Somewhat OT: lyrics and meter in songwriting

I have to be at the airport in a few minutes and fly north for a weekend conference, so my further thoughts on “We Want America Back” will have to wait a bit longer, but fortunately you all are doing just fine holding down a conversation without me. If you haven’t looked at the comments thread, you should. There is some predictable speechifying in there but in most cases I’m impressed and delighted to see people disagree so interestingly with one another and in a way that really attempts to grapple with real problems rather than descending into nuclear rhetoric and the go-nowhere-ism typified by so many discussions of these issues.

Anyway, two country songs I’ve been hearing alot lately are really bugging me for the way the lyrics overwrite the melodic lines - by which I mean, there are more words crammed into phrases than the song’s meter and rhythm can support. Two examples: Tim McGraw’s “My Little Girl” and Brooks and Dunn’s “Believe.” Here are the first few lines of the McGraw tune:

Gotta hold on easy as I let you go.
Gonna tell you how much I love you,
though you think you already know.

It’s actually possible to sing (or, ala, intro to poetry classes, tap out) these lines in time with the 4/4 signature so that they square pretty naturally with the rhythm. But in the singing of the song, McGraw delivers the lines in a rhythmically higgedly-piggedly way so that it sounds like he’s getting paid by the word-per-line count. And when the song isn’t overstuffing the line, it’s stranding long musical phrases in little islands of lyrical deadness. Thus the end of the chorus:

“to me you know you’ll always be” […. a … full …. seven …. count them … seven … long … dead … beats of emptiness] … “my little girl.”

I’m all for artistic license, and I’m not so stiff-shirted that everything has to fall on the beat and match evenly and be a perfect specimen of music theory (I mean, I love the Goodmans after all and the old Kingsmen, not to mention Willy “King of Backphrasing, Overphrasing, and Singing Behind the Beat” Nelson), but there’s just no discernible point to the kind writing and arranging of “My Little Girl.” Between the overwriting of the verses on one side and the gap-toothed vacuity of the chorus on the other, the song just feels sloppily conceived and inattentively executed, as if it’s presumptuously getting by on the song’s scrim of sentimentalism and easy-cheesy gushiness of fairy-tale feeling.

And then there’s “Believe.” I’m not any more crazy about this song than I am “My Little Girl,” but the song deserves a lot of more credit for what it’s attempting to do than the McGraw song, which goes for unoriginaly and emotionally obvious three-hanky thrills of a teary-eyed father giving away his darling little gurl. I mean, I have to turn to the station when both songs come on. But in the case of “Believe,” it’s because there’s too much ponderousness and contrived gravity for my taste. Discounting, though, my own personal bias in this case, the verses are just too talk-singy for me. I imagine in this case the compressed lines and compacted lyrics are more intentional. Certainly, at least, they are more justifiable: part of the way the song attempts to achieve its emotional effect of feeling like there’s too much to say and not enough words to express the necessity of belief referenced in the title. Still, it bugs, reminding me too much of one of those lazy monologues in tunes that use the song itself as window dressing or an emotional scene-setter for some heavyhanded soliloquizing that a writer is too lazy or inept to render lyrically and metaphorically or imaginatively and figuratively in actual song (see the “We Want America Back” thread below for more on the dangers of monologism in music).

And just so I’m not accused of being a naysayer all the time, I’ll conclude with a country tune that gets perfectly right the use of idiosyncratic lyrical lines or non-standard relationships between lyrics and meter: George Strait’s “Give it Away.” The first part of each verse uses the talk-sing mode of delivery to convey the feeling of the song’s character that he’s just so darned depressed by all this that he can’t even muster the energy to sing all his lines. And there’s that little “hmmm” between the first and second halves of the verses. Wonderful.

Of course in sg the queen of sing-talk is Karen Peck, who for all her indiscipline - she uses it way way too much - is a mistress of the technique and seems to be able to put tears in her voice on a split-second’s notice. In the generation before Peck’s, Vestal Goodman would occasionally break time and render a lyric in spoken form to great effect as well. In the second verse of “Hold a Clear Title,” Goodman often broke out and spoke the words “Waiting” [beat] “for Jesus” with just enough melodic inflection that it sparkled and bristled with the rapturous expectation she was singing about so that when she actually returned to the song’s rhythm and throttled down on that word “Callllll” in “waiting for Jesus to call me,” the entire emotional content of the moment got ratcheted up several notches, heavenward, and then they took the song home stampede style.

In general, I think gospel music is better at this kind of thing than country, for several reasons. One is that gospel music is more interpretively conventional and so less likely to overreach in the use of the idiosyncratic. SG performers and fans alike have much less tolerance for indiosyncracies and non-standard gimmicks (which doesn’t mean sg crowds don’t love gimmicks, only that they like their gimmickry predictable and conventional). Country music has become such a flamboyant enterprise these days that it encourages all manner of idiosyncratic sloppiness from the ever-increasing ranks of dillettantes and poseurs (cf Kenny Chesney “Entertainer” of the year, though one wonders if he didn’t provide most of the entertainment off the stage with the Renee Zewillger shenanigans than he did on) whose corrosive influence can drag down or seep into the work of the more established and legitimate talents like McGraw and Brooks & Dunn.

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