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And We Suddenly Know What Heaven We're In

The other day we heard, for the first time, the Glenn Miller Orchestra/Andrews Sisters' version of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine." It's a well-known, up-tempo tune that is perhaps most famously covered in Artie Shaw's instrumental version. The Andrews Sisters were renowned for their clear diction and so for the first time, we actually listened to and understood the lyrics of the song. Much to our surprise, it's not an upbeat lyric it all. It's an unapologetic nostalgia-fest. But it was arresting to experience Cole Porter's words for the first time and it reminded us of that startling effect that popular music evokes once in a while. It's something we've been thinking about since Michael Lydon's piece a few weeks ago about songwriting.

Emotional transport is not a regular feature or goal of popular music, which seems generally to be the aural equivalent of snack food. Popular tunes are littered with disposable lyrics. Opera, choral music, and musical theater are the genres that have a better claim to the art of combining words and music to create something transformative for the listener, and we should note that "Begin the Beguine" is actually a crossover as a popular song. It began in musical theater, in the now rarely performed 1935 musical "Jubilee." Still, it got us thinking about what a song needs in order to take you outside the confines of the three-minute window to something more enduring, such as the experience of a brief glimpse into what someone else's life feels like. Here's a brief and very subjective guide, illustrating some of the points that Michael raised and focusing on a few popular songs from a short timespan, back in the day.

We have always been struck by the opening of the Mamas and Papas' hit song from 1967, "Twelve Thirty" (you can listen here):

I used to live in New York City
Everything there was dark and dirty.
Outside my window was a steeple
With a clock that always said 12:30.

The remainder of the song is a pretty good example of a rock song of its era, and the rest of the lyric doesn't live up to the promise of its beginning. But this stanza, sung in beautiful four-part harmony, encapsulates a slice of life in an image, and the success of it is down to one word: steeple. The lyric would be completely forgettable if the metrically equivalent "tower" or worse, "building," appeared in the same slot. But with steeple, we get a distinct and contrastive image that expands to a portrait of a period in the singer's life. The lingering image is of a steeple, suggesting inspiration, in a place that is stuck, dark, and dirty.

Another song, which now has passed into the genre of oldies so overplayed that you nearly cringe when you hear them, is "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town," written by Mel Tillis in 1969 and turned into a hit by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. It requires a full hearing before you get the story, and that contributes a little to the mystery in the first stanza. When you get the picture, the opening words turn out to be a very efficient thumbnail of a whole boatload of anguish:

You've painted up your lips
And rolled and curled your tinted hair
Ruby, are you contemplating going out somewhere?
The shadow on the wall tells me the sun is going down.
Oh Ruby, don't take your love to town.

In these four lines we get a character portrait of Ruby, a veiled reference to the singer's disability, and a premonition of his dread at the thing he knows he can't prevent. The song loses its power after a few hearings and becomes mere background noise after a hundred or so, but it was a chart-topper in its day and has been widely covered and translated into other languages. Tillis makes a few words do lots of work, especially (we think) tinted and painted up, which speak volumes about the perfectly named Ruby.

A couple years later (1971), Joni Mitchell released her influential album "Blue." Here's a stanza from "The Last Time I Saw Richard":

Richard got married to a figure skater
And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator
And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on
And all the house lights left up bright.

These four lines sum up the plummeting trajectory of a whole life. The unlikely rhyme of figure skater and percolator map out for the listener the road not taken by Richard, and the consequences of it, from the point of view of the singer who is trying hard not to let go of youthful idealism and romance. It's an unusually reflective view on a subject that is a staple of songs in every genre: the love that is no more.

And that brings us back to the lyrics of "Begin the Beguine." Here it's not a case of a single word, or even a stanza that creates the effect. In fact, if you read the words without knowing the song, you may find them maudlin. The effect of the lyric builds cumulatively from the beginning: we learn that the song is a song about a song that evokes a memory, and it's easy to get on board with that idea when you're listening to a song. Is "Begin the Beguine" the beguine that begins the singer's trip down memory lane? Technically, no, because a beguine is actually a slow dance in 3/4 time, and "Begin the Beguine" is in up-tempo, 4/4 time. But the imagery is all in place by the end of the second stanza — stars, shore, orchestra, palm trees, tropical splendor — and when the melody soars to its highest note in the line "And there we are, swearing to love forever" — well, there we are.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday April 2nd 2012, 1:49 AM
Comment by: Aleta R. (Edina, MN)
Beautifully written. Would that I could write like this.
Monday April 2nd 2012, 3:05 AM
Comment by: Jack R. (Palo Alto, CA)
It is worth -- very much worth -- adding a link to a sample of the song (and the fair use rights would protect that use) as it would provide an even better illustration of the point you make so well! Cheers, The Ideachampion!
Monday April 2nd 2012, 5:00 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I particularly liked your article!
Listen to the words of songs calls to mind the confused surprise I found in trying to understand a reference to an "eyeball" and its accompanying "optic nerve" found in a song about loyal and lasting love.
How did that imagery appear in a song about a long-term love relationship?
"I'd be nothing without you" is the song in a Pixar collection of "Children's Music" produced by Disney.
Nobody I've talked to noticed the strange reference to the neurophysiology of the human nervous system.
Am I alone in my search for meaning?
Monday April 2nd 2012, 10:10 AM
Comment by: Donna C.
Thanks for a perceptive article. Begin the Beguine, sigh.

It has been said that, although George Gershwin's music was sublime, it was actually the lyrics of his brother Ira that took a "Gershwin song" to a whole 'nother level.

One small correction: I think that in the phrase "a subject that is a stable of songs in every genre" you actually mean a "staple."

Thanks for another great article. As Cole Porter said, You're the top.

You're the top!
You're Mahatma Gandhi.
You're Napoleon Brandy.
You're the purple light
Of a summer night in Spain,
You're the National Gallery
You're Garbo's salary,
You're cellophane.
Monday April 2nd 2012, 10:58 AM
Comment by: Tom L. (Apalachicola, FL)
This is an excellent article in that it is thought provoking and helps guide me into a better understanding of several things that I have felt but been unable to express well. Your discussion has given me several tools to help me understand my own feelings better. Your article describes very well the difference between memorable lyrics and the incredibly forgettable sentiments expressed in most modern "music". I have had a discussion with our church music leader relative to contemporary religious music. The songs have no real meaning in either the music or the lyrics. They are repetitive, bland, and insignificant, just like most music one tunes in on the radio today.
Monday April 2nd 2012, 11:42 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Very interesting piece--I like how Orin points out how "steeple" adds a hopeful touch to the Mama's and Papa's dark lyric.

But I disagree with this: "Emotional transport is not a regular feature or goal of popular music."

Countless pop songs purposefully and successly create "emotional transport," particularly soul music that adds churchy fervor to romantic love. I'm thinking of Motown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding, and many more Their records blend driving rhythms, soaring melodies, and multi-voiced harmonies have great power to reach into listeners' hearts and infuse them with transformative hope and love and encouragement.
Monday April 2nd 2012, 1:03 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I have to agree with Michael Lydon that a lot (though maybe not the majority, granted) of pop songs are at least intended to induce emotional transport. This can happen in listeners even when the lyrics are not all that great, witness the tremendous success last year of the English singer Adele, who by her own admission is not a great lyricist yet said something apparently emotionally profound to several hundred million people.

It's interesting that in this piece we focus on songs of loss or potential loss, or at least dysfunction; perhaps that's the genre of song that pulls on us the most -- ? Joni Mitchell of course made something of a career of this, witness the opening stanza of "A Case of You":

Just before our love got lost you said,
"I am as constant as a northern star."
And I said, "Constantly in the darkness,
Where's that at?
If you want me I'll be in the bar."

... wherein she invokes not just a broken relationship (and an allusion to a drinking problem, haha), but squeezes in a clever double play on a line from Shakespeaere.

While I certainly agree that Cole Porter and (especially, imo) Ira Gershwin produced a lifetime of songs that speak to generations (with help from the music, naturally), we've seen our share of pop- and country-music singer/songwriters who have crafted emotionally laden lyrics -- Bob Dylan (of course), Paul Simon, Paul McCartney (when he's not being saccharine), Leonard Cohen, Richard Thompson, etc ... (I'm showing my age here, alas).

A final note. About 20 years ago, Francis Davis made the following observation in "The Atlantic", a sentiment I have found true myself:

"Rock and roll has outlived its usefulness to most of us who grew up with it. The current hits aren't about us anymore, but that's all right --we're no longer crowding the clubs and record stores. Pop has always existed primarily for the young, the only ones who have time for it. The source of disenchantment is in realizing that the favorite songs of our high school and college years are no longer about us either -- they reflect where we were in our lives then, not where we are now. This may be why so many of my friends have developed a sudden interest in country, a style of pop whose subject matter is less often adolescent sensuality than adult wreckage."
Monday April 2nd 2012, 1:29 PM
Comment by: Rain
There are no more meaningful lyrics than those found in country music.
I think the following, from Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance," are pretty inspiring:

"I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance,
Never settle for the path of least resistance
Livin' might mean takin' chances but they're worth takin',
Lovin' might be a mistake but it's worth makin'."
Monday April 2nd 2012, 1:49 PM
Comment by: Albert E. (SEATTLE, WA)
A beguine is "a slow dance in 3/4 time"? Are you sure you're not thinking of a bolero? The beguine has been a standard 4/4 dance rhythm (sort of a modified rumba) for over 70 years, since, well, "Begin the Beguine."

Artie Shaw's great recording popularized Cole Porter's song, but as a swing tune, not a beguine, and the Andrews Sisters (and countless others) followed suit.
Monday April 2nd 2012, 5:19 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks to all for your interesting and insightful comments. A few responses:

Donna: Thanks for your gentle correction; yes, I meant “staple.”

Michael and Mike: Points taken. I probably should have castigated “pop” music rather than “popular” music as being the home of disposable lyrics; I was thinking along the Madonna–Bieber axis at the time. But many people treat these two terms synonymously. And of course different things transport different people in different ways. The songs I chose to illustrate my points are also indicative of my age, and perhaps of my sensibility. As I said near the top of the piece, it’s a very subjective guide.

Albert: You may be right; I was depending on dictionaries for the definition of “beguine,” never having danced, or been aware of hearing one, myself. As the VT says, “music written in the bolero rhythm . . .” Random House Unabridged has “a dance in bolero rhythm that originated in Martinique.”

After I submitted this piece for publication a friend of mine brought to my attention a quote by novelist Jhumpa Lahiri that summarizes much of what I was trying to say. Hats off to Christopher Devine for alerting me to this:

"For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do."
Monday April 2nd 2012, 5:27 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
The source of the Jhumpa Lahiri quote is her recent piece for the New York Times Opinionator blog, " My Life's Sentences." Worth a read.
Tuesday May 1st 2012, 6:04 PM
Comment by: Brak87 (Dallas, TX)
Orin, interesting article, thank you.

I think everyone can agree that no one will experience emotional transport (or anything other than annoyance) when they hear Miley Cyrus sing "cause all I see are stilettos, I guess I never got the memo." I understand that these are the kind of disposable lyrics you are talking about.

While we're talking about lyricists that move and inspire us, I've got to mention Issac Brock, of Modest Mouse. Although he doesn't have the greatest voice, he always writes amazing lyrics (much like Bob Dylan).

Here's a line from the song, Third Planet:

"The third planet is sure that they're being watched by an eye in the sky that can't be stopped, when you get to the promised land, you're gonna shake that eye's hand."
Tuesday May 1st 2012, 8:04 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Still, no one dares a comment on the lyrics that include the "eyeball and the optic nerve".
I would like to hear a comment about this modern children's song that speaks of undying love and devotion, please?

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