Thursday, September 27, 2012

Songwriting Case Study: Perfecting P!nk's "Walk of Shame"

Have you ever misheard a song lyric only to discover that the actual lyric isn't as good as the one you thought you heard?

I can think of a couple small examples: Britney Spears, "Trouble For Me" - "Sweet talk, here we go/Tell me something credible" (it's "tell me. Sounds incredible."); Rihanna, "Only Girl (In the World)" - "Hold me like a pillar" (it's "pillow"). Plus of course there's always "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy" or those awesome yet imagined "Renegades of Fuck" (was that just me?). You get the idea.

Usually this happens with a song that's already good - at least good enough to sing along to - and the accidental potential improvement merely a minor adjustment. Since part of the purpose of artistic criticism is the notion of the form's future improvement (since, obviously, the specific objects of criticism tend to be in their final form before we blowhards weigh in), it seems a worthy endeavor to put thoughts of this nature into print now and then, using a recent work as a case study wherein, the argument holds, a few certain tweaks might have made a good thing closer to great. Praise and constructive criticism all in one! Winners all! *The crowd roars*

Today's contestant is an album track from P!nk's recent album The Truth About Love, entitled "Walk of Shame," written by P!nk and Greg Kurstin, who also produced. First, let's have a listen, shall we (plus lyrics...those will be helpful)?

Not bad, right? A healthy dose of good campy fun to toss in the album set list as fuel before the last lap. Obviously the bit that makes the song is "We're walking, we're walking..." so we won't touch that. But it does bring up the first tweak that might have benefited this track - the title really ought to have been "Walk This Way." Calling it "Walk of Shame," while certainly appropriate, gives away the joke of the premise before it even has a chance to be one, and when you go in knowing the song is about a "walk of shame," especially if you're not the most approving sort, it somewhat weakens the charm. But a song called "Walk This Way," Aerosmith-evoking yet broad a title as that is, and discovering through the lyrics that it's about a walk of shame - that's funny/clever/unexpected/oh P!nk you hilarious slutty 30-something boozehound you. Consider the difference between, say, Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax" and Rihanna (or Britney Spears, whichever your flavor) carping "ASS! ASS! ASS! AND... EM! EM! EM!" Same subject, different impact.

The other area of would-be adjustment is less of an oversight or error and more a songwriting and narrative decision, and while I'd argue the title edit to be a pretty certain improvement empirically, on this other I'd understand disagreement as a valid matter of taste. "Walk of Shame" is a musical scene that takes place in a particular space at a particular time, and it's pretty contained in the one setting from start to finish. P!nk, having just exited an unfamiliar abode where she has spent the latest part of what was apparently a drunken night previous, apparently in flagrante delicto (although this isn't explicitly confirmed), makes her way, still under the effects of booze, to the elevator facing the embarkation of a trek back home under the unideal illumination, literally and figuratively, of the sun over the following morning. As she awaits the sluggish elevator's arrival she endures the onslaught of her senses and memories booting up once more, an over-correction of consciousness that drives our heroine to bargain with the Almighty for her return trip to go unnoticed (there's also some angry projection of blame, denial, depression and moments of acceptance thrown in - she's a boozy, singing Kübler-Ross model). And, I should say, for this scenario the song works perfectly as written - it fits and fills the micro-scene P!nk and Kurstin have chosen to play.
Make the elevator
Come a little faster
I'm pushing all the buttons
But nothing's happenin'
She's waiting for the damned elevator. Pushing buttons. Nada. It's unfortunate.

Now, let's imagine we're writing the song for a moment (power trip!), and we decide instead to spread the action out over a wider period of time within the song: instead of beginning in the hallway, we open a few minutes earlier, with P!nk still inside the Locale of Shame at the point when she's realizing the time is at hand to no longer be there. The drunken night is giving way to the realization that it's not night anymore and corrective action must be taken. If, say, we switched the second verse with the first, the first chorus can be a brief flashback. If we simply change the subject in the first line, we've got a whole other vivid, hilarious, tragic archetypal scene on our hands. Observe:
Make this [guy I'm fucking/motherfucker/whats-iz-name here] (e.g.)
Come a little faster
I'm pushing all the buttons
But nothing's happenin'!
Eh? Eh? Yeah? Huh? Amiright?

Not only have we found a whole new meaning in this chorus, but if we replace the original line on the second chorus and make the elevator the subject, we create another layer of hysterical frantic continuity in which the slight lyrical alteration awakens the ear anew to the second chorus, elevating its impact, while the cleverness of the ruse elevates the effect of both choruses even further. If we wanted to go the full monty we could probably assign the third chorus to a crosswalk button or cell phone or stubborn alarm clock, but it wouldn't be necessary, and two's company but three can be a crowd in this type of tactic, and if the third seems forced it can dampen the whole eubangie.

Also, by spreading the scene out a bit more with P!nk as our guide rather than narrator we make the situation more viscerally hectic and force the audience to experience a bit of the night that has gotten our heroine into such a state; this makes P!nk's melodramatic prayers a bit more understandable. By witnessing even this tiny moment of P!nk's wild night rather than just hearing about it, they are more likely to walk with her who might otherwise have opted to watch her walk without the forced intimacy of the experience - and she makes pretty clear that she does NOT want to be watched. Though it might strain credulity for those of us who've walked some version of this walk at some point in our lives, remember that not everybody has had the joy of perambulating the walk of shame (a lot of them being, um, kids!), and the more the storyteller can bring them along on the debaucherous shenanigans that form the very foundations of the story being told, the more walking ensues and less unfairly dismissive capsule reviews in Rolling Stone.

Just a thought.

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