Saturday, January 03, 2009

Everybody Needs a Catchphrase

Ally McBeal's therapist once told her everybody needs a theme song. When Ally tentatively started singing the theme song to her own show, the therapist stopped her: "That's a terrible theme song," she said.

I like the idea of a theme song, but being a wordsmith, I think it's more important that everybody have a catchphrase. Heroes have it: the Thing shouts "It's clobberin' time!" whenever he enters into battle, and the Tick strikes terror into the hearts of his enemies every time he yells "Spoon!" There was a time when any adorable child actor worth his network timeslot had a catch phrase, from Jason Bateman's sly "You're gonna laugh!" to Jan Brady's whiney "Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!" I taught each of my nieces catch phrases until their parents subtly suggested I stop; the most recent were "I'm important, yo!" (the story behind that one is in Deliver Us from Me-Ville) to the politically savvy (if I do say so myself) "What's the drama, Barack Obama?"

I'm drawn to catch phrases because they communicate reliability. We know that regardless of how different his strokes get, Arnold Drummond will still give voice to his suspicions by cocking his head to the side and inquiring, "Whatchoo talkin' bout?" We know that no matter what kind of vodka goes into the glass, James Bond's martini will be "shaken, not stirred." We let out little cheers whenever we hear our hero's catchphrase because they offer a baseline of familiarity, stability, to a scenario we otherwise haven't figured out.

I've noticed lately that some writers have a literary equivalent to a catchphrase. They don't serve quite the same purpose, but their persistent occurrence in a writer's material offers some of the same clues to their personality. We know, for example, that Sting is particularly impressed with one line of lyric from the song "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic":

Do I have to tell the story
Of a thousand rainy days since we first met?
It's a big enough umbrella
But it's always me that ends up getting wet.


We know Sting likes this lyric because he sings twice in that song, and because he imports it into other songs he writes, including "O My God" from the Police's Synchronicity album and "Seven Days" off his solo project Ten Summoner's Tales. It's an unorthodox line--Irish in its sensibility and bite, ironically romantic--that characterizes Sting's approach to songwriting. No wonder he likes to remind himself of it.

But some phrases occur less intentionally, I think. They serve as indicators of a writer's unconscious agenda, a thematic phrase for what they consider important. I've read several books by Lynne Baab, for example, including her most recent Reaching Out in a Networked World about church communications. I even edited a couple of her prior books--Sabbath Keeping and Fasting, both on particular spiritual practices. In all three she slips in the phrase "for our time" at key moments. I lost count as I read through Reaching Out. I doubt she'd notice if it were edited out of any one of her books, but the fact that, in various permutations, "for our time" occupies so much space in her writing is evidence of how much space it occupies in her thinking.

Lynne is a pragmatist, a practical theologian with an emphasis on practical. Her latest book is immensely so, helping usher intimidated church secretaries, pastors and elders into the digital era in a way that communicates their church well. She does this because of her conviction that every church is where it is, every Christian where she or he is, "for our time"--intended to carry a message from ancestors to descendants and to give witness to that message "in our time" to onlookers and critics. Lynne thrives as a writer because of her unspoken conviction that there's no point writing for some past or future time, only for the cultural, spiritual moment we find ourselves in.

Lynne is not alone in employing an unconscious catchphrase. I deduced the band behind a song I heard on the radio this week as much because of a representative lyric--"in this life"--as because of the singer's singing and rhythm section's rhythm. The song was "Gone"; the band was Switchfoot; the lyric appears in at least two other songs of theirs and I suspect several more, a reference to the brevity of the life each of us is experiencing and the consequent significance of each little occurrence and the simultaneous importance of not putting off the life to come. "In this life" for Switchfoot communicates both pastoral concern and cultural critique.

I'm pretty sure I have my own unconscious catchphrases and even unconscious catchphrase constructs in my writing, but I don't know what they are; if I did, they wouldn't be unconscious now, would they? Such turns of phrases can become our own little cliches if we're not careful, or they can become a rut that our thinking settles into. But more often than not, I think they serve as an organizing theme for our communication, the through line that tethers even our most divergent creations to each other. I'd be interested to hear of any catchphrases you've identified in authors you enjoy reading, and if you'd like to point out some of my own, I promise I won't blow you off with a flippant "Asta la vista, baby."

2 comments:

Jenn said...

I feel like I've noticed one or two of yours, but of course now that I'm on the spot, I can't think of them.

I think one of mine is, "I'm just saying."

Meanwhile, the word verification today is "tanista." I would like to know if this is what they call people who work at tanning salons.

Vince said...

I'm not sure if you're a fan of Darby Conley's comic strip Get Fuzzy, but he just did a week on catch phrases: http://comics.com/get_fuzzy/2008-12-29/