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?
Meghan Trainor, Pastiche, Queen, The Beatles, The Shining
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…
Ella Fitzgerald, Ellery Queen, German, The Beatles, The GWS 10
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…
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.
1965, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Quotation Marks, The Beatles, You've Got to Hide Your Love Away
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
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:
2010, Poetic Meter, Stephen Page, The Beatles