You’re writing a song, in English, about a young woman whose life has taken all the wrong turns, most of them involving rock musicians:
Well, sometimes it seems impossible
That the game could get that rough
But the stage is set, the exit’s barred
And the make-up won’t come off
To fit the music, you need a two-beat, two-syllable name for your young, damaged woman. Something that begins with a young, clear-as-a-bell consonant, but dulls into a schwa sound. Better still if the end of her name is a thick, tongue-clogging l, so that you can drag her name down into the dirt when you sing it.
You think I make the choosing of names for songs sound mechanical or cynical? No name finds its way into a song unless its sound serves that song. Layla, Emily and Jane suit the psychology of the songs where they appear. Each name is a sound picture.
To choose your heroine’s name, you start running through the alphabet and come to B. Two syllables, the second one a schwa followed by an l. Beryl. Beryl the rock groupie. Really?
I’m writing this in the UK, where the name Beryl is a great-aunt/grandmother name. Popular for baby girls in the 1930s. Beryl might have managed a jazz-groupie life, but it would be hard to imagine her in the role of rock groupie. The chronology‘s all wrong.
Using Beryl in this song would distract and confuse your audience. You’d have to spend valuable time convincing them that your Beryl is young enough to be a groupie, not a voracious granny. In a 3 minute song, time is precious.
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Names are more than words. When you read a name or hear a name for the first time, you have an image of the kind of person you expect to inhabit that name. You imagine a Demelza differently from a Doris. A Jane differently from a Jolene.
If English isn’t your first language make sure that the name you choose for the heroine of your love song suits the time and the situation, as well as the sound. The same goes for English speakers dropping names from other cultures into songs.
Imagine the surprise of Russians, for whom the word Babushka (ба́бушка) means grandmother or old lady when they heard Kate Bush using Babushka to mean young temptress:
In English, a word like Babooshka would have the stress fall on the second syllable – Babooshka. In Russian, the word is Babooshka.
For Kate, Babooshka is a useful collection of sounds – with its long oo crashing into the shka sound. It’s exotic enough to suit its role as a wife’s nom de plume for the love letters she writes her husband, to test his loyalty. You need an intriguing name for a game like that.
Does it matter that Kate Bush didn’t know the true meaning of the Russian word? For her English-speaking audience, it certainly doesn’t. Babooshka fits the music. It fits the story of Kate’s song too – Babooshka is an invented woman, a chimera, not what she seems. Russians can enjoy the irony at another level – tempting a husband through love letters signed by granny.
While Beryl is frozen in time for English speakers, Beryl, pronounced with a French accent, would become an excitingly foreign creature. She’s untethered from history. We’re prepared to believe that young glamorous women are called Beryl in France. Or Italy or Spain. A ‘foreign’ pronunciation removes all our Beryl old lady associations.
You don’t believe it’s that easy?
Denis, a grandfather’s name in British imagination, throws his zimmer frame aside when Blondie pronounces his name the French way. Suddenly Denis is young, desirable and mysterious. Not a wrinkle in sight when we see him in our mind’s eye:
Of course, it can work both ways. A young French Denis living in the UK might find that nobody believes the photo he posts on his dating site profile. Without Blondie’s help, Denis says worn-out slippers and greying string vest. Until the day you start hearing Denis called out again to toddlers in English playgrounds, he’s getting older and older in our cultural imagination.
Sound fuels imagination, but without sound we’re left to our preconceptions of the word on the page. And our dating French Denis is left to the romantic attentions of the over 80s.
So, you can sing Beryl in a foreign accent, or you can move on to C. And Carol. When Al Stewart (most famous for this song) wrote his song Carol, in the early 70s, the name still fitted a young woman. Now, 40 years later, that’s more of a stretch.
If you’re wondering why we didn’t move to Cheryl – when you listen to the song, you’ll hear why. The soft sh of Cheryl wouldn’t have worked here. Al needs the crisp k sound of Carol to propel him forward and downwards into despair:
Al makes the name Carol sound weighted down by disappointment and trapped by her own mistakes. He’s moulded the name to his own design. Watch Chuck Berry infuse the same name, Carol, with energy and enthusiasm. How does he do it?:
A lot of it is intention. Chuck’s thinking of Carol in a positive way, so he shapes his mouth accordingly. Al’s remembering an orange-haired groupie he found wandering the corridors of his hotel when he was on tour in New York. Al’s native country, Scotland, was too rural to have developed a fully-fledged groupie culture at the time, so he was shocked and intrigued. He shapes the name Carol with his sadness at her situation. You can hear it in his voice, just as you can hear Chuck’s hope for a rendezvous with his Carol in his voice.
If you shape Al Stewart’s Carol when you need to be communicating the energy and optimism of Chuck Berry’s Carol, your audience will be confused and unhappy. Chuck’s lyrics (here) will be giving them an image of a night of youthful fun and frolics ahead, but your voice will be giving them a clear message of disappointment and disillusion every time you sing the name Carol.
Always make sure that you’re imagining the person behind the name you’re singing. And imagining them at the point in their life that the song captures. Remember, Chuck Berry’s Carol might have started out young and enthusiastic when he wrote about her in 1958. She had time to fall into drugs and despair by the time Al Stewart captured her in his song, in the early 1970s. It’s your job, as a singer, to breathe life into the names you sing. To give them 3 dimensions.
There is no standard Carol. Just as there is no standard Denis. You paint their portrait with sound. Their life is within your power.
By the way – Am I right to think that Beryl can be used as a man’s name in the US? If you’re American and reading this, I’d love to know what kind of person you picture when you see the name Beryl. Male or female version.
*Lyrics from Carol by Al Stewart from his album Modern Times, recorded on CBS in 1974.
© Sing Better English, 2015