Posts Tagged ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’

Stress and Parody

Saturday, December 17th, 2011

I’m teaching a songwriting class next semester, and I’ve been putting gether the course packet.  Here’s what I have to say about one of my favorite musicians, “Weird Al” Yankovic:

When it comes time to set text to music, you should try to have the stressed words or syllables of your lyrics line up with the rhythmic and metrical stresses of your music.  In technical terms, find the stressed syllable in a word or the most important word in a group of short words, and put it on the beat.  More simply, when your song sounds awkward, or words sound like they don’t fit with the music, try moving them earlier or later, or try putting more or fewer in before you change the chord.

A poem that is a great example of this is Clement Moore’s A Visit From St. Nicholas.  Moore’s poem begins:

‘Twas the night before Christmas,
And all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring,
Not even a mouse.

This is light poetry of the mid-19th century, published just as Christmas was beginning to become the central holiday in the United States.  It could be quite conceivably set to music, much more believably so than the e.e. cummings poem cited earlier.  In fact, several successful popular-song versions of the poem have been created over the years, attesting to its utility, but even in simply speaking the lines above, a clear poetic meter is established, and the poem displays a relatively strict rhythm:

‘Twas the night before Christmas
And all though the house,
Not a creature was stirring,
Not even a mouse.

Or, to really highlight the “two-three-ONE-two-three-ONE-two-three” pattern of stress in these words:

           ‘Twas the
night before
Christmas and
all though the
house, not a
creature was
stirring, not
even a

Almost every Christmas, though, some coworker, family-member or friend sends a parody version of the poem, with the words altered to include the names of acquaintances, humorous events from the past year or the like.  As well-meaning and fun as these parodies are, they almost invariably create disruptions in the pattern of vocal stress that is a part of what makes the original so successful, and for a musician, they seem particularly forced and ungraceful—a really great parody would maintain the stress patterns perfectly, and that fact that most parodies aren’t successful in this regard points out just how difficult this is.

One artist who succeeds consistently in this respect is “Weird Al” Yankovic, who for thirty years has been creating parodies of popular songs that resonate extraordinarily well with the originals, often preserving not only stress patterns but complex rhyme schemes while also succeeding as humor of varying degrees of sophistication.  As an example, take Yankovic’s early “Another One Rides the Bus,” a parody of John Deacon’s and Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”

First, Deacon’s original lyrics for the first two verses:

Steve walks warily down the street
With the brim pulled way down low
Ain’t no sound but the sound of his feet
Machine guns ready to go

Are you ready, hey, are you ready for this
Are you hangin’ on the edge of your seat
Out of the doorway the bullets rip
To the sound of the beat – yeah

Now Yankovic’s parody of the same material:

Riding in the bus down the boulevard
And the place was pretty packed
Couldn’t find a seat so I had to stand
With the perverts in the back

It was smelling like a locker room
There was junk all over the floor
We’re already packed in like sardines
But we’re stopping to pick up more, look out

One of Yankovic’s first songs, this parody didn’t benefit from the full arrangements and studio production values of his later work.  It survived only on the success of Queen’s original and Yankovic’s ability to create a version that played on Queen’s bombast, ambiguous meaning and the strange mock-seriousness of a British rock band singing about some sort of urban warfare.  Yankovic maintained the stress patterns of the original, as well as its rhyme scheme (although not the rhymes themselves, as he would in some later work), but his choice of individual words is often parodistic, too—the gritty street becomes the more urbane and more relatable boulevard, where an American would likely find a city bus.  The deadly machine guns become perverts, and the bullets become sardines—things which are unpleasant, but not a surely lethal as the images in Queen’s original.  In the last line of the example, Yankovic adheres more closely to the stress patterns than the original does when he adds the syllables But we’re stopping, which have analogues in other verses but don’t appear in the second verse of Queen’s song.  To truly understand the role of stress in songwriting, you should undertake a survey of Yankovic’s output in comparison with the originals on which it is based.