The best singers and songwriters cram a world of subtle meaning into tiny words like do. How?
Listen to the Pulp song Common People. Near the beginning, you’ll hear Jarvis Cocker sing: Well, what else could I do? / I said, “I’ll see what I can do.” Repetition and exact rhyme of simple words can sound amateurish and boring. Jarvis wrote the song. Why repeat do here? Choice or necessity? Does it work?
How does Jarvis invest each do with a different feeling when he sings? What’s the effect?
If English isn’t your first language and you’re struggling to hear a difference between the two do’s, let’s backtrack a moment: listen to the two o‘s in Common. Can you hear the difference between them?
If you’re a songwriter, does Jarvis’ clever use of repetition appeal? The word do is echoed elsewhere – the girl from Greece wants to ‘do whatever common people do.‘ Even so, the close repetition of ‘what else could I do‘ and ‘I’ll see what I can do‘ would sound lame if it wasn’t performed with a Jarvis twist and if it didn’t springboard Common People towards a shift of tempo. Would you have done it differently?
Of course, Jarvis has cleverly set up a clear expectation of do as the only possible rhyme at the end of the line. Once he’s sung I’ll see then his audience knows he’s heading for do – or for some surprising word at the end of the line – so he’s got their focus where he wants it. Like a magician, Jarvis has directed his audience’s attention. His magic trick? To moderate his voice as he semi-speaks the words – drawing his audience closer and closer until the final word, do, overflows with emotional energy.
What differences did you pick up between the two do’s? Does the second do sound more rounded, more intimate, more ‘Sheffield’ to you? (You can hear Jarvis’ Sheffield accent here.)
If you’re singing a cover, but you’re not from Yorkshire yourself, how would you mark that difference? It’s dangerous to mimic but it would be sad to lose the power Jarvis channels into the word. It’s one of the pivotal points of the song.
After all, the second do needs to carry a full cargo of irony, pretence, concealed excitement and unbelievable luck, if it’s going to fulfil its role. The audience needs to understand that the singer is playing hard to get when he says he’ll ‘see what he can do,’ while the ‘Greek girl’ needs to believe that, no matter how ‘hard’ it’s going to be for him, he wants to help her. The pretence and the belief is all contained in that second do. That’s part of the joy and wit of the song and it’s part of the feeling of complicity that marks Pulp songs. We’re always on Jarvis’ side. He uses words to draw us to him.
To be able to manipulate the word do in Common People, you need to have a full sound palette at the ready. For a start, you need to have more than one, standard o at your disposal if you’re going to be able to sing do differently, as necessary.
If English isn’t your first language: could you hear the difference between the two o‘s of common? The first o is the o of shop and job. The second o is our friend the schwa. It rhymes with the le of people.
Like any English song, Common People is awash with different kinds of o: the o of coca cola (0.27) and smoke (1.55). The o of knowledge. The different o‘s of do. Listen again if you didn’t notice the difference between them. It’s important.
If you only use one kind of o, or one kind of do when you sing in English, you’re limiting yourself to a robot, computer voice sound. You need to use subtle differences in sound to communicate human meaning and emotion to your audience. You need to sound human. Listen to Jarvis. He paints vivid pictures with tiny words. With a bit of thought and practice, you can do the same.
Most English letters come in different flavours. You don’t want to be a vanilla singer.
Put it another way: you need to be ready with a full range of English sounds if you want to do justice to Common People, or any other song. Don’t fall for the ‘one letter, one sound’ myth. English doesn’t work like that. Not when it’s being used well.
Little words and single letters wield mighty power in song. Use every last whisper of sound to your advantage when you sing. Don’t waste a breath.
© Sing Better English, 2014