Monday, May 4, 2009

It's All (Almost) In A Name

I'm a sucker for a compelling song title; "Moon River", "Peel Me A Grape", "Jesus, The Missing Years", "Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine", "Into The Mystic"-- these titles and countless more just begged me to drop the needle or push play when I was studying how to be a writer. It always seemed to me that an indelible song title was like the smell of one of my grandmother's Sunday afternoon dinners cooking in the kitchen. It was a portent of good things to come. I remember being disappointed when one of my favorite artists released a new record and I went excitedly to the store to scan that glossy, sealed LP and there were no interesting song titles on the back. It struck me as a missed opportunity. Sure, I sometimes bought the record anyway, but something always made me wary when the songs were called "In The Night", "With You", "Now And Then"... I was pretty sure those songs just weren't gonna kill me, and they rarely did.

I think a song title should catch my eye and stir up some curiosity. That's what the artwork on the LP/CD was all about, too. Except for some of the Indy stuff, lately CD artwork consists mostly of airbrushed photos of the stars. Who cares? Song titles and artwork play similar roles-- they add a physical dimension to the music, like handles on a dream. You can argue all you want about how many great songs there are with banal titles like "Yesterday", "I Need You" and "I Will Always Love You", and for pure emotional connection maybe it's hard to top those songs (I like 'em too). But in this era when no one has time to listen to everything, and when song titles sit on the computer screen like so many innocuous text messages, wouldn't it be wise to consider the intrinsic value of a song title?

A song title makes an impression, as does any name. Actors used to choose theirs very carefully, and with good reason. It was part of the image and mystique. A song is an entity with a life and a mystique all it's own. These days especially, the title can and does affect the song's life whether we think it's fair or not. I admit, a little guiltily, when I scan a track list at itunes or Amazon I click first on the most unlikely song title I can find. Why? I figure if the artist can pull that one off I might like what they do with an ordinary title, too.

If I write a 500 page book called "Headache", will you want to read it? That's how I feel when I see a song called "Love" (see the latest Sugarland CD). On the same CD we find "Keep You" and another called "Very Last Country Song". Glancing at the latest Rascal Flatts CD I see the first two cuts are “Take Me There” and “Here”. My first thought is why weren’t they able to find a song called “Everywhere” to round out a trilogy? And on the same disk there's a song that exemplifies what passes for a clever/cool song idea today “Bob That Head”. I would have at least put that one on the CD as “Bob, That Head”. Whether you think those songs are good or not really isn't my point. My point is, there's a song called "Tornado Time In Texas"** and you have to go cut the yard before it rains. Which song do you want to hear?

And what about the sheer fun of some song titles-- remember singing along with "Jumping Jack Flash it's a gas, gas, gas" at the top of your lungs? Somehow I just can't get the same thrill singing along with "Get My Drink On".

Let's agree on one thing: the charts (not just country) for the most part look pretty boring these days whether they sound boring or not. "White Horse" stands out as a striking image in a song title, and not surprisingly, it's a pretty good song, too.

I'm not being cynical here-- I'd still only write an idea I believed in and connected with from the heart, but some words and phrases are just more alluring than others, aren't they? When it comes to evoking the mysterious, the romantic, the playful, the profound, it's all (almost) in a name.

**"Tornado Time In Texas" by Guy Clark

copyright 2009 craig bickhardt