When you sing in English, repeated pairs of words are a gift to you, and to your listeners. If you use them well.
You establish your ‘standard’ pronunciation of words early in every song. Your listeners calibrate their emotional understanding of you accordingly. They read every single change in emphasis and breath against your own personal ‘standard’. You’re free to move away from the ‘normal’, to play any word-pair like bongo drums, moving from one to the other, harder and softer, lighter and deeper, to weave layers of subtle meaning.
In Spanish, the larger, deeper drum of the two is called the ‘female’ (hembra) and the smaller is the ‘male’ or macho. Make of that what you will.
White Town sings the words your and woman differently each time, stretching Bing Crosby’s straightforward My Woman into a far more complicated creature. There’s a Twelfth Night gender shifting quality to his song. There is no stable ground, except in the repeated Your Woman mantra. We listen harder to White Town’s subtle changes because he knows how to make us listen:
The shifting rhyme scheme of the verses is designed to unsettle us and to make us listen harder as we desperately search for a pattern:
- In the first verse, the first and third lines rhyme.
- In the second verse the rhyme switches to the first and second lines. There is no certainty.
- The rhymes vary from the exact: true and you, through the distant: truth and through and beyond, all the way to the stretched rhyme of yesterday and same.
The uncertainties of the rhyme scheme prime us to pay close attention throughout – so unexpected words like high-brow Marxist ways don’t get lost. White Town sings in an intimate crooner style to draw listeners into the web of his story. Once you start listening, you’re committed, no matter where he chooses to lead you and even though you can’t see where he’s taking you.
When the first chorus begins, the listener has no idea that anything will be repeated. So they listen hard. White Town knows he has their full attention. He varies his pronunciation of your woman – bouncing between an emphasis on your (not mine, far from me), a matter-of-fact pronunciation of woman, a full, curvaceous pronunciation of woman, a stretching of the diphthong in your, etc., etc. He makes the absolute best of a simple two word phrase and breathes a rolling landscape of meaning into it.
The word your, with its uncertainty and its expandable diphthong centre, serves White Town’s purpose better than the my of Bing Crosby’s original My Woman. White Town says he was inspired by jazz singer Al Bowlly’s version of the song, mimed by Bob Hoskins in the BBC series Pennies from Heaven:
Al Bowlly shapes and stretches the word woman, so that the word expresses his changing thoughts about the lady in question. He shades the word woman differently each time, with intention and belief. This is his story, a sad progress from new song to blue song. She’s always his: my woman, but love has led him down a blind alleyway. Dennis Potter chose the song in irony.
You can see Al Bowlly himself, backed, as in My Woman, by Lew Stone and His Monseigneur Band here:
If English isn’t your first language remember: The simplest words in English are like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag. Full of surprises. All words are available for change. Think of Jarvis Cocker working wonders with do here. Never pass over simple English words. All sounds in a song are there to be used.
Look at the word your – there are two standard pronunciations of your listed in the Oxford dictionary here. White Town goes far beyond them. He stretches the vowel sounds at the centre of your – this long vowel sound and this double vowel sound, or diphthong.
When you sing in English be prepared to copy White Town, or to do something completely different. Consider each word in your song carefully, especially the short, everyday ones. How can you make them work for you? In song, the sound you give each word carries emotional meaning. It’s your job to make that meaning vivid and clear.
By the way – just because you can change a repeated word doesn’t mean that you always should. The choice is yours. Next post features a famous song where repetition produces mesmeric power. Clue: the singer’s first name is James, though it’s far from the name you know him by. A colleague and one-time flatmate of David Bowie.
© Sing Better English, 2014