Friday, June 18, 2010

Songwriting Part 4: Anatomy of a hero.

I've referenced Mike Lombardo's vlog about characterization, but I'm going to flesh out that discussion with a specific practical example. To that end, I'm going to beat "Save the World" to death. Here it is again:
<a href="">Save the World by Dr. Lindyke</a>
For the final round of Song Fu 6, our challenge was to write a "Frankensong" consisting of two parts: part 1 would set up a problem or challenge, and part 2 would resolve it. It would be similar to "We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions", by Queen. Each song should stand alone.

For the first part of the challenge, I thought we might write something about American soldiers, but William Hoover did me one better by providing the lyrics to "Yesterday Hero" in which all heroes... soldiers, policemen, rescue workers... were distilled into one archetypal hero (named 'Hero'). Our 'problem' would be the death of that hero. In the second part, "Someday", we then described the world coming to terms with Hero's death and learning to deal with their problems without the intervention of a savior.

When the first challenge for SpinTunes turned out to be to write a song from the perspective of a superhero or supervillian, I decided to re-visit Hero on the day of his death. The song would be his last thoughts prior to going out to meet his doom, although he wouldn't know that.

Enough backstory. This is how I constructed the resulting song, "Save the World".

First I looked at what we already knew of Hero from the previous song:
  1. He's the only superhero in his world, hence the problem leading to "Someday".
  2. He's under-appreciated ("killed by a people he saved," though we don't know exactly how.)
  3. He saved his people "just yesterday", and then died, presumably in an another attempt.
  4. His suit is red, white, and blue.
There's not a lot. Remember that this was originally intended as a throw-away character whose major importance stemmed from his death. From this I have to retcon his character so that I can write in first-person from his perspective. What can we surmise from what we know? Well, as my eldest son reminded me, saving the world frequently (as often as daily) for a thankless population can't be terribly rewarding. For me it would be downright depressing. So a day off would be nice... he probably would dream of such days. Nevertheless, he continues to do it. Only a strong sense of duty would cause him to do that. After having done this for years, he'd probably have to psych himself up to meeting the villians. So here's a plot for the song...
Verse: he is tired and dreaming of having some time to himself.
1st Chorus: he can't.
Verse: we meet some of his nemeses.
Verse: he wants give up.
Pre-chorus: again he can't. So he psychs himself up.
2nd Chorus: He's all psyched up and ready to meet the foe.
Somewhere in there I'd throw in an instrumental bridge... I put it betweeen the pre-chorus and 2nd chorus in the first draft, then moved it because it put too much delay between the psyching up and call to action. Now on to the individual parts...
I wish I had a day off
I wish I had some time to myself
Maybe I could kick my feet up
Maybe I could take a book off the shelf
The guy's not wanting caviar and champagne... I simply had him wishing for things that I myself like. Musically, I'm trying for a more modern rhythm than my usual '70s-'80s piano ballad... You might not be able to tell that from the instrumentation, and I might not be totally up to speed, but it's an attempt. The first verse is fairly flat... it's not monotone, but nearly so. Hero is TIRED. He needs a vacation at the very least. (by the way, in this discussion, when I state how "it is sung" I mean how it should be sung if performed decently.)
Maybe I could watch some TV
Maybe I could watch a movie all the way through
I'd like to stop and write some poetry
I know a million things that I'd rather do ---
This became two verses because that's what it took to say what I wanted to say, and to build it musically. At least I think of them as two verses. You could argue that it's one verse, and I'd say, "meh". The music of the second verse is of a higher pitch, and though the tempo is the same as the first, the lyrics contain more syllables per line, which gives it the appearance of being more insistent. Hero is becoming FRUSTRATED.
But I've got to save the world
But didn't I save the world yesterday?
I've got to save the world
I thought I saved the world yesterday!
Here's the source of his frustration. Like Mr. Incredible, he'd like, just once, to save the world and have it stay saved.

By the way, You may or may not notice the repetition of the first word (or syllable) of each pair of lines. I carry that through the pre-chorus (where I cheat it slightly) and I break with it entirely in the second chorus. There's a reason for that, which I'll tell you later.
But no!
This little interjected line says a lot. Originally it was part of the next verse, but I think it's sounds much better delivered with some slight nasal sarcasm. Not so broadly as when John Belushi used the line in SNL, but more along the lines of a resigned "of course", as if delivered by a snooty butler.
Some loony made a death ray
Some other fool is trying to freeze D.C.
Some villain wants everything his own way
Some other only wants a piece of me
Hero's a comic-book hero. He needs comic-book villians. Someone asked me if the "death ray" and "freeze D.C." lines were an homage to "Dr. Horrible". Err... No. Every superhero has had to deal with some kind of nemesis with a death ray since Nikola Tesla came up with the concept. And originally I'd written about the freezing of Port Charles, which long-time fans of General Hospital might recognize. But when I thought of "...wants a piece of me", it was important enough to me to go back and revise the previous line to rhyme. Musically, it's the same as the first verse, as he's doing nothing but ruminating over a bland list of the daily pains in his ass.
Maybe I should've listened to my poppa
Maybe helped the family business grow
'stead of playing universal copper
'stead of trying to vanquish some super foe...
Previously he was pining for a day off... now having thought through it all, Hero's toying with the possibility of just hanging up his cape and going back to the family farm. (I don't know that it's a farm, though that would be true of Superman. Personally, I think Hero's dad is a dry-cleaner in Brooklyn, but I dunno for sure. Yet.) I was quite happy with the "universal copper" line. That's what these superheroes ARE, when you think about it. Except that in most cases, they work without sanction or authority beyond that which they obtain for themselves through force. Self-appointed policemen are scary, if you think about it.

Musically, it's the same as the second verse. As there, the energy is upped a little because instead of running through a list, he's seriously considering this as a solution to his personal problems. Retire, go home, give up.
This is the instrumental I moved. I thought it would be a drag between the pre-chorus and the chorus. Besides, after the above verse, we now need a little time to think it over. Hero's still thinking maybe he CAN retire.
Then I realize I'd be dead with everybody else
If I didn't stick my neck out
If I didn't take a chance
If I didn't own the problem
If I didn't dance the dance
We'd be cinders on a cinder
We'd be blood upon a lance ---
Oh, who's he fooling? Of course he can't retire. Death rays, freeze rays, giant robots, mad scientists, rogue dictators, nuclear bombs, weather-controlling satellites.... the bombed-out Earth would be the Moon's ugly sister within a year if nobody were to step up. People are depending on Hero. The Earth needs him. We are destined to come to this conclusion because this is a prequel to "Yesterday Hero", after all.

Musically, this really is a build-up. As Hero is more psyched up the energy increases along with the pitch, and the final line should be practically shouted out.

Lyrically, I was very pleased with the last two lines. I just love the visual of dead people as little cinders clinging to a planetary cinder (I wonder if the villains ever consider the fact that if they actually followed through with their threats they'd ruin things for themselves as well?). I also like the metaphor of "blood upon a lance" to describe death... I just think that's poetic.
So I'm going to save the world
Though I saved the world yesterday
I've got to save the world
Got to save the world
'Cause nobody else is gonna do it, I might as well get to it
All worked up, psyched up, buffed up, ready to go. This is similar musically to the first chorus, but with more energy. We don't actually change key -- we have to paint our comic book with primary colors, after all -- this is sung a fifth higher, so it feels as though we've changed the key. It's sung with energy and conviction... and with resolution.

That bit of initial rhyme, which was carried through the whole song, including the first chorus, is dropped. It represents Hero's break with an old way of thinking... he's changed his mind and is now free of that constraint. If it had worked lyrically I would have alliterated all the previous verses in the style of Beowulf, using an archaic poetic form represent the old thought process, and having a rhyming scheme only at the end. I might yet use that in a future project, but it's damned hard to do, and it really doesn't work here. Modern ears aren't used to it, so the initial repetition was as close as I dared go. You'd have to be a pretty anal-retentive poetry geek to guess the reason for it, but now you know.

The remainder of the song is a repeat of this verse, then more repeats of "I've to Save the World". We still don't know anything about this battle or how Hero dies. Only that he wasn't fighting because he loved to, or for selfish reasons, or revenge, or for justice... he was fighting to defend others.

So that's the song, and the conscious thought processes that went into making it. But a few days ago I looked at it again, and realized there was more than my conscious thought going into this. This is the freaky moment when you look at something and realize that it's not fiction, it's auto-biography.

I didn't quite know it at the time, but I wasn't so much writing from that character's perspective, as creating a character who shares my own perspective. I'd already mentioned that the first verse consisted of things I like to do. It's a little more... it's stuff I don't get to do as nearly as I'd like. Watching a movie all the way through, for example. There's always an interruption... someone who needs something. And it's always some sort of crisis to them, and I'm always expected to act as though it's a crisis for me, too. Maybe I'm not interrupted to save the world, but I'm the sole support of a family of five, so replace "save the world" with "go to work", or "solve somebody's problems", and you've pretty much got it. Instead of villains perhaps there are teenagers coming in with "I need cash" or "I wrecked the car", and creditors, and utilities. I haven't had to deal with "my girlfriend's pregnant", but with three boys that's always a possibility waiting in the wings. My parents are dead: if I don't save the day, nobody else will, so I'd better get to it. Not having backup is a bit scary, and no matter how old you are, when your parents are gone you feel like an orphan. That's me... an orphan from the planet Krypton. This is probably the most egotistical, chutzpah-laden, unworthy thought I've ever had.

Of course, all of those dire thoughts apply to anyone in a similar situation. Every soccer-mom and super-dad there is. If the song is accessible at all, I think it's on that level. Performance-wise, I think it helps to have that emotional connection to the subject matter. I didn't have it when recording the demo that's on Bandcamp. It was afterwards that the flash arrived.

I find that we now have a sequence in a continuous narrative... "Save the World", "Yesterday Hero", and "Someday": perhaps we may go back and do another prequel. Maybe an origin? Maybe put them together in an EP? What do you think?


Spin said...

Very cool blog Dave. I'll have to include a link to this next to your song when it gets posted.

Heather said...

Fantastic post! Thanks for the window in to the thought process of a very cool song.

Plus, I've really been looking for examples of how to create stories or plotlines through my songs, so this is a great help for that.

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