Thursday, March 04, 2010

lenten journal: rhymes and reasons

A friend of mine is taking a song writing class. I talked to her today, interrupting her homework, and she told me her assignment was to write a song full of clichés. The dictionary says a cliché is “a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse,” which means the problem is not with the word or phrase in and of itself, but with the fact that it once was so original and true that we used it to death.

The problem for songwriters is there are only so many words and so many rhymes. Once a good one is found, it is almost destined to become a cliché – other than my favorite lines from Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl”:

I feel so dirty when they start talking cute
Wanna tell her that I love but the point is probably moot.
The great songwriters of the Forties and Fifties could rhyme like nobody’s business (yep, that’s one): inside rhymes, circular rhymes, exact rhymes. Still, thanks to them, no self-respecting songwriter is going to rhyme moon and June with a straight face. It’s a beautiful rhyme, once full of possibilities, and it has lost its originality by overuse. Even though I like Vanessa Williams, her song, “Save the Best for Last,” is a good example of songwriters going to the same well once too often.
sometimes the snow comes down in June
sometimes the sun goes 'round the moon
I see the passion in your eyes
sometimes it's all a big surprise

cause there was a time when all I did was wish
you'd tell me this was love
it's not the way I hoped or how I planned
but somehow it's enough

and now we're standing face to face
isn't this world a crazy place
just when I thought our chance had passed
you go and save the best for last
The melody is romantic, her voice is beautiful, and the song has nothing new to say other than David Foster, who produced the record, knew a hit when he heard one. Of course, there are some songwriters – OK, one: John Prine – who can turn a who handful of clichés into a song by using them on purpose. I give you “Big Old Goofy World.”
Up in the morning
Work like a dog
Is better than sitting
Like a bump on a log
Mind all your manners
Be quiet as a mouse
Some day you'll own a home
That's as big as a house

I know a fella
he eats like a horse
knocks his old balls
round the old golf course
you oughta see his wife
she's a cute little dish
she smokes like a chimney
and drinks like a fish

there's a big old goofy man
dancing with a big old goofy girl
ooh baby
it's a big old goofy world

now Elvis had a woman
with a head like a rock
I wished I had a woman
that made my knees knock
she'd sing like an angel
and eat like a bird
and if I wrote a song
she'd know ever single word

kiss a little baby
give the world a smile
if you take an inch
give 'em back a mile
cause if you lie like a rug
and you don't give a damn
you're never gonna be
as happy as a clam

so I'm sitting in a hotel
trying to write a song
my head is just as empty
as the day is long
why it's clear as a bell
I should have gone to school
I'd be wise as an owl
stead of stubborn as a mule

there's a big old goofy man
dancing with a big old goofy girl
ooh baby
it's a big old goofy world
Prine’s sense of humor and irony fills the clichés with some new life. There’s more going on than just the words. Long overuse doesn’t automatically turn a word or phrase (or a song) into a cliché. Sing along if you like:
amazing grace how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now am found
was blind but now I see
The rhymes are old, perhaps even obvious, the song used at most every occasion from family reunions to film soundtracks to funerals, and still their familiarity calls up something other than tired; it connects to memory. For most. I’m sure there are those who hear this hymn as clichéd as Vanessa’s song, which leads to my question.

How do we keep the words and phrases that matter to us from becoming clichés?

I should define “we.” I don’t mean it in a giant, cultural, what’s-going-to-go-in-the-dictionary kind of sense. I mean we, as in family, or partners, or spouses, or friends, or congregations. It seems to me that there is a fine line between ritual (meaningful and intentional repetition) and cliché (meaningless from repetition). When we sing, for instance,
praise God from whom all blessings flow
praise God all creatures here below
praise God above ye heavenly host
Creator Christ and Holy Ghost
are we engaging in ritual, or are we repeating a well-worn cliché?

One of the ways the words don’t get tired, I suppose, is to keep asking the question because the answer may not always be the same, even for the same group of people. What do we have to do to infuse the familiarity of our well-worn words and phrases with the tenacity of the truth they hold and the courage and comfort of the faith to which they call us?
I love to tell the story for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest
and when in scenes of glory I sing a new new song
will be the old old story that I have loved so long
When it comes to songwriting lessons, perhaps rhymes do get tired and worn. But then again:
prone to wander Lord I feel it
prone to leave the God I love
here’s my heart O take and seal it
Seal it for thy courts above
Perhaps it’s not so much the words as the hearts and minds that grow weary.


1 comment:

Choralgirl said...

Very interesting question, Milton. I think it has something to do with the melodies with which the words are paired. Earworms create cliches.

It's a fine line, though--most hymn tunes started as things that people just sang while they were walking around, and they've worn much better than most pop music.

It's also about, as you said, "saying something new." Picking a different word than moon or June...or using them in a different way than what's expected. Gotta turn the prism just a little bit and let different light refract the thought.