Writing insights revealed by country twang

country music

Usually, I take a music video and dissect the lyrics to look for writing insights, which is interesting and fun.

Click with your mousity mouse to see what I did to the music video and lyrics for ELECTRIC AVENUE, because it is not only fun, but educational.

Then go see what I did with Vanilla Ice and ICE, ICE BABY.

OK. Now we get all serious. Because I am using the lyrics to a country song, and I’m not making fun of it, despite my severe twang allergy.

Good music — and good writing — have the same patterns. Songs start slow, build up, bridge to  the chorus, return to the melody and build to a crescendo. They bring the audience on a journey.

The greatest guitarist in the world would bore you into a coma if he repeated the same riffs.

Variety is good.

Repetition can be powerfully boring, or powerfully good, depending on how you use it. If you do use repetition, it must have a purpose.

Country songs like this are great study for writers. Why? Not because they’re all sad songs where your pickup truck died, your wife left you for your best friend and your dog hates you. They’re useful because country songs tell a story in about 200 words, a story you can understand and dissect. I can point out the setups and payoffs. You can see the heroes and villains, the reversals and the climax.

By contrast, most pop songs feature lyrics that don’t have any real structure or story. 

Also, you can hear and understand country lyrics without a cheat sheet.

Three other good examples of country songs with great lyrics and minimal twang, if you are also allergic like me: LOVE STORY by Taylor Swift, Traveling Soldier by the Dixie Chicks and damn near anything by Lady Antebellum, who are flipping brilliant.

No matter what you write–novels or newspaper stories, screenplays or speeches–it’s worth remembering that writing needs to be like music. You need an interesting intro, a melody, a chorus and a crescendo. You need variety AND repetition.

So: watch this cheesy home-made music video. Listen to the lyrics, and read them on your magical screen that shows you words and moving pictures from anywhere on the planet.

See how Bucky the Covington has clear setups and payoff, and how he cleverly, and beautifully, uses repetition with a purpose.

The words in the chorus change slightly each time, yet the meaning is quite different. And while the writing itself is a tad clunky, my God, the structure, it is glorious. My only wish is that I owned a cowboy hat so I could take it off and salute you, Bucky.

I’LL WALK by Bucky Covington

We were 18, it was prom night.

We had our first big fight.

She said, Pull this car over.

I did and then I told her, I don’t know what you are crying for.

I grabbed her hand, as she reached for the door.

She said …

I’ll walk.

Let go of my hand.

Right now I’m hurt, and you don’t understand.

So just be quiet.

And later we will talk.

Just leave, don’t worry.

I’ll walk.

It was a dark night, a black dress.

Driver never saw her, around the bend.

I never will forget the call,

or driving to the hospital,

when they told me her legs still wouldn’t move.

I cried, when I walked into her room.

She said …

I’ll walk.

Please come and hold my hand.

Right now I’m hurt, and I don’t understand.

Lets just be quiet, and later we can talk.

Please stay, don’t worry.

I’ll walk.

I held her hand through everything.

The weeks and months of therapy.

And I held her hand and asked her to be my bride.

She’s dreamed from a little girl,

to have her daddy bring her down the isle.

So from her wheelchair, she looks up to him and smiles.

And says …

I’ll walk.

Please hold my hand.

I know that this will hurt, I know you understand.

Please daddy don’t cry.

This is already hard.

Let’s go, don’t worry.

I’ll walk.

Don’t try to understand PSYCHO by Post Malone—just enjoy the trip

Listen: Everyone should check out PSYCHO by Post Malone, which if you come at tabula rosa seems like a warning that we’ll need tanks and flamethrowers to survive the dystopian hell after the reign the last president of the United States, former NBA all-star Karl Malone.

Have a listen and a look:

There’s a weird thing about music videos of all genres, whether it’s country, rap, pop, rock or Pop Rocks, and that one weird thing is this: Just be different.

If you spend 2.1 bazillion dollars and hire a Hollywood director to make a high-production video that’s JUST LIKE ALL THE OTHERS, then congratulations, you’ve wasted 2.1 bazillion dollars.

Because nobody aside from your hardcore fans will love it, or even see the thing. Risk nothing, gain nothing.

You can see this mistake happen again and again by big-name stars who forget how they got there by being scrappy, edgy and different, with songs that actually tell stories and/or try to say something. They start making songs, music videos and entire albums about the most interesting subject in the world: themselves. (See West, Kanye and Swift, Taylor.)

Which brings us to Post Malone and PSYCHO, which isn’t perfect—but at least it’s different.

Though I’m a huge fan of Mad Max movies, zombie movies and dystopian fun in general, there’s no real connection between the lyrics of the song and this imagery. And those lyrics are fine. They’re not hard to decipher, or worth interpreting and dissecting like the only good song Vanilla Ice ever did (ICE, ICE, BABY) or the first music video I can remember, back when MTV actually played music videos (ELECTRIC AVENUE by Eddie Grant). This is simply a good song.

ICE, ICE BABY as interpreted by the Red Pen of Doom

ELECTRIC AVENUE by Eddie Grant

Fitness Tips for the Apocalypse: Chapter 1—You’re Doing It Wrong

As for the video, I have no idea who the little girl is, why Post Malone is looking for her or why the animatronic wolves are just hanging around instead of munching on every human they see. Maybe they spent the budget renting tanks and didn’t have enough left to get the mutant wolves to move around.

Saying this video looks good but doesn’t make a lot of sense, sound on or off, is a valid critique.

HOWEVER: None of that matters.

Not one bit.

First, because the song is so freaking good. Seriously. Post Malone is always a good listen, on this track and his other work. Just solid.

Second, the fact that the imagery doesn’t fit the lyrics doesn’t affect your enjoyment. Sure, this thing isn’t It’s not meaningful, deep or transcendent. This video won’t become a cult classic. And you don’t care, because PSYCHO is interesting and well-shot. It’s the music video equivalent of a summer B movie: not gonna win any awards, but you’ve got a bag of $11 popcorn, the bass is loud and you’re gonna have a good time.

VERDICT: Post Malone is clearly talented, and he used a good director and film crew to make this. I’d love to see what he could do if he put all the pieces together and told a real story that matched his words.

Taking apart the expensive disaster of LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO by Taylor Swift

I come here to praise Taylor Swift, not to bury her CGI zombie corpse.

Though I’m neither superfan nor hater, I have to say she did some great music videos early in her career. YOU BELONG TO ME is excellent. BACK TO DECEMBER is pretty good.

This music video is a step backward, an expensive mess that shows T-Swift has fully evolved from a Scrappy Young Talent Who Just Hit It Big all the way to a Establishment Megastar With More Mansions Than She Can Remember.

Yes, the production values are great. Fans will watch the heck out of this just for the spectacle.

HOWEVER: It doesn’t make you feel anything.

At all.

And that’s the acid test for a music video.

Do you laugh?

Do you feel joy, or anger?

Do you cry?

That’s because whether you intend to or not, every song tells a story. A music video is supposed to help tell that story.

Songs don’t give you a lot of words to do the job. It takes discipline and talent to do it right. 

The Dixie Chicks can spend 200 words to tell a full story that makes you full of sorrow (TRAVELING SOLDIER) or righteously angry (GOODBYE, EARL).

Taylor can do this, too. She has the talent to tell a story and make you feel. One of her first big hits did this perfectly. It’s even in the title.

Here’s where this new video goes wrong, despite all the money spent–reportedly, $12 million in diamonds was used for that bath scene.

What story is she telling, and how does it make us feel?

In her best songs and videos, Taylor’s telling a story about somebody else, somebody we can all relate to, and that makes us feel for the protag. YOU BELONG TO ME is about a high school girl, something of a loser, with a crush on a neighbor boy. People get that. Whether you’re male or female, we’ve all been through awkward years in junior high or high school. It’s easy to feel for the girl she’s singing about, and to root for that underdog. You want her to get the boy and it’s a great moment when they both show up to the dance together.

In this video, Taylor’s clearly talking about herself, and the point of the song is to strike back at perceived rivals.

It’s hard for non-billionaires to feel sympathy for celebrities with hurt feelings. No matter how good the song is (and it’s not that good compared to her best) and how much they spent making this video, you can’t force people to feel sorry for a young, pretty woman who makes more money in a week than most people will make in their lifetime.

What are the stakes?

 

Just like books and movies, songs can have low stakes or high stakes, personal stakes and public stakes.

They can be about whether love rules the day or love forever lost. War or peace, injustice or redemption.

The stakes here are extremely low. Oh, Taylor is so upset (at Katy Perry or whoever, I honestly don’t care and neither should you) that she crashed a car that costs more than your house while a a cheetah served as her copilot. With her car trashed, will she be unable to get to work in the morning and lose her job? Does it matter in the slightest? No. She may have to tell her staff to gas up the Ferrari, or the Bentley, or one of however many dozen cars she owns. People will clean up the mess while she goes off and trashes one of her jets and rounds up an army of cloned robots or whatever to assault the compound of P-Diddy or whoever she’s mad at this week.

Basically, I can’t make myself care, and yes, I tried. Really hard.

What’s the impact of the song and video?

The best songs and music videos stick with you. AMERICAN PIE was about an entire era, and half the fun was trying to decipher the lyrics. Even if you didn’t get every line, you got the message about how America was changing. It sticks with you.

EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE is about love turning into obsession, and the video is stark black-and-white. I wouldn’t change a thing.

When I first heard LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO on the radio, I swore it was Britney Spears.

Not kidding. Feels like mid-stage Britney, after she’d made it big, and started doing over-the-top stuff like this:

Verdict: Sure, the production values and budget is sky high, but the entertainment value is meh and the feels generated are zero. 10/10 would not watch again.

If the old Taylor Swift is dead, and the new T-Swift is busy being obsessed with her hurt feelings and celebrity beefs, let’s resurrect the old Taylor Swift–the one focused on songs that aren’t about her. I’d happily listen and watch that singer.

Hard and Complex versus Impossible and Bizarre

This is about why Flappy Bird was such a surprise hit, Taylor Swift’s newest mega-video is meh and why your favorite movies, novels and video games work when others fail.

Here’s why: audiences want something interesting, and entertaining, which means different and surprising. Yet there’s a fuzzy line between Hard and Impossible and a deadly chasm between Complex and Bizarre.

It’s like thinking, “chocolate chip cookies are yummy, so why not chocolate chip cookies with almonds, M & M’s, pecans, Oreo sprinkles, peanut butter and a Snicker’s Bar on top?”

Watch the big Taylor Swift video, BAD BLOOD, then we’ll chat.

Now, this has high production values and great costumes, and I’m sure Michael Bay watched it on an endless loop all weekend. Yet it’s not elegantly complex and entertaining. It’s a hot mess, the music video equivalent of THE EXPENDABLES, with so many random stars thrown in for cameos that I have no idea who’s who. Does it look cool? Sure. Do we care one bit? No. Not even half a bit, or a quarter bit.

Compare that to the simplicity and beauty of Iggy Azalea’s BLACK WIDOW, which is a masterpiece, paying homage to KILL BILL and flat nailing it.

Continue reading “Hard and Complex versus Impossible and Bizarre”

Stretch your editing muscles

Proofing for boo-boos is easy. Line editing is tougher.

Structural editing is the toughest.

So let’s play around with a little flash fiction from Joey’s contest and see what we can do, first with a standard edit job, then with a different kind of big-picture spitballing.

Original flash fiction entry by Mayumi – 196 words

Stone stairs and the blood of Landstanders foolish enough to raise arms against him disappear beneath Fin’s boots, as every step takes him closer to the top of this tall, windowed tower, and to the girl trapped within.

“Wavewalker!” a guard warns, but he’s silenced by metal tines already streaked red; it’s the same for his partner beside. And up Fin runs, never stopping. His muscles ache, his lungs burn, but the door is just ahead, and suddenly he’s crying her name as his spear splinters the heavy wood:

“Cauda!”

He’s barely broken through when she rushes up, arms thrown around him. And though her eyes are wide and frightened, her voice drifts to him with such gentle love, like the dreamy sway of the coral among which they used to swim. “You came.”

Time is short – more Landstanders are surely already racing to reclaim their princess prize – but still he cups her face, so sea-pale and soft, and kisses her, for fear it will be the last thing he ever does.

He draws back at the taste of tears.

“There’s no way out,” she whispers.

The spear creaks in his fist. “There’s always a way.”

# # #

Comments:

Of all the entries, this one had the most action, which is probably why I liked it. Other stories mostly hinted at action to come, or actions in the past.

Edits: switched to past tense instead of present, fixed various things.

Edited version – 178 words

Blood on the stone stairs disappeared beneath Fin’s boots, every step taking him closer to the top of the tower and the girl trapped within.

A guard’s shout was cut off by a blade already streaked with red. And up Fin ran, never stopping. His muscles ached, his lungs burned, but the door was just ahead, and he cried her name as he spear splintered the heavy wood.

“Cauda!”

He’d barely broken through when she rushed to throw her arms around him. Though her eyes are wide and frightened, her voice drifted to him with such gentle love, like the dreamy sway of the coral among which they used to swim.

“You came,” she said.

Time was short – more soldiers were surely racing to reclaim their princess prize – but he cupped her face, so sea-pale and soft, and kissed her despite the fear it would be the last thing he ever did.

Fin drew back at the taste of her tears.

“There’s no way out,” she whispered.

The spear creaked in his fist.

“There is always a way.”

# # #

So, a typical editing job. Nothing fancy.

I’m more interested in the guts of a piece — short story or stump speech, HBO series or Hollywood blockbuster. What’s the structure, the setups and payoffs? How do things change?

So here’s another flash fiction entry. No line editing here. Let’s look at the bones and spitball some options.

# # #

I’ll never forgot that old, mossy stone porch. Johnny and I used to lie there after the dances, enjoying the smooth coldness of the stone against our sweaty skin, and talk about what we would do with a building like this if it were our home.

“First off,” he would say, “I’d kick all these damned people out!”

He used to love to make me laugh. I thought I couldn’t live without him. We were both 17, and it seemed like the perfect life lay before us. Everything in the world was perfect, if only for a moment.

That, was of course, before the booze took hold of him.

It’s hard to believe, only a few short years later, here I stand looking at that porch, with its glorious white columns, standing tall and proud, with the fadings of Johnny’s fists on my face. Oh how life changes so cruelly.

He will wake up soon, in the E.R., and wonder how he got there. He will yell and call out my name. The nurses will not know that “Jenny” means Jessica, because they will not know that in his drunken confusion he often mistakes his mistress for his wife.

# # #

Nice. I like it. There is a difference between the beginning (Love Story by Taylor Swift) and the end (Goodbye Earl by the Dixie Chicks).

How can we pump up the story without adding Michael Bay explosions, robots fighting and Megan Fox randomly running around in short-shorts?

Most of this piece is either remembering the past or predicting the future. So my first crazy idea is to make it all present tense, because there’s instantly more tension if it’s all happening now.

Let’s strip away the pretty words and look at the bones. Boil it all the way down. Right now, the original gets down to something like, “Wife plans revenge on cheaty McCheater.”

How can we change the structure to something happening now, and make it so memorable that it gets down to a sentence that makes your jaw drop. So, let’s spitball here. (Note: theese are not the words, but story / structure / outline.)

# # #

Jessica loves Johnny SOOOO much that she wants to marry him. They’re on a picnic at this amazing stone tower. It’s romantic, and yeah, she actually bought him a gold band and might ask him tonight, if it feels right. It’s a modern world. She wants to be married, and to him. And he seems super polite and nervous today, like he maybe is thinking the same thing. Her entire life could change tonight. It’s beautiful and perfect.

She’s decided to ask him. Why not? But he beats her to the punch. “Jessica, can we talk about us?”

She says, sort of quietly, “I’d like us to be forever.” But he’s starts talking about some new job, in some other city, and some girl named Jenny who he sort of slept with.

So when he stands up to awkwardly hug her goodbye, she sort of pushes him off the tower.

# # #

Now that can boil down to “You would not BELIEVE what happened last night” headline: Woman pushes cheating lover to his doom — on night she hoped to get engaged