Wednesday, December 19, 2012

You Just Don't Know 'Bout Me: David Byrne on Beyonce, and Other Concerns

I'm continuing my trek through How Music Works by David Byrne, former lead singer of Talking Heads. It's shockingly slow going, to be honest--although I think that has less to do with the book and more to do with me. Every time I pick it up I'm glad I did, but there are only a few days a week I see my way clear to pick it up in the first place.

I'm at the point in the book, however, where when I do pick it up, I'm rewarded for doing so. Today I'm reading from the chapter on collaboration, which ends with a reflection on "emergent storytelling" in songwriting, or how the attempt to match words sonically and rhythmically with music that's already been written often results in a song writing itself--snatches of lyrics that, upon reflection, relate naturally and intimately to one another and combine to tell a coherent and resonant tale. "This might seem magical," Byrne admits, "but it's true."

Therein lies the danger: words have the capacity to stamp out magic.

At times words can be a dangerous addition to music--they can pin it down. Words imply that the music is about what the words say, literally, and nothing more. If done poorly, they can destroy the pleasant ambiguity that constitutes much of the reason we love music. That ambiguity allows listeners to psychologically tailor a song to suit their needs, sensibilities, and situations, but words can limit that, too. There are plenty of beautiful pieces of music that I can't listen to because they've been "ruined" by bad words--my own and others. In Beyonce's song "Irreplaceable," she rhymes "minute" with "minute," and I cringe every time I hear it (partly because by that point I'm singing along). On my own song "Astronaut," I wrap up with the line "feel like I'm an astronaut," which seems like the dumbest metaphor for alienation ever. Ugh.
I can actually imagine David Byrne singing that Beyonce song, actually. In case you don't know it, it goes a little something like this:

To the left, to the left . . .
Everything you own in a box to the left . . .
Don't you ever for a minute get to thinking you're irreplaceable.
Whereas Beyonce sounds strong and defiant, as is typical of her, David Byrne's version sounds much more plaintive in my head. Beyonce keeps her head up, but Byrne's head is decidedly down.

I was surprised by how candidly Byrne throws Beyonce under the bus in this passage, but in his defense, he does sing along. Not to mention that rhyming a word with the same word is a pet peeve of mine as well. I once got so vocal about it that a friend wrote a poem to mock me for it. Each line ended with the word me, which was extraordinarily funny. The only line I remember, however, is this:

Loathing--such loathing!--for me and my clothing.
That, my friends, is a great little lyric. I daresay that my friend was engaged in emergent storytelling twenty years before David Byrne wrote a book about it.

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