I’ve heard all too many musical numbers that were very obviously written for no better reason than that someone must have said, “we’d better put a musical number here.” If ever you find yourself doing this, stop immediately and think long and hard about concept, which I assert is the single most important element in a good song lyric.
            I will illustrate the importance of concept through a pair of examples from animated musicals.

To give you a spot of background, during the late 80’s and early 90’s the musical fueled a remarkable resurgence in Disney’s economic and artistic fortunes. Beginning with The Little Mermaid, Disney churned out a series of masterful and hugely profitable films. Inevitably, this success spawned a host of imitators. Some of these were remarkably good, like 20th Century Fox’s Anastasia. But for every Anastasia, there was a turkey like Rock-a-Doodle, and for every Rock-a-Doodle there was a merely mediocre film like The Swan Princess. It is this last film that I am interested in, as I wish to concern myself here not with sheer incompetence but with a lack of inspiration.
            For our example let’s look at the respective villain songs from The Swan Princess and Beauty and the Beast. At this point, you are probably not thinking, “oh, I can clearly see the distinction between the two songs.” More likely you are thinking, “what the hell is The Swan Princess?” or, at best, “what the hell was the villain song from The Swan Princess?”
            I shall enlighten you. The villain song from The Swan Princess is a jazz number called “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” a song in which the evil wizard Rothbart indicates the general malevolence of his intentions. You think I’m being glib, but no. That is literally all the song is about.
Gosh, it’s such a hoot to see them quaking
When I’m king they’ll treat me with respect
I can’t wait to watch their poor hearts breaking
So much for politically correct
Up ’til now I’ve pulled my punches
I intend to eat their lunches
No more Mr. Nice Guy, not for me
If you think that I’m hard-hearted
Well, let me by, I haven’t even started
No more Mr. Nice Guy, no siree
Soon as my witchcraft has zinged them
I’ll gain control of the kingdom
As for Odette, well that’s tragic
‘Cause I’m going back to that old black magic
Good behaviour is so much duller
Time to show my one true colour
Baby, Mr. Nice Guy’s history
Vengeance is what I believe in
I don’t get mad, I get even
Odette can’t get to the ball ’cause I won’t bring her
So I’ll zap up a date who’s a real dead ringer
Up to no good, I love plottin’
‘Cause I’m so good when I’m rotten
No more Mr. Nice Guy, wait and see (wait and see)
I’ll become that nasty, naughty, very spiteful
Wicked, wayward, way delightful
Bad guy I was born to be
Lying, loathsame, never tender
Indiscreet repeat offender
No more Mr. Nice Guy, that’s not me
There is close to no mention of his actual plan, no idiosyncracies that might distinguish him from other villains, and no indication that the lyricist had any substantial idea as to why the song existed at all. In short, there is a reason why you’d forgotten it existed.
Compare this to the universally beloved and instantly recognizable “Gaston” from Beauty and the Beast.
Gosh it disturbs me to see you, Gaston
Looking so down in the dumps
Ev’ry guy here’d love to be you, Gaston
Even when taking your lumps
There’s no man in town as admired as you
You’re ev’ryone’s favorite guy
Ev’ryone’s awed and inspired by you
And it’s not very hard to see why
No one’s slick as Gaston
No one’s quick as Gaston
No one’s neck’s as incredibly thick as Gaston’s
For there’s no man in town half as manly
Perfect, a pure paragon!
You can ask any Tom, Dick or Stanley
And they’ll tell you whose team they prefer to be on
No one’s been like Gaston
A king pin like Gaston
No one’s got a swell cleft in his chin like Gaston
As a specimen, yes, I’m intimidating!
My what a guy, that Gaston!
Give five “hurrahs!”
Give twelve “hip-hips!”
Gaston is the best
And the rest is all drips
No one fights like Gaston
Douses lights like Gaston
In a wrestling match nobody bites like Gaston!
For there’s no one as burly and brawny
As you see I’ve got biceps to spare
Not a bit of him’s scraggly or scrawny
That’s right!
And ev’ry last inch of me’s covered with hair
No one hits like Gaston
Matches wits like Gaston
In a spitting match nobody spits like Gaston
I’m especially good at expectorating!
Ten points for Gaston!
When I was a lad I ate four dozen eggs
Ev’ry morning to help me get large
And now that I’m grown I eat five dozen eggs
So I’m roughly the size of a barge!
My what a guy, that Gaston!
No one shoots like Gaston
Makes those beauts like Gaston
Then goes tromping around wearing boots like Gaston
I use antlers in all of my decorating!
My what a guy,
Rothbart’s song is merely a villain song, which is a category and not a concept.“Gaston,” on the other hand, is a grand, chauvinistic hymn of self-praise. In other words, it has a concept. Why do I make such a big fuss about this? Because the lyrics to “No More Mr. Nice Guy” are not that bad. They’re nothing special, certainly, but they’re not that bad either. So why is it not a good song? Concept, concept, concept. Even strong lyrics will falter if used in service of a song with an identity crisis, just as even imperfect lyrics can still be bound together by a terrific concept to form an irrefutably great song like “Gaston.”
Concept, concept, concept.

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