Sunday, February 17, 2008

Whither sophisticated lyrics?

Last week one of my friends asked me if I had ever considered writing musicals and not just plays. "I used to think that that was what I was going to do," I replied. "In high school I even tried writing a musical version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. But I don't know enough about writing music, or music theory...so I gave it up. I'd still be interested in writing lyrics though, if I could collaborate with someone else."

"I think you'd be good at it," said my friend, "especially coming up with sophisticated rhymes and allusions--you know, like Dorothy Fields."

This led us to discuss why the art of writing "sophisticated" lyrics peaked around the 1930s and has been in decline ever since. We thought of Fields' "Never Gonna Dance" (admittedly the lyrics are a bit odd, but the song as a whole works wonderfully):
Have I a heart that acts like a heart,
Or is it a crazy drum,
Beating the weird tattoos
Of the St. Louis Blues?
Have I two eyes to see your two eyes
Or see myself on my toes
Dancing to radios
Or Major Edward Bowes?
or her absolutely delightful "I Won't Dance":
When you dance, you're charming and you're gentle
'Specially when you do the Continental
But this feeling isn't purely mental
For heaven rest us,
I'm not asbestos

And that's why
I won't dance, why should I?
I won't dance, how could I?
I won't dance, merci beaucoup
I know that music leads the way to romance,
So if I hold you in my arms I won't dance
or any number of lyrics from Ira Gershwin (here, "They All Laughed")
They all laughed at Rockefeller Center
Now they're fighting to get in
They all laughed at Whitney and his cotton gin
They all laughed at Fulton and his steamboat
Hershey and his chocolate bar
Ford and his Lizzie
Kept the laughers busy
That's how people are
or Cole Porter (with "You're the Top" perhaps the all-time pinnacle of this kind of lyric writing):
You're the top
You're an Arrow collar
You're the top
You're a Coolidge dollar
You're the nimble tread
Of the feet of Fred Astaire
You're an O'Neill drama
You're Whistler's mama
You're Camembert
But this style of lyric seems to have become less and less frequent, perhaps to have died out entirely. Yes, Stephen Sondheim has written sophisticated, clever, perfectly rhymed lyrics long after Fields, Gershwin and Porter stopped, but his are sophisticated in a different way. Maybe "The Ladies Who Lunch" is Sondheim's version of a Cole Porter-ish urbane list song, but it originates out of Joanne's drunken self-loathing, rather than just being a witty showpiece like "You're the Top." In general, Sondheim's songs are too psychologically acute to be mistaken for these popular hits of the '30s.

My friend and I thought of several reasons why these kind of lyrics have died out. First, there are just fewer musical comedies being written; for a long time in the 1980s and 1990s, the most popular shows were Lloyd Webber-style pop operas. There are perhaps a few clever lyrics in those shows (we thought of Evita's "They need to adore me / So Christian Dior me") but in general they don't allow much humor.

The musical comedy was revived with The Producers, but it, and many shows that followed, are set in past decades, so they can't make contemporary allusions. I feel that Mel Brooks would write some gleefully vulgar lyrics incorporating names of current celebrities, if only The Producers wasn't set in the 1950s and Young Frankenstein in the 1930s. Hairspray and Little Shop of Horrors find some clever rhymes in their early-1960s setting, but I'd love to hear what the lyricists of these shows could do with a story set in the 21st century. (Or could have done. RIP Howard Ashman.)

Third, the art of making rhymes about contemporary events, celebrities, and trends has been taken over by rappers. From Kanye West's "Jesus Walks": "The way school needs teachers / The way Kathie Lee needed Regis / That's the way I need Jesus." Now, that's not a perfect rhyme, but it's in the spirit of the 1930s lyricists and their clever allusions to current cultural phenomena.

In the end, the only modern musical-comedy song we could think of that sort of replicates the 1930s lyrical style is "Great Big Stuff" from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. And it's a rap song--as if the only way to get away with these lyrics nowadays is to set them to rap music.
A house in the Bahamas
Paisley silk pajamas
Poker with Al Roker and our friend Lorenzo Lamas
[...]
Chillin' in the city
Sittin' pretty in the Caddy
With P. Daddy
Or Puff Diddy
Or whatever!
These lyrics require contemporary knowledge to get the joke (Mr. Sean Combs' ever-changing nom de rap) and shamelessly cite D-list celebrities just for the sake of a rhyme--not far off from what some '30s songwriters were doing. Indeed, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is an interesting test case for how to write a musical comedy set in the present day. It takes place on the sophisticated French Riviera and blends skilled old-fashioned songwriting (sincere ballad "Love Sneaks In," peppy charm song "Here I Am") with modern-day vulgarity and pastiche (gross-out "All About Ruprecht," power-ballad parody "Love Is My Legs"). Perhaps even its plot--classy European Lawrence vs. crass American Freddy--reflects an insecurity about the form a modern musical comedy should take.

As a thoroughly modern girl*, it annoys me that so many musical comedies take place in the nostalgic past. It seems to bespeak a dissatisfaction with our own time: "Nothing these days is worth writing songs about, so let's all reminisce about an era when musical comedies were the pinnacle of taste!" But I firmly believe that the art we make helps construct the world we live in. So if we wish the 21st century was more sophisticated--well, why not write sophisticated songs and stories that take place in 2008, and hope that life imitates art?

Because, if you think about it, the 1930s wasn't all-sophisticated either--there was that nasty little event known as the Great Depression. But we remember it as sophisticated in large part because of the work of songwriters like Fields, Porter, and Gershwin. Songs like "You're the Top" help preserve 1930s ephemera that otherwise might have vanished. We need to preserve our own era in song. We need to create a second Golden Age instead of pining for the first one.

*How can Thoroughly Modern Millie be thoroughly modern when it is doubly nostalgic: a 21st-century musical based on a 1960s movie set in the 1920s?

3 comments:

Marc Acito said...

Hear, hear. Very stimulating and thought-provoking commentary. I don't think songwriters should necessary strive for too many current cultural references or their songs will date quickly. Fifty years from now, Regis and Cathy will have as much resonance as an arrow collar does today.

Dr.J said...

What about Irving Berlin? I have in mind Fred Astaire in 1946 Blue Skies with "Putting up the Ritz"

Marissa said...

Yep! "Dressed up like a million-dollar trooper / Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper / Super-duper!"