Friday, November 11, 2011

Flash and Substance

There is a mantra I often use to focus when I am writing, “less is more.”

I was reading John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” The book that inspired John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” and the one thing I had to conclude was that it was very badly written. It was a very imaginative story and great idea, but very poorly executed in delivery, not the story itself just the presentation. The entire book was driven by long winded dialogues that explained everything. There was rarely any scene dressing or narration, the book moved forward by conversation, the plot was established by conversation, and things were resolved while people talked to each other thoroughly explaining everything to one another. I do not wish to give a negative impression of “Who Goes There?” it was a very interesting read, and I do not wish to present the idea that John W. Campbell is a bad writer, thought he clearly is, I want to first and foremost declare he had the most important tool, creativity, and though he struggled to share his great ideas with a proper sense of coherency or eloquence, he did share with us a great story nonetheless.

I was able to identify all of Campbell’s mistakes with relative ease because when I look at a lot of my old writings I am guilty of the exact same thing. I never much cared for describing all the little details in the background of every setting or offering up every single character’s life story once introduced, so I often had the characters explain to each other, who they were, where they were, and why there were there. Writing dialogue came easily to me, writing long winded narration did not.

In time I learned that the opposite could be even more damaging to a book, after struggling through Robert Jordan’s first three books in his “Eye of the World,” series, I concluded it was better to allow ham fisted dialogue push a story forward rather than waste hundreds of pages wasting the reader’s time describing the most irrelevant details. Honestly does a writer really expect anyone to remember or care to remember every meal the main characters have ever eaten? For some reason Robert Jordan did.

Writing is easy, good writing is hard.

The same is true for good song writing.

There are some songs that are perfect, like Led Zeppelin - “Stairway to Heaven.” The other day my brother Devin and I were discussion the following lyrics;

“If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now,
It's just a spring clean for the May queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run,
There's still time to change the road you're on.
And it makes me wonder.”

Devin was surprised that one of his friends did not get the obvious pagan references to the May Queen. He was right to be surprised, even if you lack insight into Celtic culture, you should easily be able to piece together that the May Queen is a spirit or entity that brings forth, you know, spring. I was quick to add that, the hedgerow was a metaphor for the mind. This is less obvious.

“Stairway to Heaven” is a song about rebirth, heaven being the afterlife is just another form of rebirth. How will you enter the next life? What are people willing to do get there in good fortune? Do we try to buy happiness, if not in this life than perhaps in the next? It all ties together, but like anything human there is the human condition to consider. The song is a song of peace, and as Robert Plant once said, “this is a song about hope... I think.” You would think Plant would have deeper insights into his own song, but that is the beauty of Stairway, there is a room for interpretation even for the writer. The second life will come to you, like how spring comes every year, reawakening the beauty of the garden and the harvest, and the same is true for you. If there is a problem in the hedgerow, don’t be alarmed change in coming, is just another way of saying, if you are troubled in mind or spirit, don’t be alarmed change in coming.

Stairway to Heaven is a perfect song it is both descriptive and poetic.

Not every song needs to be lyrically perfect to be good or great. Metallic was never very poetic, but there have many great songs. “One,” a song many would consider to be Metallic’s best, is a very deep song, and not because of fancy word play, but rather the opposite, it is deep by digging deep into our fears with blunt statements.

“Landmine has taken my sight
Taken my speech
Taken my hearing
Taken my arms
Taken my legs
Taken my soul
Left me with life in hell”

Without any subtly, or hidden meaning, Metallica states something horrifying and sets it heavily into our hearts. By simply stating the terror Johnny is going through point blank Metallica accomplishes something much more touching then if they had tried to cover it up with elaborate poetry. Simplistic has served Metallica well, and they should be proud of themselves for having the wisdom to be so damned good at song writing.

All of a sudden this conversation is about flash and substance. Lyrically, “Stairway to Heaven,” has both, flash and substance, “One” has heavy substance with little flash, both are great songs, and there are countless other examples we could point to with vary degrees of flash and substance. The important thing to remember is that you can do without flash, but you cannot forgo substance. There are musicians and songs were the lyrics are all flash and no substance.

“Blinded by the silence of a thousand broken hearts.”

That sounds deep doesn’t it? But what does it mean, “blinded by the silence of a thousand broken hearts?” Let’s dissect this line, “blinded by silence” obviously this is not a literal expression, blinded by a lack of sound, that’s not possible, so there must be something so horrible in the silence that it made you not what to ever look upon whatever caused it; maybe? “Silence of a thousand broken hearts?” so I guess we are suppose to infer the that the silence stricken upon us from massive heart break will make us go blind? Is that really deep? Does that really make sense?

The answer is, no.

Green Day is a terrible band. I hate to waste energy focusing on insects like Green Day, but sometimes it is hatred that offers us the best examples of what to avoid and disdain in life. Green Day is an embarrassment to music; they have adopted the worst possible kind of song writing approach, the illusion of poetry.

If you listen to Green Day’s song “Minority,” in its entirety, you can see no connection from their message of desiring to be a “minority,” different or special, and the lyric about being blinded by silence induced from broken hearts. The line is dramatic, it calls for a greater meaning, but when analyzed it is meaningless, and under no given context relatable or even coherent. Green Day’s attempts at poetry are all flash and no substance. It is obvious to anyone who has bother to spare a thought that Green Day only put that line in the song because they thought it sounded “cool,” and like so many false representatives of intelligent before them they have only succeeded in further showcasing their stupidity.

This is the core point I wanted to making is this essay, that a simple lyric is often superior to a complex lyric, this is why Metallica saying something bluntly is so much more meaningful than Green Day saying something fancy.

I’ve listened to a lot of pop music this year, the indie rock scene this year hasn’t given me much to get excited about, and the progressive metal movement seems to be taking the year off, that has left me searching more frantically then previous years to find 2011’s best music. As a result I have listened to a lot of pop music, and there is so much to say about pop music, the corporate corruption, the popular themes of society, and the obvious sex trade influences (that’s an essay in itself), are all things I could ramble on about, but let us look at two popular pop songs from this year, one of them good and one of them bad.

I do not want to call Christina Perri’s “Jar of Hearts,” a bad song, because all the potential for a decent song is present, unfortunately Christina Perri’s “Jar of Hearts,” is a bad song. Decent singer, decent song concept, acceptable bass, nice piano, it could have worked, but there is one great short coming in “Jar of Hearts,” the lyrics. There are an infinite number of songs about women telling off their ex-boyfriends, and I am not complaining, it is a very human thing to want to express. But the lyrics in this song... did they hire an eight year old?

“You’re going to catch a cold, form the ice inside your soul.”

Is that supposed to be deep? That is the sort of poem a child writes when they want to impress their grade three English teacher.

“And who do you think you are?
Running around leaving scars.”

This is not even good English; it barely manages to make coherent sense.

Still the song is not completely hapless; there is at least one very powerful lyric;

“Don’t come back for me,
Don’t come back at all.”

This is a powerful lyric, it says a lot. There is conviction in Christina Perri’s voice when she sings this line, and unlike the rest of the chorus, this line actually sounds like something a human being would say. This line seems conversational, like she is actually telling off her ex-boyfriend at this point. You can literally imagine Ms. Perri saying this to someone and it meaning something emotional to both parties. It is by far the most ordinary and simplistic lyric in the entire song, and I am telling you right now that is not a coincidence.

Now for the good song, Adele – “Someone Like you.”

I like Adele and I am quite pleased to see her becoming popular since I do not believe she fits the mould of corporate machine pop star so we know she has earned her fame and success purely off merit of her talents, and what talent, what a voice. I could talk about Adele for an entire music in review, and in fact that is apt to happen sometime in 2012.

“Someone Like you” is similar to “Jar of Hearts,” insofar that it is a song being sang by a woman addressing her ex-boyfriend, however other than that the songs are complete opposites. Adele actually shares a beautiful message of acceptance and well wishing for her ex, and other differences include the primary point that Adele is a legitimate singer with a great song, where as Christina Perri... I’m not sure what her story is, and honestly, I don’t care.

The entire song “Someone Like you,” is very good, both in piano and vocals, but the best line in the entire song is this;

“Never mind.”

That’s it.

You might think that two words, very casual words at that, and cannot possibly be the best lyric for an entire song, especially one that is really good, as I keep claiming, but it is, now let me tell you why.

Every verse is a declaration of how Adele still loves her ex, and even though she still loves him and wants to be with him she can’t, yet she wishes him the very best with his new lover, and then; “never mind, I’ll find someone like you.” She stops her own self torture, and overzealous kindness with those two words “never mind.”

There are a lot of sad songs, and most of them have a silver lining if you look hard enough, some don’t, but all the best ones do. In Adele’s “Someone Like you,” the chorus is the silver lining, she states with strength that she does not need her ex, all she need do is find someone she can love as much as him. It’s beautiful.

Two words that is all it takes sometimes to make a song stand up and confront you with powerful conviction, if you try to flower up your lyrics you end up sounding like a fool who mutated their powerful emotions into a convoluted mess of poor poetry.

Keep on rocking in the free world.

- Colin Kelly

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