Science & Songwriting: Is it Brilliant or Did They Miss the Point

As you may have figured out, I am a giant nerd.  I am also a songwriter.  My nerdiness certainly influences my songwriting.  This is especially evident in my choice of subjects to write about.  I write rock songs that reference the Pied Piper and the Bubonic Plague, the Russian space program, Super Mario Brothers, countless references to the Apocalypse, happiness and love from a prehistoric anthropological standpoint, and the role of feminism during the Prohibition Era.  However, though I am a scientist by trade, I have yet to really make blatant reference to scientific concepts in my songs.

A lot of this is because I don’t like to be obvious in my lyrics.  I can understand that back in the early days of rock (and the folk music that was around at the same time), it was revolutionary to say things just as they are.  Perhaps when Barry McGuire first sang “Eve of Destruction,” people were all like, “Far out! I didn’t believe that we were on the eve of destruction, but when your blood’s so mad it feels like coagulatin’ and the goverment ain’t legislatin’, how can it be denied?!?”  Sure, I poke fun at this, but there was a time when this was not an OK thing to do and cryptic lyrics went by the wayside so that teenagers could express their outrage more efficiently.

There’s still a place for that, and if it’s done well (meaning you write something because you have something original or powerful to say about the situation), I like it.  But most of the time obvious lyrics just seem boring to me and so I avoid it for my own writing.  I extend this to obvious scientific references too.  I’m not going to mention Schrodinger and his cat unless they provide the perfect picture for what I’m saying in a greater context.  In short, I’m never going to just write a song about Schrodinger’s cat.  It would be much more likely for me to say quickly in a description of a snapshot in time something like “Erwin and a lion enter the room with uncertainty”.

Perhaps I shouldn’t deconstruct my songwriting for you here.  Then you’ll know all my tricks.  Damn it!

It might have occurred to you that I am pretty critical of lyrics.  I am, in certain contexts.  Really, it’s that I am critical of lyrics written by singer songwriters.  I don’t expect brilliance when I turn on most popular radio stations.  Pop has all kinds of other stuff going for it, like catchy beats and melodies that get trapped in your head, and subjects and lyrics you don’t really have to think about.  But when I turn on NPR or WXPN and hear a whole slew of people singing about nothing and begging me to ask the question, “Why on Earth do I care what you have to say about this and why the fuck are you on the radio?!?”, I just get annoyed.

That said, I really love picking apart pop lyrics.  When driving home, I often turn on Q102 (our local Top 40 station) to see what the kids are listening to.  In addition, it’s because I honestly like some of it.  That’s where you can hear Lady Gaga, for instance, and since I will generally dance to anything that has a good beat (Peter described me the other day as “shameless” in this regard…I think it’s good to be shameless sometimes, ey?), I really can’t say “I hate pop music”.  It serves a purpose.  If the Bee Gees are fun, so is Ke$ha.  Also, there is a true talent to putting out pop hits.  I have often thought while listening to something I have deemed mindless on the radio, “Man, why aren’t I getting paid?”  Well, the answer is that I simply don’t write things that are accessible to the masses.  And I’m not saying this to say “Oh, I’m just so much smarter and more interesting than most people, that they just can’t understand my music”, like it’s some kind of personal compliment.  I mean that my stuff takes a few listens before it sinks in.  It doesn’t usually have immediate appeal…not in a way that would make me millions.  A song sounding simple doesn’t mean that anyone can write it or arrange it.  You have to understand something about mass appeal, and that is certainly an area of expertise that I lack.

Of course, very little of this has to do with the stars that are the face and supposed voice of the songs.  Most of the stars on the Top 40 station are pretty manufactured.  Peter and I were talking about the production process for people like Rihanna and it was impressive to hear him deconstruct what goes into it.  Basically, you can take anyone that you want to make a star and have them show up for a day and hack their way through some singing…and then run everything through several pieces of software and, Voila! A hit is born.  What I didn’t know is that they do this to every instrument, everything involved.  In the stadium sellout, ginormous production value world, you are paying for the computers, the hot bodies of the performers, and the set builders, lighting designers, and pyrotechnic people.

I don’t think I have a problem with that.  As I said, that all in and of itself is art and it creates a product that people want.  So what if you are less talented than someone else.  Do you put on a good show?  Well, good.  The internet makes it so there’s all kinds of music going on with various levels of production and “reality”.

As the stars tend to be pretty manufactured, they have their songs often written for them…I think.  I don’t have any really statistics about that, but I’m pretty sure most of these peoples’ jobs is to stay in shape and to be controversial and provocative. So I get really amused when I hear lyrics that I categorize as either completely brilliant or completely idiotic, depending on how you interpret them.

Take, for instance, Calvin Harris’ “I Feel So Close to You”.  This is pretty much a techno dance song kind of thing I guess, but still, they take the time to have someone say something that is supposed to be romantic…when you’re getting ground on in a dance club somewhere.  Behold the ongoing verse:

I feel so close to you right now,
It’s a force field.
I wear my heart upon my sleeve,
Like it’s a big deal.
Your love pours down on me,
Like a waterfall.
And there’s no stopping us right now.
I feel so close to you right now.

So, sure, pretty unimpressive and cliche.  But I want to direct you to the very first line in the song: I feel so close to you right now.  It’s a force field.

OK, so here’s the fucking brilliant interpretation of this concept:

The love the singer and the subject of his adoration have brings them so close that there is a repulsion between them that keeps them from truly being together.  This is a situation made more tragic by the fact that the singer is completely vulnerable about his feelings and yet, there’s a force field stopping it from mattering.  And yet, despite the invisible barrier between them, the world continues to turn and the barrier is only between them and any real connection…not between them and the rest of life.  A pair of star crossed companions moving forward in parallel path to a similar destination. Hence there is no stopping them right now.  Once they reach the destination, perhaps all this will come crashing down…but right now, the Angstrom of distance means little as long as the closeness is intact.

And…and…just disregard the line about the waterfall.  I, er, I don’t have anything brilliant to say about that.

This is kind of interesting, right?  I mean, people sing about unrequited love all the time, but this is a somewhat original way to talk about it!

What? You think I’m perhaps reading too much into this dumb song?  Ah, well no worries.  I have also developed the Make a Buck with Bad Songwriting interpretation:

By force field, the singer simply means “there’s an impressive force between us”.  Aaaaand the rest of it is just drivel.

There, are you happy now? How depressing is that?  Here I am trying to find some meaning in this life and you just have to nay say and…and…

*Cue catchy chord progression and dance beat*

“Yeah! This song is awesome!” She says as she climbs on the nearest sturdy table to “get down”.

Another example is a song that was more popular on 104.5 (our local…”alternative” station?  Is that still a thing?), Civil Twilight’s “Letters from the Sky”.  It has pretty arrangement.  There’s a string section and synthesizers and such (I think) and there’s this lyric:

One day soon, I’ll hold you like the sun holds the moon.
And we will hear those planes overhead.
And we won’t be afraid.

Brilliant interpretation: Much like the gravitational force that keeps celestial bodies safely in orbit around each other, the singer will keep his loved on safe and protected from destruction, but always at a great distance.  If they were to allow themselves to touch, it would mean that everything around them would crash and burn and everything that they know would be gone.  It would be an end of everything, resulting in the quiet before a new beginning.  Vigilant, the singer and the object of his love sit distanced apart watching the onslaught of man made destroyers.  They do not fear them because their distance holds the key to actual safety and the reality of what would happen if they were to break this distance is far more terrifying than anything that a modern military has.

Shaun also pointed out that this could be interpreted as a nod to polyamory, because you really have to involve the Earth in this, making one big celestial triad.  The relationship between the sun and moon is not exactly direct.  The moon is held in orbit around the Earth due to Earth’s gravitational force, and the sun holds them both in orbit for the same reason.  So, much like how we are not islands and our relationships affect each other, the influence of the various celestial bodies on each other can’t be denied, nor is it preferred for any of them not to be involved.

I think that’s what he was talking about.  I admit that I was on my second mojito by the time we were talking about this at dinner and I also had a mental breakdown at work that day (which resulted in a lot of me stomping around and laughing maniacally), so my comprehension should be held in question.  All I remember is saying, “Ah! YES!  That’s ALSO brilliant!”

And then Wes said, “You know, neither of those interpretations is particularly brilliant.”

To which I said something like, “BE THAT AS IT MAY! It is more brilliant than…”

This, more likely,  interpretation: The singer will hold onto the object of his love really tight and no one has to be scared when there’s an unwavering hug happening. Or something.

I am sure as I listen to more popular music I will find more instances of using science as metaphors and similes in dumb songs and will probably talk about them, because that’s fun for me.  Do you have examples of your own?

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