Pop’s Beautiful Blankness

I wanted to add something to Tim’s recent post “On Pop Songs,” where he wrote:

Part of the magic of pop songs is their blankness as texts. How, with their generic sentiments, and accessible melodies that rapidly signal which emotion they’re meant to represent, they are easily appropriated. You know, like — ” Omigod, omigod, she’s totally singing about me.”And the best pop singers are the ones who know how to deliver this sentiment as though they’re singing directly to you. […] As storytelling, pop songs often lack particularities of character, setting, etc. They are built around abstract sentiments. They suggest more than they reveal. They are customizable.

I agree, and want to take this idea a bit further.

Part of why pop’s blankness—its lyrics’ deliberate blandness—works is because it offers the performer a chance to dramatize the song—to perform it, and have the focus be on them.

Consider the utterly banal lyrics to Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want to Be With You”:

It doesn’t matter where you go or what you do
I want to spend each moment of the day with you
Oh, look what has happened with just one kiss
I never knew that I could be in love like this
It’s crazy but it’s true
I only want to be with you

But then just listen to her and her band perform it:

It’s thrilling.

The same trick’s possible even when the starting material’s cleverer. Consider “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star”: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote it in 1932 for their musical Music in the Air. Here’s a recording from 1933:

It’s pretty enough, and the basic melody is fine. Certainly the lyrics are better (more original, more indelible) than those in “I Only Want to Be With You.” But with no offense to Mary Ellis, the above version’s no patch on Linda Scott’s 1961 update:

This idea of revitalizing something cliched and blank and dead is very relevant to literature. Consider The Princess Bride, which I just contrasted with Inception. At its heart, TPB is a fairy-tale love story, a fairly conventional idea. And a lot of what happens in it, when broadly regarded, is unoriginal:

The Grandson: A book?

Grandpa: That’s right. When I was your age, television was called books. And this is a special book. It was the book my father used to read to me when I was sick, and I used to read it to your father. And today I’m gonna read it to you.

The Grandson: Has it got any sports in it?

Grandpa: Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…

The Grandson: Doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try to stay awake.

William Goldman and Rob Reiner understand that. And they understand that their source material’s blandness—it’s already-done unoriginal blankness—provides an opportunity for them to get creative—to put their own stamp on it. As a result, a large part of the pleasure of their film comes from seeing those worn-out conventional devices and tropes revitalized.

(Whenever I’m writing, and I come to a dead spot in my text (all too often, I’m afraid), I try viewing it not with despair but with excitement: I tell myself that that boring section can and will become, with effort, the best part of the finished project.)

Blankness is opportunity.

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3 thoughts on “Pop’s Beautiful Blankness

  1. Pingback: A Guide to My Writing Here at Big Other « BIG OTHER

  2. Pingback: A Guide to My Writing Here at Big Other (reposted) « BIG OTHER

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