Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Reruns: Wasted Words, Part 1

Thank you all for your comments! It's exciting to know that people are actually reading this stuff. I welcome your comments - praise or constructive criticism - because It only helps us all grow.

In that light, I've decided to reprint some of my old posts (since the only person I know of who read them is my mother). Please - PLEASE - feel free to comment on these as well. And let other people know about this blog. I can also be friended on Facebook and followed on Twitter @noahbudin.

Here, then, is where my songwriting blog really got started, with an essay called "Wasted Words." Here's Part 1:

Just because you can pour sugar into your car’s gas line, doesn’t mean you should.

And just because you can put lipstick on the dog, doesn’t mean you should.

Just because you can put two words together that rhyme, doesn’t mean you should. Likewise, just because you are able to put a new melody to existing words or text, doesn’t mean you should do that either. (Which is why I don’t. But we’ll get into that in another essay. For now, we’ll mostly stick to lyrics).

As a songwriter, I have a set of guidelines, or guideposts, in the form of questions, that I use when writing. We’ll start with this one:

What do I want to say? I mean exactly, specifically. What is the message I want to convey to the listener? (And there is always a message.) What do I want the listener to come away with?

That being said, a little ambiguity is okay (when it’s done skillfully). That is, it’s okay if the listener doesn’t come away with your specific image in his or her head. If fact, the listener most likely won’t. Like any art, music and lyrics are for the receiver to interpret. But, the important thing is for you, the writer, to know exactly what you want to express. Don’t be vague. It’s like subtext for an actor. An actor may invent lots of background information about his or her character that the audience will never know. But it’s what makes the character whole and subtle and nuanced and layered and fully believable for the audience. So it should be with your song.

In fact, lyrically, I often try to stay away from being too specific. And here is a dichotomy (maybe you thought I was going to say “contradiction” or “hypocrisy”): specificity and ambiguity. Remember: lyrics are poetry. This means you have to make careful choices. You only have so many lines, so many beats, in which to get your message across. You don’t have room for wasted words. The ideas expressed in the song need to be fully developed, fully understood – very specific – for you. The lyrics of the song need to be, evocative, image laden, able to draw the listener in. In other words: listenable. The listener should be able to identify with the lyrics on some level. He should feel like you are speaking to him personally, as if you’re sharing secrets or telling a story and you’re right in the room with him and he’s thinking, “Yeah, yeah! Something like that happened to me once,” or “I know someone like that,” or “Wow, I never thought of it that way, but that’s a really cool way to say it!”

For instance, in my song “She Knows God,” I could have written, “I know a remarkable woman who’s very spiritual and deep and she told me this really cool story about how she came to find her faith at a very young age and she has some physical impairments and…” Anybody could have written that. It might even make a good story, but it’s not a song. I could have even rhymed it:

I know a woman
She’s remarkable and deep
When she was very young
Her faith it took a leap
She found God to keep

or…any other number of rhymes. But they are empty rhymes, not interesting, wasted words. Also, those words don’t really have the imagery, or even mystery, that will draw a listener in. I did write:

She Knows God
She knows God like the sun on her tears
She knows God
She knows God will not always be near
But she always breathes the air that surrounds her
And it fills he with more than just breath
It’s the fragile space that bridges the distance
Between living life and not fearing death
She knows God

The first line, “She knows God,” draws the listener in for several reasons. First, it’s incomplete. (This also has to do with the melody and the choice to sing it a capella). The listener wants to know what’s coming next. It also makes a statement, a strong yet intimate statement. I could have said it any of those ways in the above examples, or any number of other ways, but this is intriguing. There is very little question about its implication. But who is she? How does she know God?

The next line offers a bit more, but in a poetic image:

She knows God like the sun on her tears

There are several things at work here. I’ve got some linguistic and illustrative tension going on. You can’t get much more intimate with someone than to share their tears. And you can’t get much bigger in the scope of our known physical and spiritual universe than the sun. Also, tears usually connote sadness, sunshine happiness. So now the listener has a lovely image in her mind and is brought just a little closer to the subject and is even more intrigued.

Then, “She knows God will not always be near.” This where we get personal, we can begin to relate to this person. I think everyone who has any kind of relationship with any kind of God has experienced moments of extreme closeness and moments of “where are you when I need you?” God is always here, but not always near (and maybe it’s not God who’s built the distance, but us).

Going on, I could have said, “but she goes on with life anyway.” Instead, I used an image with which we can all relate and then elevated it to an almost mystical place:

But she always breathes the air that surrounds her
And it fills her with more than just breath

Now the listener wants to know, “What do you mean? With what does if fill her?” And the answer:

It’s the fragile space that bridges the distance
Between living life and not fearing death

And again, I’ve taken an element that is immeasurably large and seemingly endless, air, and broken it down to its most intimate aspect, breathing it into the body, and aided the listener in remembering that even the most mundane and automatic acts, the ones we probably take for granted, are holy.

And that's the climax of the verse, a sort of tension and release (both lyrically and musically) that pulls the listener in, satisfies him and leaves him wanting more. And, yes, you do understand the metaphor I’m using here because that’s what good music should be like.

And in all of that (and throughout the rest of the lyrics) are the simple messages that I get out of the song: God is always with us, even in our lowest moments, and every act that we do on this earth is, or has the potential to be, holy.

People always want to know who the woman is, her true identity. But, it doesn’t matter

1 comment:

Robin said...

Thank you for your honesty and for letting us into your creative process. You're really putting yourself out there, and I appreciate your letting us peak behind the curtain!
- Robin Stratton