When a white man sings about a brown girl, the word brown carries a complicated history. Think of Jagger’s Brown Sugar. Think of the Stranglers kneading and stretching the diphthong of plain old brown until it exhales into the exotic, sensuous ‘otherness‘ of Golden Brown.
Singer/songwriter Kizzy Crawford has different plans for both brown and golden, as a home-made antidote to the bullying she experienced as a child. How does she warm up the words, making them personal and precious, not exotically ‘other’? She stretches the diphthong of brown beyond anything the Stranglers imagined. Then, like spun sugar, she twirls brown into a shape that’s light and warm:
Here’s Kizzy’s Welsh version: Brown Euraidd. The word brown is borrowed from English, but it sounds shorter and cleaner in its Welsh form:
How to communicate the difference in the meaning of the words golden and brown? You can tell that Kizzy Crawford cherishes the words. In her mind, they’re shining in the dark of persecution. She doesn’t thicken them into molten opium consistency, as the Stranglers did. The words don’t need to express exotic ‘otherness’ for her, so she leaves them warm and light. They’re a recently discovered positive affirmation for her. They’re close to her heart. Words that describe her as a real woman, not as an idea of a woman. They’re not a label chosen by a white man. She chose the words golden and brown herself. Out of all possible words. There’s a warmth in her voice when she sings them.
The same words, with a different flavour: Mariachi Mexteca with Hugh Cornwell of the Stranglers singing Golden Brown in 2012. A different intention from Kizzy’s and a different intention from Hugh’s original Stranglers’ rendition in 1982. What’s changed?:
Interestingly, in his new mariachi collaboration, Hugh Cornwell doesn’t sing Golden Brown as he did 30 years earlier. It’s not just the upbeat mariachi tempo that changes things. The words seem to mean something different to him. Hugh still stretches the diphthong of brown, but it’s all far more neutral – he knows that some of his audience believe the song is about heroin, but he’s not about to stoke that particular fire. If the song was originally about a girl, or girls, then those feelings are far in his past too. So the words have changed for him. They’re just words. They carry the music, rather than carrying any strong meaning for him.
It’s clear from the way Hugh now sings the phrase Golden Brown that, unlike Kizzy, he has no specific beloved person or substance in mind. He’s describing a perception or an experience rather than an individual human. The words roll off his tongue too quickly to pick up any emotion on the way.
You think it’s because he knows the song too well? Not so. Listen to Van Morrison here singing his 1973 song Brown Eyed Girl in 2006. He may well have forgotten the original girl, but you can hear a specific 3D relationship in the words. There’s human warmth in brown as Van sings it. He sings the word brown more ’roundly’ than Hugh does. It sounds kinder, somehow. True, he’s singing about eyes, not skin colour, but his description of the woman doesn’t rely on brown alone to convey everything he wants his audience to understand about her. Unlike Mr Jagger.
You can colour your words as you please. But please do colour them. Your audience reads your emotions by reading the nuances of each word you sing. You can add warmth, exotic interest, disinterest or personal affirmation to any word, depending on the way you sing it. You choose.
By the way – if you don’t share Kizzy Crawford’s Bajan heritage, but you want to sing a cover of her song – how will you charge the words Golden Brown with positive warmth? Is a stretchy diphthong all you need?
A thought that came to me as I was writing this – you don’t hear white women singing songs about brown men or brown boys, do you? Or have I missed a whole part of musical history?
If English isn’t your first language: be careful with colours in songs. Think of the difference between the black in Black is Black here and the black in Back to Black here. Or the yellow of Yellow Submarine here versus the yellow of Coldplay’s Yellow here. Think of the additional ‘envious’ meaning of green in Jolene here and the simple fresh, energetic springtime meaning of green in Greensleeves here. Colours don’t always mean the same, but colours always mean something.
Like any word, a colour carries a cargo of meaning, some of it specific to English, some of it specific to a particular song.
Check the meaning of any colour in any song that you sing. Some will be there by chance, some will be there to intensify the mood of the song. Listen carefully to the original and to a few covers to see what meaning other singers put into the colour and decide if you want to do the same, or something interestingly different. Don’t sing one, never-changing, standard version of the word pink, red, brown, blue or whatever. Think of what the Stranglers managed, just by stretching the diphthong of brown. Think of what Kizzy Crawford achieved by stretching it in a different direction. Just one word.
Make your colours work for you. Think before you sing.
© Sing Better English, 2014