Songwriter Pamela Phillips Oland says she thinks the word "divine" is, well, pretty nifty. She'd love to use it in her lyrics. But it just doesn't work today. Too archaic.
"You make me feel so fine," that's what's expected now, she says.
The author of more than 300 recorded songs, Ms. Oland has written pop, rock, country songs, as well as movie themes. Her lyrics have been recorded by artists from Reba McIntyre and Anne Murray to Whitney Houston and the Jacksons. She says that in the face of today's teen-oriented pop music, which neglects "the entire population that's over 20," adults have fled to listening to rock oldies, country, jazz, or someone like Tony Bennett singing the Great American Songbook.
"Those songs are meaningful, they touch you," she says in a recent phone interview. "Everything today is about youthful sexual issues," Oland says. "In the older songs, it was more mystique, intrigue, romance."
She hopes not only that songs with meaningful lyrics can regain popularity, but that more people will write them for themselves. In her new book, "The Art of Writing Love Songs" (Allworth Press), she offers tips on how to get started.
Oland says one of the big benefits of songwriting for her is the self-knowledge it brings. For example, she says, to write a good love song, you have to "understand what love is, how it works, why it works," she says. That can help in relating to a husband or wife or significant other.
Actually, nearly every song is a love song of one kind or another, she points out. It could be about your dog, your car, your country, or even your God.
The key to writing them, she says, is tapping into one's own well of emotions - and not to give up. "Don't worry if the first 10 or 100 songs aren't that good."
Oland doesn't believe in just "writing what you know." People's own experiences can be a great starting point, she says, but learning to become a keen observer of other people can lead to fresh ideas.
Another mistake many people make is trying to describe the whole relationship in one song: It's better to take a single moment or event and build around that. Maybe a loved one has left you. Instead of him just walking out the door, you could have him jump on an airplane or roar down the street at 100 m.p.h.
"If he drove off in a little beat-up car, you can have him drive off in a Corvette," she says. "You can change it. You don't have to be stuck with the facts."
Just remember that whenever a writer says the word "I" in a song, they're speaking for the listeners, not themself. "[Listeners] translate the song into their lives and think of something similar that might have happened [to them]."
Oland is a big fan of Billy Joel and Sting and the early work of Elton John and Bernie Taupin. She often teams up with Richard Carpenter, "who I still think is just one of the greatest songwriters in the world, he really is," she says. "His melodies just soar."
From the past, she mentions obvious names like the Broadway team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe ("My Fair Lady") and Cole Porter, as well as Noel Coward, whose wit and clever use of language "just knocked me out."
Though popular songs almost always rhyme, writing lyrics isn't the same thing as writing poetry, she says.
For one thing, most of today's poems don't rhyme. And the imagery in poetry can be dense and subtle, needing several thoughtful readings to get at the meaning.
Not so with lyrics. "There's very little subtext," she says. "It's right there: You love me, I love you. It's very straightforward. That's why it's so popular."
Beyond that, the underlying music adds more meaning and structure. Generally a repeating chorus leads to a bridge ("the injection of a little bit of extra information that kind of turns the knife") that in turn leads effortlessly back into the chorus.
In a variation of the chicken-and-egg conundrum, Oland says there's no rule as to which comes first: the music or the lyrics. When presented with a music track for which she's to write lyrics, Oland first jots down about 25 possible titles that suggest to her what the music is saying. After she and the composer agree on one, she fleshes out the lyrics.
And, no, it's not cheating to use a dictionary or thesaurus to help find the right words.
Oland says her aunt once called her. She was absolutely "horrified" after learning that Broadway's master lyricist Stephen Sondheim used a rhyming dictionary. It didn't bother Oland a bit.
"Send in the Clowns," perhaps Sondheim's most recognized lyric, is "arguably one of the best songs in modern pop," she says, with its heart-rending tale of an unrequited lover who wishes for something to come along to blunt the pain, "to make them laugh and take attention away from it."
The Monitor asked Pamela Phillips Oland to critique two popular songs from different eras, one by Irving Berlin and one by Britney Spears. "They each represent the contemporary thought of their time," she says, "and so they are illustrative of the difference in the way people experience love according to the era they live in."
'What'll I Do?'
By Irving Berlin, 1924
Gone is the romance that was so divine,
'Tis broken and cannot be mended.
You must go your way and I must go mine,
But now that our love dreams have ended.
What'll I do
Are far away
And I am blue,
What'll I do?...
Do you remember a night filled with bliss?
The moonlight was softly descending.
Your lips and my lips were tied with a kiss,
A kiss with an unhappy ending.
In the first line, the words "romance" and "divine" already offer the listener soft and tender images, that are, well, there is no other word to describe them than terribly romantic. The third line, strangely enough, would be used today, but in a country song, not pop. Pop might phrase the same sentiment as "Guess we're outta here, Baby, we both got other places to be." He has set up the story in the first three lines, and now has used the fourth as a "springboard" into the chorus. Good pop songwriting follows this example.
Berlin has used the internal "oo" rhyme to perfection. I love his imagery of "just a photograph to tell my troubles to" - at that time this was very original imagery. His second verse is able to tell the whole story of what happened and why this song is being written in four lines. The final line, "A kiss with an unhappy ending," leaves the listener wondering what on earth happened, but at the same time suggests a myriad of explanations. All in all, this lyric is a sophisticated love song about two grown-ups who have loved and lost. It is simple, romantic, and complete.
'Oops! I Did It Again!'
By Max Martin, recorded by Britney Spears, 2000
Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah I think I did it again
I made you believe we're more than just friends
Oops!... I did it again
I played with your heart, got lost in the game
Oh baby, baby
Oops!... You think I'm in love
That I'm sent from above
I'm not that innocent
"Oops!" is a jaunty and delightful song, with an infectious melodic theme, and great use of contemporary tracking capabilities. Without Britney, without the hammering home of the melodic hook, it doesn't have the same universality as "What'll I Do." Yet it is relatable to many young women and their bewildered boyfriends.
The "Yeah Yeah Yeahs" at the beginning are for decoration, rather like lace trimming the hem of a short skirt. I love the fact that "Oops!" starts right in with "I think I did it again/ I made you believe we're more than just friends." In pop songwriting, the first line is extremely important. "Again" and "friends" are sound-alike rhymes, and I don't believe Irving Berlin would have rhymed "ain" with "iends."
When she says, "It might seem like a crush," she immediately brings the lyric to a younger audience. The line "But it doesn't mean that I'm serious" is a sound-alike rhyme to "crush," but used effectively. It's all the befuddled teenager with her head in a tizzy. Notable in those first four lines is the fact that the songwriter has told the whole story right away. I always stress to songwriters that it's important that ideas have antecedents to set them up. But the line "I'm not that innocent" relates only to the prior line. In fact, it contradicts the entire premise, which is that she is in fact an innocent who somehow finds herself leading boys on when she doesn't mean to.
The overall feeling after reading this lyric is something like exhaustion. Perhaps it is not a lyric meant to be read, but to be sung to a hot little pop track.