I seem to be full of rants today. I could pick one of several to write about—have you noticed, for instance, that more and more retail businesses are requiring their clerks to try to sell you something else while you're buying something from them? I'm almost sorry to spell that out, because if you hadn't been conscious of it before, you're going to start noticing it. Isn't it enough that I'm buying something already? Do I really have to be pitched a buyer's card or a thousand bonus points or whatever else at the cash register while I'm checking out? Or surrender an extra dollar for some touching cause so I can get the warm feelies for Megacorp?—Does Megacorp really think I'm incapable of making my charitable donations on my own?
Leave me alone already—I like talking to clerks. Granted it's exceedingly modest as a human encounter, only a moment of conversation, but, hey, sometimes I'm a little short of that on a given day. And several times I've heard fantastically good stories in checkout lines. Can't I share a casual, neighborly sentence or two about the weather while the store employee takes my money? Must I really be harangued about the benefits of signing up for a benefits card so Megacorp, Big-Brotherishly, can track my purchases and analyze my buying habits?
If you have to call me a "guest," straining even the already flabby boundaries of euphemism, then treat me like one. G'dimmit.
And just think, that there's one of the rants I'm not going to write. (Sorry, got meself started.)
So here's the rant for today. I read a nice article about collaboration in The Atlantic recently called "The Power of Two." It uses the best example ever to make the point that sometimes it takes more than one person to create a work of genius.
This is often true of literature, where editors can make all the difference, whether it's Maxwell Perkins editing F. Scott Fitzgerald (who, we were reminded the other day, wanted to call his most famous book "Trimalchio in West Egg" instead of The Great Gatsby), or Gordon Lish refashioning Raymond Carver (try this one if you don't know Carver, he'll cleanse your palate—and is that cover photo by Todd Hido?), or our friend Toinette Lippe doing for Gia-Fu-Feng what Ezra Pound did for T.S. Eliot.
All the more annoying then when songwriters treat lyrics like a synthesized tambourine track added in post-post-post. Work on the music and then slather a bit o' lyrics on as an afterthought. Who cares? They're only words.
Of course there's plenty of bad art about, and always has been. But it's galling when musicians come up with a especially beautiful song and willfully ruin it with horrible lyrics. As randomly-generated exhibit A on a very long list, consider that Lambchop once set a series of real-life advertisements from a radio classifieds show called "Swap Shop" to music. That's the sort of idea that should get tossed out at a bar—and talked about laughed about—until someone got sensible and says, "yeah, but—no."
(If Paul McCartney had gone ahead with his original "Scrambled eggs / Oh baby how I love your legs!" lyrics to the song that became "Yesterday," it would have been the supreme example of good music with bad lyrics, but fortunately George Martin and John Lennon got hold of him and took him out back and slapped him around and made him write real words to the song.)
I'm sure we all have our favorite examples of atrocious lyrics. Mine is a song called "Seaweed" by the Fruit Bats, an '00s band out of Chicago. It features an achingly beautiful folk melody and superb playing—the entry of the banjo is heartbreaking—mated with the stupidest, most misbegotten lyrics that have ever been set to music in human history—approximately speaking. I hereby challenge Eric Johnson to rewrite the same song with the exact same music but real lyrics with poetic meaning. (While wearing a T-shirt that reads, "Say No to Scrambled Eggs.") It'll become a great classic.
It's a good example of what the "Power of Two" article talks about as the prejudice in favor of lone genius that's current in our culture. That songwriter needs a lyricist, baby.
What's wrong with musicians getting together with poets for a little help with the words? This country is full of underemployed poets. I'm sure some of them out there could have helped with the image of the bloody tooth in the canals of Mars, which could not have fought its feeble way through a high school poetry workshop.
/rant, and have a nice day!
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Steve Rosenblum: "I am almost through Walter Issacson's new book The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, which is a wonderful read and repeatedly makes the point that with very rare exceptions (and unlike the popular image of the lone genius inventor) the work that led to the development of the computer, transistor, microchip, PC, software, the Internet, and the World Wide Web resulted from intense collaboration between people—sometimes many people. In every case, the collaborative whole was far greater then the sum of the individuals involved."
Jonas Yip: "OT for the site, perhaps, but totally on topic for me as I've been going through unfinished songs all this past week. In my case I know I can't write a good lyric and don't want to just 'slather' some on. Hence, unfinished songs. I should, as you suggest, find myself an underemployed poet to, you know, complement my genius :-) "
Richard Tugwell: "Lyrics and songs...an interesting diversion here is to look at something like German Lieder or English 'art songs,' where the composer sets pre-existing text. Sometimes great poetry and great music match up (Schumann / Heine for example) but often masterpieces are created from what less exalted texts—many of Schubert's songs for example. What makes them work is the interpretation in music of a simply expressed feeling or thought.
"If I'm allowed just one desert island moment, I'd recommend Ivor Gurney's many settings of UK poets. And should we judge Mozart by da Ponte's libretti, which aren't bad really, but are just foils to the music? (Let's not get started on Puccini.) Rant over."