Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Headlines That Sing: Teaching Students to Use Their Allusions

One of the qualities of New York Times writing is that it not only informs clearly (almost all the time), concisely (almost all the time), and gracefully (almost all the time) — but that it delights. On almost every page, well-turned phrases, alliterations, similes and word play amuse and delight readers. My favorite Times verbal delight, though, is the headline that contains an allusion to a song.  

A recent New York Times article about the dividends that original investors in the 1960 Off-Broadway show The Fantasticks continue to receive, carried the headline, "'Fantasticks' Pays Back for 50 Years — From a Small Investment in 1960, the Checks Follow, Follow, Follow...." How clever of the headline writer to relate the last three words from the Fantasticks song, "Try to Remember," to the flow of checks the show's original investors have received. In one case $330 eventually earned $80,000. (The complete allusion appears at the end of the song.)

New York Times headline allusions to songs are delightful to encounter, although only a Times reader familiar with many musical genres — pop, rock, musical comedy, operetta, opera, folk, TV theme songs, childrens' songs, holiday songs — will recognize all of them. However — and a big however — is that if you don't "get" a Times headline on its allusive level, you still understand it on its literal level. In other words, a Times headline is never an inside joke. If you get the allusion, terrific; if you don't get it, the headline still makes sense. 

For example, a Times story about how a glittering 2003 holiday tourism season in New York City reversed the disastrous 2001 season, was headlined, "City Sidewalks, Packed in Holiday Style, Hint at End to Lingering Slump in Tourism." It's an allusion to the song, "Silver Bells," made famous in the Bob Hope movie The Lemon Drop Kid, and since then heard ubiquitously every Christmastime on the radio, in shops, and in your favorite department store. The song's actual lyric is, "City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style." If you didn't get the allusion, did you understand the headline anyway? Of course.  

Another example: A Times story about random sounds in music and on TV commercials that make people think it's their cellphone ringing was headlined, "I Hear Ringing and There's No One There. I Wonder Why." A perfectly logical and straightforward headline for that story, right? But it's also an allusion to "You're Just in Love," a song from Irving Berlin's musical comedy, Call Me Madam.

It amazes me the breadth of not just the song titles Times copy editors know, but the lyrics. And it's not just knowledge that enables them to create allusive headlines; it's having the quickness of mind to associate a song or a lyric with a review or a news, feature or sports story. Sometimes, latching a song title or a lyric to a news story can seem easy, as I think it probably was for "Luck Be a Microchip Tonight," over an article about computer-based slot machines in Las Vegas, and "Diamonds Are a Czar's Best Friend," about a museum exhibit of jewelry once owned by a Russian dynasty, But what about "Strangers in the Net, Exchanging Glances," over a Times article about social networking sites, or  "Hello Fender, Hello Gibson," about a summer day camp that specializes in rock music, an allusion to Allan Sherman's comedy song, "Hello Muddah Hello Faddah." Genius, I think.

I've wondered about the ages of headline writers who come up with allusions to lyrics from Broadway shows and movies from the 1930's and 40's. But Ron Wertheimer, who heads The Times's culture copy desk, where the daily arts sections, Friday's Weekend section and Sunday's Arts and Leisure session are copy-edited and headlined, told me that the 16 editors on his desk range in age from their 30's to their 60's, and that "some of the best uses of old pop and show tunes come from the younger folks." Far from being foreign to today's younger people, he said, the old songs continue to show up covered by current singers, in movies, in commercials, and even on "Glee."

One of Mr. Wertheimer's favorite headlines —it won a publisher's cash award for the culture desk copy editor Lisanne Renner — was over an obituary that ran last Dec. 4: "Robert Degen, 104, Dies; Had Hand in Hokey Pokey." "If you know the song," Mr. Wertheimer wrote in an e-mail message ('You put your right hand in, you put your right hand out ...'), you get the unexpected joke and smile, even if it is an obit." And if you don't know the song, he said, the headline still makes perfect sense because Degen was one of at least three other songwriters, the obituary tells us, who claimed credit for creating the song." (Some applause please, as well, for Mr. Wertheimer, who created the "Follow, follow, follow" headline.)

One of the cleverest song allusion headlines I've ever seen, "I'm Singin' in Beijing," was over a Times Op-Ed column by Gail Collins, who wrote about Lin Miaoke, the 9-year-old girl who everyone thought was singing "Ode to the Motherland" at the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony — and who thought so herself — but whose microphone was shut off while the world heard the voice of seven-year old Yang Peiyi, a less adorable girl who sang from offstage because although the Chinese authorities thought she had the better voice, she wasn't cute enough to represent China to the world.

"I'm Singin' in Beijing" is one of my all-time favorite allusive headlines because it captures so cleverly the parallel between my favorite movie, "Singin' in the Rain," and the Olympics event. I regret, though, that I cannot describe the movie's parallel event because doing so will spoil the ending for those who haven't seen my favorite movie.  

At The Times, as at most newspapers, headlines are written not by reporters but by copy editors, who are told where on a page a story will go, how many columns wide it will be, and how many tiers the headline will have. At The Times, Mr. Wertheimer said, an exception is made for the regular Op-Ed columnists, who write their own headlines. He thinks the headline, "I'm Singin' in Beijing" was Ms. Collins's creation.  

On the culture desk,  Mr. Wertheimer wrote, many great allusive headlines are created by the people who work for him, and, he says, he's "shown them how to have fun with a song title or lyric."  

Like these perhaps?

Culture copy editor Rachel Saltz headlined a review of a Tammy Wynette biography, "Stand By Your Singer And Her Art." Over an October 16, 2009 review of the Broadway revivial of Bye Bye Birdie, copy editor Pat Ryan wrote "Music to Play, Places to Go, People to See." And for a review of a 2009 revival of Guys and Dolls,  Mr. Wertheimer simply topped it with a line directly from the show's title song: "It's a Cinch That the Bum Is Under the Thumb of Some Little Broad."

"I've been playing with song titles and lyrics at The Times since I started out as a copy editor 22 years ago," wrote Mr. Wertheimer, who will be 63 in July. "As a lifelong devotee of the American Songbook I learned headline writing from experts like Johnny Mercer and Ira Gershwin, following their example of succinct storytelling in short, conversational phrases. When I quote the masters, I'm acknowledging my debt while engaging the reader." 

"Many old songs," Mr. Wertheimer said, "are part of our national memory; that's why they work as headlines." Which means that while current top-selling songs appear in a chart in the Business section of The Times on Mondays, they are highly unlikely to be employed as allusions in the rest of the paper.

If a New York Times headline this week contained any of these phrases would you know it was an allusion to a currently popular song? "Watcha Say"; "Break Your Heart"; "Empire State of Mind'; "She Wolf"; "Rude Boy." You might, if you're a teenager or in the pop music business. I've never heard of any of them myself, but Rebecca Leder, a high school senior in Washington, D.C., who gave me these examples of current hits, would instantly "get" an allusive headline containing any of them, as would millions of other high school students. I doubt they'll be used allusively in a Times headline anytime soon, but in a high school newspaper, why not? 
 
Headline allusions of any kind are rare in high school newspapers, but I've run across a few. Particularly memorable was an allusion to the song "Downtown." The article was about entertainment options in the downtown area of the school's city, and the headline was, "The Lights Are Much Brighter There."  

Last week, I posted a note to the Journalism Education Association's listserve, asking its over one thousand members for examples of song allusions in headlines that appeared in the student newspaper they advise. I'm happy to say I received quite a few.  

Among them was one from April van Buren, the librarian and school newspaper adviser at Mesa Vista Middle and High School in Ojo Caliente, New Mexico. When she was teaching at Parkway Central H.S., in Chesterfield, Missouri, in 2005, she said, her editors wrote a front page story in the school paper about students who were drinking at school or going to their cars to do drugs at lunch or in between class. The headline was "Don't You Know It's So Toxic," an allusion to Britney Spears' song "Toxic" that was popular at the time. Would I have understood the allusion? Hardly; I've never heard of the song. But on its more literal level the headline made sense. 

A year later, Ms. van Buren said, the Parkway Central paper ran a story about the importance of wearing a seatbelt, under the headline, "Bringing Safety Back," an allusion, she said, to Justin Timberlake's "Bringing Sexy Back." Never heard of that one either. But most of the newspaper's readers no doubt did, and, again, the headline made sense to me even though I missed the allusion. 

Jamie Gregory, the newspaper adviser at James F. Byrnes High School, in Duncan, South Carolina, told me that her co-editor in chief, John Kelly, a "huge" Fleetwood Mac fan, ended his final senior column by telling his readers, "Leaving high school is like leaving a Fleetwood Mac concert. Though staying here for the rest of our lives sounds good, it's not conducive to growth and maturation." His headline, alluding to "Go Your Own Way," the title of a Fleetwood Mac song, was "Senior Graduates, Goes His Own Way." 

I sometimes end my talks to student and teacher audiences by asking for volunteers from the audience to sing the first line of a song that's alluded to in a headline that I read to them. Sing the first line and they get a Times souvenir. The first headline I ever challenged a high school student audience with was over an article about the difficulty of maintaining penthouse gardens in New York. The headline was, "On City Roofs, It's Not Easy Being Green."  

Not a single hand went up. Nobody knew the song, for heaven's sake. In the 1970's, every child who watched Sesame Street knew by heart Kermit the Frog's "Bein' Green," a song made popular among adults, too, when it was recorded by Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, and Lena Horne. I hadn't given any thought to the fact that the kids in that auditorium were born during the 1990's and had probably never heard the song, even if they watched Sesame Street. The Times copy editor who created that headline did it not for them, of course, but for Times readers who grew up in the 70's.  

In a previous Visual Thesaurus column, I wrote about the wonderfully creative similes found every day in every section of The New York Times and that, despite the seeming sophistication of The Times — and of similes as literary devices — students in high school and even younger can readily create them in their writing. Allusions, too, are easy for students to create. 

With little instruction and little effort, students can employ an allusion in the title of a piece of creative writing, a book report, a classroom composition, or a school newspaper article. Even elementary school children can do it, but in their case the learning begins backwards: The allusory title is written before the story.  

Watch...

On paper or chalkboard, provide them with the names of several nursery rhymes and children's songs. Recite them together and determine that the children understand their meanings. Then help them create stories suggested by those titles. Given the story titles below, for example, most elementary school children could write, or at least tell, a brief story. 

  • What a Dainty Dish to Set Before Me
  • Scared to Death By an Itsy Bitsy Spider
  • She Is My Sunshine
  • Did You Ever See Such a Thing in Your Life
  • All Fall Down 

For high school students, of course, exercises are more sophisticated.  

  1. Have students create an allusive song title for something they've already written — a composition, book report, term paper or piece of creative writing.

  2. Have students select an article from their school paper and create for it a new headline containing, fully or in part, an allusion to a song they think most other teenagers know. Any of the key words of a referred to song can be changed to fit the need, as they were, for example, in "Luck Be a Microchip Tonight" and  "Diamonds Are a Czar's Best Friend."

  3. Assuming a Broadway show (your choice) was presented by your school's drama club, have students employ part or all of the title of a song from it in a headline that might have appeared over a review in your school newspaper. Examples students might invent: "There Is Nothing Like a Central High Musical"; "Climb Every Stage Prop"; "I Could Have Watched All Night"; "Consider Yourself Entertained"; "I Feel Giddy."

I leave you with a potpouri of New York Times headlines that sing, each one preceded by a brief description of the article it appeared over. 

As a result of the recession, Les Harrington is the only resident living in the 58-unit retirement village in England where he bought his apartment in 2007 for several thousand  pounds.
Won't You Be His Neighbor? 

Stocks have been seesawing during the summer of 2009.
Summertime and the Markets Are Fluctuating 

The cleaning and restoration of the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key.
New Dawn for Flag That Was Still There  

Some baseball stadiums are serving upscale food.
Buy Me Some Sushi and Baby Back Ribs 

An interview with Billy Joel prior to two July 2008 concerts.
Just the Way He Is 

A review of a cabaret performance by Andrea McCardle, Broadway's original Annie, who is now 44 years old.
Bet Your Bottom Dollar, She Survived 'Tomorrow'

There's a booming business in artificial flowers, plants and trees.
The Flowers That Bloom in Spring, Ha Ha

Some social-networking Web sites are geared to traveling businesswomen who tend to remain in their hotels, often lonely and bored, rather than go out alone at night.
What Good Is Sitting Alone In Your Room?

Teenage girls are wearing skimpier bikinis these days.
More Itsy-Bitsy Teeny-Weeny Than Ever

Female Komodo dragons, it has been learned, are capable of producing fertile eggs without having mated with a male.
Birds Do It. Bees Do It. Dragons Don't Need To

Finally, an article about the questioning of a White House adviser by members of Congress was headlined, 'A Very Model of a Modern Gentleman.' You're invited to sing along.


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Bob Greenman is the author of Words That Make a Difference; and, with his wife, Carol, More Words That Make a Difference, vocabulary enrichment books based on words and passages from The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. Bob taught English and journalism at James Madison and Edward R. Murrow High Schools, and at Kingsborough Community College, all in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a newspaper in education consultant for The New York Times, and his website has a section devoted to journalism education. Click here to read more articles by Bob Greenman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday May 31st 2010, 4:28 AM
Comment by: Winston D.
So might your article be retitled:

Hot Diggity, Dog Ziggity: Class, Use your Allusions, Please!
Monday May 31st 2010, 11:46 AM
Comment by: Treadwell D.
I Wish We All Could Read New York Times Headlines

This was the most interesting VT column I've ever read. This is high praise, because (not since) I read and enjoy almost every one of them. Thank you very much.
Monday May 31st 2010, 11:49 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Right now, if a headline here should read, "Rain, rain, go away!"

And I think we'd all get it!

Manitoba is inundated with May Showers...

Excellent lesson, but I wonder how many songs will stay around long enough to become 'allusionary' into the adulthood of these students.

They seem so transient now, not like when Your Cheating Heart was around on the hit parade for nearly a year!

But then, there is so much more around it seems... Yet it's the show tunes that seem to stick with me.

We lost a noted Premier today, and we've all got Fond Memories...
Monday May 31st 2010, 2:11 PM
Comment by: Annie G. (Gladwyne, PA)
Delightful article and timely for me, since one of my favorite NYT headlines of all time appeared 5/22 'NEW LOS ANGELES DRIVER, ON A JOY RIDE', which turned out to be a lovely piece about the exuberant new conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a wonderful inversion of the headlines in your essay where the headlines are musical when the news isn't.
Monday May 31st 2010, 8:33 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
A few years ago, I downloaded a list of hundreds and hundreds of songs from the internet from the pre-rock era.
Songs from the 30's, 40's, and 50's had become a part of me during my years of primary, secondary, and college education.
As I read down through my list of song titles, I was literally overwhelmed by the extensive familiarity I had with each song.
It amazed me how those melodies and feelings have remained unadulterated in the musical part of my brain over all those years!
As I read each title (without seeing the music), it was like a switch in my brain. Almost every last song popped right into my mind It was as if those musical traces had been hardwired into the living tissue from those early years even though most of those songs had never even come to mind for so many years!
Tuesday June 1st 2010, 4:16 PM
Comment by: L B.
A great piece about loving music to the degree that remindful headlines bring that nudge of good feeling before even reading the article. Thank you for those contributions. Clever, and I will remember it at my next headline write. LB

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