is right up there as one of the singers/songwriters who meant a ton to me during my formative years.  Mr. Page, of course, was the co-lead singer of Barenaked Ladies and wrote a bunch of all-time classic songs during his time in the band.  I love the material he produced with Ed Robertson (another stellar songwriter) and I always felt they had a fascinating dynamic.  Lennon and McCartney had different artistic ideas and outlooks on the world that combined to make great music even greater. Mr. Page and Mr. Robertson are both awesome, just in different and complementary ways.

You’ll note, however, that this song was written with Stephen Duffy of The Lilac Time.  Mr. Duffy joined Mr. Page to write some of my favorite Barenaked Ladies songs.  Can you believe this set list:  “Jane,” “Everything Old is New Again,” “The Wrong Man Was Convicted,” “Alternative Girlfriend,” “I Live With it Everyday” and “Call and Answer”?  (And I can’t help but mention The Vanity Project, a whole album that Mr. Page wrote with Mr. Duffy.)

Look at the lyrics in the first verse:

I’ve always been a creature of habit

Put another way, I’m addicted to you

I’m predisposed to habit

Happiest when I don’t know what to do

If you read them like poetry (which they are, of course), you’ll notice that Mr. Page plays with the meter of the lines.  To read the poem aloud properly, you might have to mark it up a little to find the way the words should sound.  This is a good thing!  Mr. Page keeps the verses interesting by keeping you on your toes.  When you write an Elizabethan sonnet, you’re somewhat restricted with respect to meter because you must stick to iambic pentameter.  Mr. Page sings to a Latin beat that keeps you wondering how he’s going to fit in all of the words and the lines’ end rhymes.

Pretend you don’t understand English.  What would you know about “Indecision” if you happened to hear it?  You would think that it was a fun toe-tapper.  As Mr. Page does so often, he gives the song a dark side that adds complexity.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with writing a perfectly happy straight-forward rocker or poem or short story.  (Hmm…I’m thinking Warrant’s “Cherry Pie.” There isn’t a great deal of depth to that song.)  Mr. Page’s work sticks with you because there is always more emotion beneath the surface.  Listening to “Indecision” leads to a number of questions:

Will the narrator ever get his act together?

Will the lover tire of him and leave?

If he’s so smart, why can’t he help himself?

How did his parents affect his current mental state?

Listening to “Cherry Pie” leads to only one question:

My goodness…can you imagine what it was like to be a member of Warrant in the 1980s?

What Should We Steal?

  • Syncopate your lines, just as a songwriter syncopates his or her music.  When the audience can’t predict where the beat of your sentences will go, they will be more likely to lean forward and listen/read more closely.
  • Bury some pathos underneath the surface of your work.  Humans are not simple and neither are their emotions.  Be sure to explore all of the facets of your characters and their situations.

Bonus: You really have to see this amazing vocal performance.  Mr. Page sings the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah” at the funeral service for Canadian politician Jack Layton.  Absolutely haunting:

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.

What Can We Steal From “Baby Got Back”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Baby Got Back,” pop song
Author: Music by Jonathan Coulton, Lyrics by Anthony Ray (better known a Sir Mix-a-Lot)
Date of Work: The original version of the song was released in 1992 and Coulton’s cover dates to 2005.
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The original was originally released on Sir Mix-A-Lot’s hit album Mack Daddy.  Coulton’s reimagining of the song was originally released on his album Thing-a-Week One.  You can purchase the song from Amazon here.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Appropriation

Discussion:
All creative people steal.  We just do.  The point is that we must steal in the proper way while respecting the rights of other artists.  I suppose the question that you must ask yourself when you’re stealing is the following:

AM I ACTUALLY BEING CREATIVE OR AM I JUST CUT-AND-PASTING?

Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the all-time great composers, wrote this “Minuet in G Major.”  Check out the melody:

“A Lover’s Concerto” was written by Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell and was first recorded by The Toys in 1965.  Compare the melody of the Bach to that of “Concerto.”

They’re practically the same, aren’t they?  Why shouldn’t we be angry at Linzer and Randell?

  1. Bach had been dead for two hundred years when they stole his work.
  2. Public domain laws allow you to do whatever you like with old creative work because they are considered the property of the people, of American culture.
  3. Linzer and Randell completely transformed a simple (but beautiful) piano/harpsichord composition into a full-blown pop song.  They took the opening melody of the minuet and added lyrics and did a whole lot of creative work.

Okay, let’s look at another case of theft.

In 1992, Sir Mix-a-Lot got everyone bumping with his ode to behinds, “Baby Got Back.”  The song can be heard everywhere, from dance clubs to junior high school dances.  Go ahead.  Listen to the original and feel free to dance as though no one is watching.

Did Sir Mix-a-Lot know he would change the world with his song?  No.  Fourteen years later, independent musician Jonathan Coulton decided he wanted to do a cover of “Baby Got Back.”  He paid Sir Mix-a-Lot for a license to re-record his song.  Why?  Because Sir Mix-a-Lot worked really hard to write “Baby Got Back.”  Coulton didn’t want to claim someone else’s creative work as his own.   Further, Coulton credited Sir Mix-a-Lot for his lyrics each time the song has been released.

Here is Mr. Coulton’s “Baby Got Back,” released on a Creative Commons license.  (Well, I’m not a lawyer, but I believe it means that Mr. Coulton is not mad at you if you share the music with others as long as you don’t CHARGE THEM MONEY or FAIL TO CREDIT THE SONG TO HIM.)

What are the differences between Coulton’s “Baby Got Back” and Sir Mix-a-Lot’s?

  1. The choral opening: “L.A. face with the Oakland booty.”
  2. The banjo arpeggio under the verses.
  3. The entirely new melody for the lyrics
  4. An interpolation of a new lyric: “Johnny C’s in trouble.”
  5. The creation of an entirely new choral arrangement for the bridge
  6. The use of a duck quack to replace the word “fuck.”

Okay, now listen to the version of “Baby Got Back” that was released by Twentieth Century Fox as part of its television show Glee.  (A program dedicated to glorifying the beauty of creativity and to pointing out the great emotional cost of bullying.)

Yeah, so what did you hear?  It’s the same song, isn’t it?  In the weeks after the Glee version was released, Twentieth Century Fox didn’t credit or pay Coulton for his work.  Is this bad stealing?  I would say so.  Either they used his actual instrumental track or they recreated it PERFECTLY.  The only creative work that Glee did was cue up the karaoke version of Coulton’s song and have the kids sing (into Autotune).  Whether or not you like any version of the song, it’s clear that Sir Mix-a-Lot and Mr. Coulton both put a lot of creative energy into the music they created.  Sir Mix-a-Lot created the world’s most popular tribute to the female derriere and Mr. Coulton completely reimagined the song.  Glee opened up a mic, clicked “record” and collected tons of money.

In case you’re not convinced, here’s a comparison between the two.  The Coulton version comes out of one speaker and the Glee version comes out of the other.

What Should We Steal?

  • Give credit where credit is due.  We all steal, so we shouldn’t be embarrassed about acknowledging it.  If you steal a poem format from another writer (but you honestly wrote the poem), maybe you will precede your poem with “After Liz Lemon.”  (Or whatever the writer’s name is.)
  • Understand the fair use doctrine.  United States Copyright Law allows you to take different amounts of different works at different times.  I, for example, feel perfectly comfortable quoting a paragraph of a short story.  Why?  Because I’m “stealing” a very small piece of a work in the interest of scholarly criticism.  The law is on my side.  The law would NOT be on my side if I erased the first line of a friend’s poem and I made a new one and slapped my name atop the page.