I admire lyricists. They are able to pack so much meaning into just a few words and impact people. Lyrics are short, so every word counts and carries multiple meanings. I love country music because so many songs tell a story about a person, a situation, or a moment in time – but I have been inspired recently by the way lyricists use characterization. I thought I’d go through my country playlist on my iPod and pull out a few of my favourite lyrics that really do well at characterization.
Paul Brandt. Let’s start off with something Canadian. How much meaning is wrapped up in just those three words? The song goes on to say: “It doesn’t matter where I go, This place will always be my home, I have been Alberta bound for all my life, and I’ll be Alberta bound until I die.” What does this tell us about the character behind this song? Wow. What kind of person would say, “I’m Alberta bound” and what would that say about them? There’s a double meaning tied up in that statement too. This says so many things. Are you Alberta bound?
“We hate to see her go, but love to watch her leave.”
Trace Adkins. Well, I’ve never been to a HonkyTonk or a bar, I’ve never had beer or owned a truck, but I’ve met this kind of guy. Have you? He’s a man’s man. He’s not a player, but he isn’t above a well-timed cat call either. Can you picture him at a table with a drink in his hand, surrounded by a group of friends, watching this woman walk out of the room? Doesn’t even matter where they are does it? Are they in a bar, an upscale club, at the mall or their own living room? Hmmm…
“An Everyday Woman”
Emerson Drive. I love this song. The verse goes: “You don’t put on a lot of makeup, You like to wear your hair pulled back. When the kids’ll call, you come a runnin’, You always put yourself last. Most people would say, You’re an everyday woman.” Now, the chorus is what resonates with me, but look what this first verse says about the woman in his life. Can you picture her? And even though the man singing is just observing her, what do these words say about his character? What does he value? It’s like a word picture. Can you hear the respect in his voice? These are traits that the world says aren’t worth noticing, but these are the qualities that he notices first. Interesting…
“She always had a thing about fallin’ in love with a bad boy.”
Toby Keith – what country list is complete without Toby Keith? Here’s the first verse from that song: “Just a girl born in Dixie, washed in the blood, And raised on the banks of the Mississippi mud, she always had a thing about fallin’ in love with a bad boy.” What do we know about her? She’s a good girl, grew up in a Bible-fearing home and went to church. But she’s got a rebel heart, and the last line about falling in love with a bad boy tells you even more about her. She’s made that public declaration about her faith, but doesn’t see eye to eye with others on how living that faith out looks like. Now you know the man doing the talking is the bad boy, right. What does that say about him?
The best dialogue and inner dialogue tells the reader not just about the character being talked about or observed, but also the character doing the observing. What lenses do they see the world through? What past experiences, prejudices and motivations colour their view?
“You hold yourself together like a pair of bookends.”
Blake Shelton. This is the song that inspired this blog post. The moment I heard this song, I had to buy it and put it on repeat on my iPod. The singer asks throughout the song, “Who are you when I’m not lookin?” Hmmm, that’s a man who’s making an investment. Can you picture a woman who keeps a tight rein on herself at all times, but he knows there’s more to her. He goes on to ask a few questions, and for the most part these are stereotypical, but sometimes it’s OK to break the rules and here the writer uses stereotypes effectively. “Do you pour a little something on the rocks? Slide down the hallway in your socks? When you undress, do you leave a path? Then sink to your nose in a bubble bath?” He goes on: “Do you break things when you get mad? Eat a box of chocolates ’cause you’re feelin’ bad? Do you paint your toes ’cause you bite your nails? Call up momma when all else fails?” Wow! What does it say about a woman who paints her toes because she bites her nails? The woman who slides down the hallway in her socks when no one’s looking? What about the woman who does all of these things? That’s a complex character don’t you think?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.