U2’s “Miss Sarajevo” and Good Pop Lyrics

April 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

I had a writing teacher who mentioned in class once how nobody pays attention to the lyrics in a pop song. But I don’t think he was being derisive. The music is the fun part of a pop song, and the lyrics have no hope of getting primary attention, so they’re just there to not get in the way or, at best, fit the feel and the mood of the song.

Let’s assume I’m right about that. Is there a way to do that well? Is there, in other words, such a thing as good pop lyrics?

I’d say yes, but it’s extremely rare. If nobody’s paying attention to your lyrics, why bother trying to make them blend in well? The incentive for a songwriter is strictly risk aversion: if you write bad lyrics, people will notice and it will mar the song.

Even in, let’s say, Beatles songs, the success of the lyrics is pretty much musical, and the words don’t hold up in themselves. They rhyme, carry the rhythm and melody, etc., but no one bothers holding up “I read the news today, Oh boy / About a lucky man who made the grade” as anything more than the right sounds at the right time. (You could argue the whole song is about a mood of modern disorientation and chaos, into which these lyrics fit, but that’s pretty easy to say, isn’t it? The thematic connection, if it’s there, is vague and general.)

So to be clear, I’m talking about pop lyrics that succeed as words. The best example I know of this is “Miss Sarajevo”, the big hit of U2’s one-album side project Passengers. The song is about a beauty pageant held in war-torn Sarajevo. If you haven’t heard it (good music, too!), here you go:

The lyrics are all one- or two-line plays on the frivolity of the whole thing, images of getting ready and prettying oneself up that are perfectly fluffy:

Is there a time for kohl and lipstick
A time for curling hair
Is there a time for high street shopping
To find the right dress to wear

What’s great about these lyrics is that rather than trying to capture a narrative of or commentary on the pageant, they go straight to the heart of the matter: the lovely ridiculousness of it all. Each line is really a rhetorical question: “Is there a time for X?” And via this repetition the images gather presence and build into a whole from their individual frivolity. It’s like a thematic refrain shored up by individual variations that are all over the place. (The lyrics mention “duck and cover”, the boy band “East 17”, “tying ribbons”, etc. etc.)

This is, structurally, really just the perfect way of capturing the song’s theme, of diving deep into the absurd implications of the pageant and those implications’ richness. These lyrics locate the heart of the beauty of the whole thing.

(Additionally, the lyrics and their cadence fit the music — the swirling mood and easy pace, the easy rise and fall. The gentleness of the music is another meaningful frivolity.)

Opera’s lyrics are ridiculous too, suggesting the whole notion of lyrics-as-poetry is kind of silly. Insofar as lyrics are rigorously poetic, they’re probably going to sound absurd when set in music. But the feel of a piece of music and the feel of its lyrics can unite harmoniously. More than anything else, I think it takes consummate taste to pull it off.

Bad Similes: Empty As An Only Child’s Playroom

April 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

I feel like there’s a certain trend toward vagueness in contemporary fiction that’s demonstrated by the use of simile. One thing is compared literal-mindedly to another thing to bring some loft or levity to the sentence, but the simile doesn’t add much except abstract fanciness. Similes used this way are really metaphors for the author’s furrowed brow.

I don’t have a rigorous data set on this, so I’ll give a few examples and you can decide for yourself whether their manner is familiar to you. These are all from books in the last ten or twenty years or so. (I don’t like picking on authors, but you have to talk about real writing to be really instructive.)

Here’s one:

Mildew permeated the wall-to-wall carpeting…Stepping into a corridor was like opening a refrigerator kept shut for too long.

The smell of mildew leads to the refrigerator comparison. Yes, the smells would be comparable, wouldn’t they? The same in fact. The exact same. So what does the refrigerator comparison add? It adds words to the word count, and it adds indirection to the style, but how does it illuminate the smell or its effect on the story? I bet the corridor isn’t even cold like a refrigerator.

Here’s another:

He extended his right hand toward the glass. Another hand, the mirror-image of his own, reached out to meet it, as if to pull him through the ripple of fingerprints into a looking-glass world.

Here the simile is in the “as if…” form. What’s the point of conjuring a looking-glass world in this gesture? Maybe this is an introduction to a deep theme of the book about reflective worlds and/or alter egos and the subtle impression that a bizarro world lurks beside this one. But that’s a long shot. In the context of this passage, the looming looking-glass world doesn’t fit, and seems like an overreach, a highfalutin attempt at mood.

Also, a hand simply reaching toward a glass pane isn’t in a pulling position! The fingertips would be spread to rest, not to clutch. Fingers ready to pull might be spread, but tensed as well. The comparison image does not compute.

Here’s a third, from a more popular book, because everybody does it, popular or not:

The bathroom is tiny. I feel like Alice in Wonderland, grown huge and having to stick my arm out the window just so I can turn around.

The room is small, the narrator feels huge, so she compares herself to Alice in Wonderland. The stuff about sticking her arm through the window doesn’t meaningfully pertain to her actual physical situation (is there even a window in the bathroom?), so it’s an empty extension of the description. To go out on a limb, there’s a whiff of name-dropping, too, in going so far as calling out Alice in Wonderland for the simple feeling of being cramped.

I said I suspect this is a contemporary trend because the abuse of simile is of a piece with the general pseudoliterary, pseudopoetic style of MFA writing, where nice, pretty phrases aromatize a bit of storytelling like so much prose Febreze. (Did you know it’s not “Febreeze” like “breeze”??)

This style of writing is, in a word, decadent. It’s a prettified insubstantial groping for artistry. We are better than this! All you have to do when faced with a rhetorical device, say a simile, is to ask yourself what the artifice involves, and what it achieves. In these cases, the artifice achieves nothing. If you just push your imagination a little further than it’s used to, if you just don’t take an author’s exertions at face value but strive to understand how they work, then the differences between good and bad writing, and more importantly the real joys of the former, reveal themselves.

Here’s a good example, from a little older but still contemporary piece:

With the straps [of her bathing suit] pushed off, there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her, this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light. I mean, it was more than pretty.

The simile, a “dented sheet of metal”, is deliberately crude in accordance with the narrator’s voice. But a dented sheet of metal is an elegant way of capturing an almost-plane whose angles and crooks catch the light differently at different places and reveal details here and there. The dented sheet of metal, surprisingly, is the basis of the narrator’s ogling and attentiveness at the same time. Very nice!

There may be a lesson here that, generally, a simile says more about its imaginer than about the object of its comparison, so maybe similes are more apt for first-person descriptions. But let’s not go making rules, because rules are anathema to creativity.

The Real Raymond Carver

April 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Minimalism minimalism minimalism minimalism.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of our systems, I wanted to take one moment to really talk about Raymond Carver’s style. The title above is totally self-indulgent of me, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the Carver of lore and the Carver of Carver’s writing are two different entities.

Here are the beginnings of two of his stories. The first, “Chef’s House”, was first published in 1981, and the second, “Blackbird Pie”, is from 1986, and one of his last before his death. They’re both very good. One’s a little better, a little stranger.

Here’s “Chef’s House”:

That summer Wes rented a furnished house north of Eureka from a recovered alcoholic named Chef. Then he called to ask me to forget what I had going and to move up there and live with him. He said he was on the wagon. I knew about that wagon. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He called again and said, Edna, you can see the ocean from the front window. You can smell salt in the air. I listened to him talk. He didn’t slur his words. I said, I’ll think about it. And I did. A week later he called again and said, Are you coming? I said I was still thinking. He said, We’ll start over. I said, If I come up there, I want you to do something for me. Name it, Wes said. I said, I want you to try and be the Wes I used to know. The old Wes. The Wes I married. Wes began to cry, but I took it as a sign of his good intentions. So I said, All right, I’ll come up.

This is the kind of efficiency writing workshop teachers salivate over. The tone, setting, mood, characters, motivations, conflict, and plot are all duly kicked off in a paragraph. The entire apparatus of the story is described, and practically its whole arc is delineated. You can see where the story goes from here: rebuilding their old lives, the threat of failure at every turn, one day at a time…

Now here’s “Blackbird Pie”:

I was in my room one night when I heard something in the corridor. I looked up from my work and saw an envelope slide under the door. It was a thick envelope, but not so thick it couldn’t be pushed under the door. My name was written on the envelope, and what was inside purported to be a letter from my wife. I say “purported” because even though the grievances could only have come from someone who’d spent twenty-three years observing me on an intimate, day-to-day basis, the charges were outrageous and completely out of keeping with my wife’s character. Most important, however, the handwriting was not my wife’s handwriting. But if it wasn’t her handwriting, then whose was it?

This opening lays out the characters — there’s a man and, in the background, his wife — and that’s about it. We don’t know what the real conflict is, or what the story hinges on, or where it’s going. The whole paragraph is spent lingering on a possible dead end of a triviality — a letter. What’s being built here is not a plain old story arc but a real palpable mood. The state of mind of the story, so to speak. And if you read the rest of “Blackbird Pie”, you’ll find that state of mind is the story’s marble, the stuff of its construction. There’s the narrator’s tension and unease, his easily heightened curiosity, his sudden disorientation within his own mind and home and marriage. This idle stuff is dense matter.

What a difference five years make! In this and other stories toward the end of Carver’s career, he sets his writing free and finds new ways to tell a story. What a beautiful thing to behold, when someone of skill and talent, already established in their trade, seems to be discovering, in process, all over again how to create. For all the definite terms of the trade — dramatic arc, page-turner, storyline, protagonist, antagonist, conflict, desire, chapter, verse — it’s easy to forget that there are infinitely many ways to build something out of nothing.

How To Write an Ending

April 7, 2012 § 1 Comment

This is what I was taught about dramatic structure in school:

Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement

Freytag’s Pyramid

I submit that the structure of a work of art is really fractal:

A fractal that kind of looks like tree branches

A fractal
Source: wikipedia.org/wiki/File:KarperienFractalBranch.jpg
License: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0

A real work of art obeys only its own structure, working its patterns on a large and small scale at once. It does what it pleases and goes where it wants, can take any shape or hit any highs or lows, but is in fact more likely to twist around itself sideways and in and out of various ad hoc dimensions it creates for its purposes. So much for rising action.

So appreciating — I mean really appreciating — a good story entails understanding the particulars of its structure from beginning to end, inside and out. There is no blueprint.

In that vein, I want to talk about endings. That thin triangle above, Freytag’s pyramid, suggests reading is a matter of focusing your narrow attention on the story’s action at a particular point, and so on one page at a time until you’ve reached the ending. In other words, it describes reading “to see what happens next”. If you read that way, maybe you see an ending as a way of tying up the loose ends of a story into a ribbon, dismissing its characters into a duly happy or sad nothingness.

It’s much more fitting to your curiosity to view an ending like the circumference of a circle: a boundary, merely a particular aspect of the structure.

Here’s a wonderful ending from a four-acter of Chekhov’s called The Seagull. The brooding protagonist, Constantine Treplieff, has just said goodbye to the girl he loves and gone off to kill himself. Meanwhile in the living room his family and the estate’s visitors gather for a card game (I’ve abridged, to just give you the idea):

ARKADINA: Put the claret and the beer here, on the table, so that we can drink while we are playing.
PAULINA: And bring the tea at once.
SHAMRAEFF: Here’s the stuffed seagull I was telling you about.
TRIGORIN: I don’t remember a thing about it.
[A shot is heard; everyone jumps.]
ARKADINA: What was that?
DORN: Nothing at all, probably one of my medicine bottles has blown up. Don’t worry.
[He leaves, and a few moments later, re-enters.]
DORN: It is as I thought, a flask of ether has exploded.
ARKADINA: Heavens! I was really frightened. That noise reminded me of — [She covers her face with her hands.] Everything is black before my eyes.
[DORN picks up a magazine, leads TRIGORIN to the front of the stage.]
DORN: There was an article from America in this magazine about two months ago that I wanted to ask you about, among other things.
[DORN begins to whisper.]
DORN: You must take Madame Arkadina away from here; what I wanted to say was, that Constantine has shot himself.

What a denouement! The last words, revealing the final event, are the ending! Imagine if Casablanca had ended that way: Louis tells Rick, “Ilsa is safe.” Fade to black.

God bless Chekhov for doing away with the tedious demands of tying up loose ends. In this ending, he focuses on what really matters: a conclusion that successfully completes the structure of the whole play.

What do I mean? The Seagull is a play that intersperses in typical Chekhovian genius the serious and the frivolous. The whole thing, really, is about the real-life texture of people’s dreams and longings: like gum on your new shoes, the lowly trivialities of day-to-day are inescapable and essential features of life. Here, an idle pastime, a card game, frames Constantine’s suicide. The character Trigorin doesn’t even remember the titular symbolic seagull which Shamraeff shows him. Dorn masks the gunshot with a triviality — a bottle of ether exploding — and masks the play’s final revelation (and Arkadina’s overwhelming premonition of grief) with small talk over a magazine article.

Nothing is “tied up” here — neither Constantine’s sadness nor any of the characters’ quibbles have been solved — but the play is concluded with just the perfect final note of mingled frivolity, the perfect delicate arc completing its circle.

Aside from that real endings are artistic rather than sentimental obligations, I have another point. The Seagull doesn’t “lead up” to its ending or make its point clear in its ending, or use its ending to any justifying end. It doesn’t reveal its moral there, or its twist, or resolve its tensions, or complete its thrills there. In other words, the play isn’t about its ending. It’s about every single page, and the ending is just one more page, a thematic continuation (the last such continuation) rather than a conclusion of the plot, which it is only incidentally. What I mean is, if a book is successfully concluded by leading you through the events of the last page, then what was the point of every preceding page?

Good books end by populating the last stretch of their lands with just the bit of life needed there. Bad books (thank God) just end.

P.S. Another good example: remember the ending of The Godfather? Now tell me honestly: is the point of that ending the murder of the heads of the other mafia families, or is it about the image of the door closing, depicted as a shadowy screen wipe, on Michael’s bottomless sinister expression? (Hint: it’s the latter.)

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