I typically consume my pop songs online these days, and it‘s from online consumption that I derive material sufficient for my roughly monthly pop song limericks. Of late, I‘ve made more of an effort to listen to pop music on the radio when I can, which gives me a very odd impression of what‘s popular at any given moment. Maybe it‘s just the stations I listen to, but the week after “Want To Want Me“ by Jason DeRulo seemed to me to be in its heaviest rotation, it dropped out of the top ten. I hear “Talking Body“ by Tove Lo all the time, but if it was ever in the top ten for long enough to get well and truly limericked by me, I must have missed it. I say this to preface an account of my initial reaction to this song when I first heard it on the radio a few weeks ago:“Oh. Wouldn‘t it be nice if this became a hit?“
And now, there it is just behind Taylor Swift in a comfortable #3 slot. This pleases me.
In the musical theatre, we love our instructive parables, from the casting of Gene Kelly in Pal Joey to the struggle over finding just the right opening number for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. One of the most popular, however, revolves around a specific number from A Chorus Line.
Sondheim once wrote, “Many lyrics suffer from being much too packed,“ making the point that excessively dense lyrics fundamentally interfere with clarity and thus kneecap one of the main functions (I might even go so far as to argue the main function) of those lyrics – to convey events and ideas clearly and elegantly. And the moment I read that, the example that sprang most readily into my head was the musical adaptation of Matilda.
Previously, High School Musical demonstrated more than adequately how not to arrange lyrical lines for maximum effect, but it would be unfair not to give an example of how to do this well. First, I feel that I must preemptively apologize for my love of all things Billy Joel. While for a large part this obsession is sentimental, I maintain that Mr. Joel is one of the best pop lyricists of all time. If you are not a fan, by all means don’t stay silent. Just be aware that this is an issue on which I will not be swayed.
The example I wish to draw from Joel’s oeuvre is the song “Christie Lee” from the album An Innocent Man:
We’ve all been there; you’ve thought of a brilliant little line that works perfectly with your rhythmic scheme. The only problem is that the final word of the line has almost no perfect rhymes. As we must take perfect rhymes as a ground rule (I will talk more about this in the future), damage control is now the main priority. Say you manage to put together a workable but by no means particularly good line out of one of the two or three rhymes for your problem word. You now have two lyrical lines, one of them getting along swimmingly, the other still floating but otherwise dead in the water (like an overextended metaphor). This is what I mean by damage control: we must find a way to reduce emphasis on the lame line.
When I warn people to avoid writing lyrics that don’t make sense, most brush it off. We tend to assume that our internal sense of what does and does not make sense will hold steady through thick and through thin. But the rigors of perfect rhyming, correct emphasis placement, and syllable counting can play tricks on our common sense.
While it may seem unfair to place such an easy target in my cross hairs, I will use the example of Katy Perry’s “California Girls” (I omit the idiotic alternate spelling “gurls” deliberately).
Few lyrical tendencies irritate me quite so much as the persistent but ultimately fruitless attempt to pretend that “girl” rhymes with “world.” It doesn’t. “Girl” rhymes with “curl,” “pearl,” “whirl,” and “hurl,” plus a handful of others. If none of those suit your purposes, then you might want to give consideration to not ending a line with a word as dull and exhausted as “girl.”