While most of the songs I listen to don’t merit much analysis—okay, so I admit it, I listen to a lot of artists philosophers aren’t supposed to like…I’m more likely to be listening to Michael Jackson than Arvo Part or Satie—other songs employ solid writing techniques that are worthy of discussion. Point of view (most are in 2nd, for good reason), voice, mood, tension, pacing even. And I’m not even getting into the music, but I suppose in the best songs, the sound must coalesce with the lyrics in the same progression, also telling and reinforcing a story.
Storytelling. I bet a lot of you are thinking, folk songs. But there are some surprises out there. I Heard Love is Blind by Amy Winehouse is an unexpected one. It took me a long time to come around to her. I just didn’t much care for Rehab and so I never bothered to listen to her other tracks. It wasn’t until after she died that I started listening to some songs from her album Frank, which is the strangest mish-mash of styles, all coming together coherently.
Fiction writers—you’ve heard it. It all starts with voice. Once you’ve got the voice, you just keep writing, go, go, go. No voice, no go. In songs, we often talk about the voice of the vocalist, but rarely about the voice exhibited by the lyrics.
I find most pop lyrics quite expendable, to tell the truth. I wanna rock with you all night. Don’t get me wrong, I love these songs. I’m contemplating doing a cover by James Morrison which has similarly vacuous lyrics (and I love him, that’s not a criticism!) But in these I don’t pay attention to the lyrics, which for the most part can be boiled down to Let’s have sex.
To be precise, the lyrics of these songs aren’t quite expendable, but they certainly can be replaced with whatever words. Na, na, na…nanananaaaah!
In Winehouse, the voice comes from a solid point of view, a unique perspective on the world that invokes a troubled soul, at once vulnerable and rough. Amy Winehouse, love her or hate her, was a strong character. Besides the character invoked by the lyrics is an entire world of moods and influences that converge in a way very few artists are able to do. She did more than tell a story. She acted that story. The story came from her character, not the other way around, which makes the narrative more compelling. Her persona and stage presence (which was probably very different from the actual Amy Winehouse, despite the real life connection to Rehab) had all the things you want to draw out of your fictional characters, most importantly their spectacular contradictions and imperfections.
So here’s my imperfect cover of I Heard Love is Blind…I’m recording, once again, on my iPod in the kitchen.
One version of her song starts out as a soft jazz tune, evoking something classy, sophisticated. You want to hold a martini and lean against a shiny black grand piano. But the lyrics…oh the lyrics. They tell the story of a ridiculous girl—one would not be off the mark in calling her a stupid ho though I’m reluctant to use that phrase—who cheats on her boyfriend/husband and rationalizes this act in hilarious ways, “I was thinking of you when I came.”
And, from this point of view, it’s her boyfriend’s fault she cheated on him. “What did you expect? You left me here alone.”
What’s working here: There’s a back story, “off the page” so to speak. We suspect her ‘steady’ is not such a savory character himself. The world this ‘protagonist’ inhabits is decidedly low class.
There’s tension. What’s going to be the response from her boyfriend? It will probably involve an equally irrational reply, probably much worse.
There’s excellent pacing. The song title, Love is Blind, comes into the last line as a satisfying conclusion to the story, wrapping up the blindness and rampant irrationality that came before. The mood begins in apologetic explanation, then, perhaps after an ‘off the page’ response, anger. Then to soften the blow, “But he looked like you…”
All of this in the context of soft jazz, a sophistication that has so much ugliness bubbling under the surface.
The music is something we don’t have as fiction writers. But that contrast of the music to the story is something we can learn from. A clashing environment, a stylistic juxtaposition to the content.
What contrasts can you come up with that might help you tell your story in an interesting way? How do songs influence your writing?