Theater Masks

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Lyrics

I don't pretend to any knowledge of music outside of knowing what I like and what I don't. Still, I feel I have a pretty solid grasp on what makes for good lyric writing and I definitely know when something hits my ear like a brick.

I was listening to the recent concert of Chess, and though I've always known the book was a mess, I hadn't thought about just how horrible some of Tim Rice's lyrics are. Don't get me wrong, some of it is beautiful and brilliant (especially "Pity the Child" - what's more heartbreaking than a grown man craving his mother's approval and singing "I never called a crazy thing to do/Just in case she said "who?"

I want to go over two examples that really stuck out to me. The first was in "Nobody's on Nobody's Side." The character singing the song is lamenting the fact that her partner hasn't been entirely loyal and everyone needs to watch out for themselves. Then, in the middle of the song, we get this couplet:

"Never leave a moment too soon
Never waste a hot afternoon"

Excuse me, what??? OK, so maybe Rice wanted that first line, but that second line makes no sense at all! I mean, without even thinking about it I can come up with "Never leave a moment too fast, never need to regret what's past." I'm not a professional lyric writer, and that's not as strong as it could be for sure, but SURELY Rice could have come up with something better than "Never waste a hot afternoon!"

The other lyric is "I Know Him So Well." The lyric goes like this:

"Isn't it madness he won't be mine
But in the end he needs a little bit more than ___ _______ security
He needs his fantasy and freedom
I know him so well."

Now, I've been listening to different variations of Chess for nearly two decades now. I have NEVER been able to understand just what is said in those blanks in ANY version. I always went with "before" because A)that's what it sounds like and B)I just had no idea what fit there and it was the closest I could figure out. Well, Caitie and I were listening today and thank goodness either Idina Menzel or Kerry Ellis (I can't remember which was singing the line at this point) clearly ennunciated because Caitie finally got it. The lyric goes

"But in the end he needs a little bit more than me for, security."

Ahhh! We got it --- and what a let down! The problem is, the lyric doesn't scan at all! I've thought it was "before" for so long because the emphasis is on the second syllable, not the first as it SHOULD be when the line is said (I had a prof. who once said that even though a song is sung, false emphases can make a lyric unlistenable). Read that line twice - once with the me emphasized, once with the "for" emphasized. Which sounds correct to you?

I implore ANYONE who writes lyrics, please please please listen for emphasis so I don't have to spend another two decades trying to interpret a poor line!

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