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Over the weekend, I was reading Stephen Sondheim’s fantastic semi-autobiography – really, a commentary on his lyrics over the years – Finishing the Hat. Sondheim’s brilliant, of course, and his use of language is exact – the rhymes and rhythmic schemes in Sweeney Todd are simply spectacular. Sondheim asks the question, though, whether such linguistic playfulness is worthwhile. He does so by quoting an anonymous pop composer, X – some have suggested it’s Pete Townshend of The Who – dismissing rhyme as unimportant in lyrics: “I hate all true rhymes [i.e. red and bed, as opposed to false rhymes, like home and alone]. I think they only allow you a certain limited range …. I’m not a great believer in perfect rhymes. I’m just a believer in feelings that come across. If the craft gets in the way of the feelings then I’ll take the feelings any day.”
Sondheim caustically observes, “Claiming that true rhyme is the enemy of substance is the sustaining excuse of lyricists who are unable to rhyme well with any consistency … The point which X overlooks is that the craft is supposed to serve the feeling. A good lyric should not only have something to say but a way of saying it as clearly and forcefully as possible – and that involves rhyming cleanly. A perfect rhyme can make a mediocre line bright and a good one brilliant. A near rhyme only dampens the impact.”
And yet it is X’s view that has won out in today’s culture. Turn on a pop station, and listen to the non-rhymes and false rhymes that predominate. The supposed genius of Eminem is no more than false genius – his most celebrated lyric, “Lose It,” is a fragmentary agglomeration of false rhymes and forced rhymes, or the simplest of rhymes. His chorus rhymes “go,” “blow,” and most strained, “yo.” He also rhymes “heavy” with “spaghetti” and “ready” – none of which actually rhyme. This is typical in rap, where the emotion of the beat and the syllabic rhythm are supposed to overcome the loose use of language. Ideally, you’d expect rap to be the most exacting in its adherence to the rules of rhyme – after all, there’s generally no melody or harmony to the “music.” But to expect rappers to abide by rules is to hamstring them, supposedly.
Unfortunately, art as a general matter seems to have followed X’s path. Breaking rules has become more important than using them in service to better art. Breaking the rules on occasion can be necessary and even scintillatingly fresh, but you have to know the rules in order to break them at the right time. As a friend once pointed out, “There’s a difference between Miles Davis and the guy on the street corner. Miles knew the rules, and he knew when to break them.”
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