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Monday, August 9, 2010

Every time that I look in the mirror...

As I promised yesterday, we're going to take a good look at some timeless words.  No, they're not excerpted from a novel or a short story.  No, they're not even fiction, though I do think they tell a story.  They're song lyrics, that special kind of poetry that is consumed by the masses because it comes wrapped in ear-pleasing, visceral rock-and-roll.

I had a nostalgic good time on Saturday night, enjoying an excellent Aerosmith concert in the company of my 14-year-old daughter, who appeared to be enjoying it as much as I was.  See--don't we look happy?

This, ladies and gentlemen, is art that crosses generations.  (Pop art, it's true.  We're not talking Mozart here.  But I write popular fiction, and I happen to believe that popular art that strikes a chord with millions of people is probably saying something important about the human condition.  Steven Tyler just makes his social commentary in a much raunchier way than, say, Maya Angelou.)

I remember hearing "Dream On" on the radio when it was first released.  When Aerosmith launched into that song, I heard thousands of people squeal like the little girl I was then, and I thought "We wordsmiths can learn some things from Aerosmith.  I'm gonna deconstruct that song."  I tell my fiction writing students that they should write poetry, just to practice the precise and practical use of words.  Well, when you write a pop song, you know you're gonna have to repeat that hook many, many you have to be even more selective about the words you do use.  Let's look at the words Steven Tyler chose in boldface.  I'll comment in regular old Times New Roman.

Every time that I look in the mirror,
All these lines on my face getting clearer.

I thought this was a heroic couplet, but alas, heroic couplets have five iambic feet.  Rock-and-roll lends itself more to four feet--tetrameter--and those look more like trochees than iambs, so let's call it trochaic tetrameter.  Shakespeare used that meter.  So did Edna St. Vincent Millay.  So I guess it's worthy.

Whatever you call it, I think the back-to-back rhyme of a couplet has a strong, definite sound.  And the feminine rhyme scheme--two rhymed syllables instead of just one--makes it even stronger.  It can be risky.  It can sound like a bad limerick.  (There once was a man from Nantucket/ who...oh, never mind.)

I think it works here.  And these opening lines strike right at the heart of anyone who has ever contemplated age and mortality.  (This is fairly amazing, considering that Tyler was what...25?...when he wrote those words.)  But it's a perfect opening for a song that's aiming a little higher than the average blues song that begins, "I woke up this morning, a day older than I was yesterdaa-aa-ayyy...)

The past is gone.
It went by like dusk to dawn.
Isn't that the way?
Everybody's got their dues in life to pay. 

And again, "Everybody's got their dues in life to pay," rubs our face in the hard parts of life, but it does the job with a little more style than "Nobody knows the trouble I've seen."  And it differs a bit from the blues, in that there is a whiff of hope here.  Will things get better after we get those dues paid?

Yeah, I know nobody knows,
Where it comes and where it goes.
I know everybody sins.
You got to lose to know-oh how to win.

And again, we're dealing in sin here, and sin leads to death, and well, there's the mortality thing again.  But maybe we've got a fighting chance to win while we're still kicking.

Half my life's in books' written pages, 

So's mine, Steve.  :)
Live and learn from fools and from sages.
You know it's true.
All these things come back to you. 

Dusk/dawn, lose/win, fools/sages...are we getting it yet?  What goes around comes around and what you give will come back to you.

Sing with me, sing for the year.
Sing for the laughter, an' sing for the tear.
Sing it with me, if it's just for today.
Maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will take you away...

Laughter/tear, today/tomorrow...are we getting it yet?  The good Lord has stuck us with this mortality thing, but we're doing our best to deal with it.  And maybe it's just me, but this song sounds like it's written about a man who is utterly depressed--at rock-bottom, actually--but a man who believes he can turn it around.

Dream on, dream on, dream on,
Dream until your dreams come true.

And this is where he turns it around.  This song's hook takes the jaded teenager's response to a cheerful statement, "Dream on...sigh..." and removes the irony.  It seriously asks us to contemplate that dreams come true.  Works for me.  And because it's a radio-ready song, the hook gets repeated several (several!) times, turning it into a rock anthem.

So there you go.  Look at your own writing and see if you can use any of this wisdom:  Simple words.  Strong rhythms. Timeless longings.  And the rebellious, shaken-fist refusal to succumb to depression.  We could all do worse, don't you think?

Dream on, dream on, dream on,
Dream until your dreams come true. 

Rock on!
Mary Anna


  1. Excellent idea. We need to be careful not to beat it to death, though, and repeat the same thing every other line for chapters on end.

    Re the picture: which lady is the mother and which is the daughter?

  2. Why, thank you, Bruce. That is absolutely the loveliest possible thing a man could possibly say after I've just deconstructed a lyric that starts out, "Every time I look in the mirror...all these lines in my face getting clearer..." :-D

    And you're right that fiction doesn't need a hook that repeats endlessly, chapter after chapter. In our art form, we can achieve the same effect by repeating an important line or image or thought two or three times over a span of 400 pages. When done well, that's a very powerful technique.