Reward

Imagine this: you have quadruplets. It’s the night before their 9th birthday. You’re wrapping their identical presents, identically. You won’t let them accuse you of ribbon-length favouritism this year.

Your wrapping’s finished. You say, out loud, with relief: All wrapped up the same. You tip the sound of same forward onto the m, and close your mouth firmly. You finish the word quickly and neatly. Same, in your mouth, at this moment, communicates certainty. A job well done.

Your quadruplets get up early and set about examining the birthday parcels. This year they’ve decided they want to be treated as individuals. Discovering 4 identical parcels in a homogenous heap, they begin to wail inconsolably: All wrapped up the same. 

How does the word same sound in the mouth of a distraught quad? They scoop a space out of the central diphthong and pour their disappointment into it. Stretching same into sa-a-ame. The softens and loses its certainty as the word billows and blows with misery. Same word, different message.

Julian Cope uses same to power the chorus of his song RewardWithout certainty, without disappointment, but resonating with enigma. The video’s a rare chance to see how we used to do carpooling in the UK:

Reward’s powerful brass intro makes us sit up and pay attention. If Reward were a Shakespeare play, that fanfare would warn us that the king is just about to sweep onto the stage.

The first line of the song: Bless my cotton socks, I’m in the news is intriguingly unexpected. The strong ss, tt and cks  make the words easy to hear. Julian enunciates clearly, and most British people know the expression Bless my cotton socksBut few of us would guess where he’s planning to take us from that beginning.

The next line, something about kings with their buttons all assumed, draws us in even further because now we don’t understand. Julian’s moved ahead of us, just out of sight. But the insistent drum beat and Julian’s charisma persuade us that, whatever he’s saying, it’s important. We get the message that we should pay attention.

One line of clarity, one line of obscurity. We’re interested, but we’re lost. We listen even more closely to the next line, trying to get ourselves back in tune with the meaning of the song. Julian has primed us to notice him filling same with an unusual, elastic resonance at the end of the line. He repeats the line, and we hear same coming round quickly again, as stretchy as before. Unusual sounds, repeated exactly, signify ‘pay attention’.

Same sounds important, so we load it with all possible meaning, just in case we need it later in the song. Listening to a song for the first time is like playing a video game for the first time – you collect everything along the way, in the hope it will come in useful later.

Same is an important part of the build-up to the word reward. It would be hard to load the word reward with meaning all at once, without preparing the ground first. Singing same as Julian does is part of that careful preparation. Unconscious but powerful.

If English isn’t your first language, remember: if you shorten the word same in Reward, or try to rein it in, back to its standard dictionary form, you kill the power of the song. And all the powerful trumpets in the world won’t bring it back to life again.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – any English word with a diphthong is a gift to a singer. The smallest word can carry the heaviest meaning if you use its diphthong wisely. Think of Whitney Houston weaving wonders with here.

If you’re singing in English, especially if English isn’t your first language, remember to search out the diphthongs in lyrics. Like nuggets of gold in river sand, they’ll reward your efforts.

Panning for gold
Panning for gold

By the way, Julian’s still investing English with resonance by stretching words to his purpose. Watch him speak about Neolithic Silbury Hill and the Avebury stones here and you’ll understand why he was able to make you pay attention to the simple word same:

© Sing Better English, 2015

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21 thoughts on “Reward”

  1. “Any English word with a diphthong is a gift to a singer. The smallest word can carry the heaviest meaning if you use its diphthong wisely.” Oh, how I love your writing — and your insightful observations! Although I’m not much of a singer, I appreciate how much you’ve broadened my *appreciation* of singing. Thank you, Elaine.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Heather – hope I’m not beginning to sound like a broken record as far as diphthongs go. They are a glorious resource for singers, especially as you can fold them up when you don’t need them any more and the word still makes sense. (I have a feeling Julian stretches ‘same’ most at the beginning of the song, to draw attention to it and puts it back in his pocket by the end).

      That freedom to paint sound pictures with diphthongs is something that comes naturally to native speakers. Everyone learns how to play with their own language to persuade or pursue – maybe the extremes of teenage speech make for highly expressive singers in adult life!

      I’ve heard a lot of singers who’ve learnt English as a second or third language who get the ‘right’ version of a word chiselled into their brains and they find it hard to use that word to express anything because they’re stuck with one, exam-passing form of it. They sing a neat, tidy form of the word that’s out of step with the music or the meaning. I’m hoping to give them ‘permission’ to expand their English beyond that, so that the language serves them when they sing.

      After writing that post I’ve been inspired to go and visit the Avebury standing stones http://bit.ly/1K9am9E Funny how the internet leads you down side-alleys!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I don’t think you sound like a broken record at all, Elaine — and it can be a complex concept, so it’s good to come at it from different angles and with fresh examples. (To wit: I’d never considered that exaggerated teen-speak might make for more expressive singing! What an interesting idea you’ve put in my head. 🙂

        As for the detour to Avebury … how charming! I’d never heard of that show before, so thank you for (yet again) broadening my horizons.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! Love the quadruplets analogy, it made me smile.

    I really like the song – it reminds me of this somehow:

    I think it’s the combination of the bass, piano and trumpet lines, and I think “Reward” has a sort of Russian flavour as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for that – interesting thought. I read that there was a trip to Russia arranged by Liverpool Polytechnic (10 days for £200!) back around the time this song was written. Other Liverpool musicians, from Echo and the Bunnymen, who were friends of The Teardrop Explodes, have said that the traditional music from deepest Russia inspired them on Killing Moon http://bit.ly/1aFbByz So something Russian may well have been in the musical air, mixed up with memories of Northern Soul.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Rosa, thanks for popping by.

      By the way, if you have friends in Spain who sing in English, tell me a song that they like to sing and I’ll write something about it. I remember watching Operación Triunfo years ago, when it first started, with David Bisbal and Rosa and all that, and hearing a lot of the singers unknowingly wrong-footing the music with standard/exam/dictionary English. It wasn’t their fault – they were using English as they’d been taught it in school, and they were doing what English students do when they sing in French or Spanish – shackled by the fear of getting it ‘wrong’. In a conversation it wouldn’t have mattered. The small mistakes weren’t big enough to disturb the flow of speech. But in song, every word has to be ready to put on its dancing shoes. Otherwise singers are trying to tango in wellington boots.

      So it’s my mission to offer sparkly red dancing shoes to all those who sing in English, so that they can wriggle their toes free and feel the music 🙂

      Un abrazo
      Elaine

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      1. Hello Elaine, unfortunately (or fortunately 😀 ) I don’t have friends that sing in English. To be honest I have always felt slightly uncomfortable with people pretending to sing in a language they don’t really handle in all it’s details. It sounds artificial to me, unless you are completely into that other culture and can make a sort of ironical statement about yourself as a singer. I’m not a singer, though I always sing when cooking, but I think the ability to strech words is also very nice in a simple conversation. Wouldn’t that be great!? 🙂 I’ll give it a try. xxx

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hi Rosa – you’re not alone in feeling uneasy around people singing in a language that they don’t own (I mean ‘own’ in the sense of taking it on fully – taking full responsibility for it and feeling a connection with it). There’s something very odd when you feel that a singer’s not being ‘true’ to the words that are coming out of their mouth. It’s like watching a bad politician speak.

        Thinking of people who ‘own’ English, Björk comes to mind. It’s not her native language, she never sounds ‘English’, but she bends the language to the music and it works. Wonderfully. Maybe it’s because she writes songs in the language, so she’s had to get her hands dirty with English and mould it into shape to suit her music.

        I think the uneasiness comes when people treat English as an exercise or use it to show off – somebody told me recently of an Egyptian woman, a belly dancer, who gets that same uneasiness when she sees Western women competing in belly dance contests. It’s not that they shouldn’t be dancing, it’s that, to her, they often look as if they’re doing aerobics, rather than inhabiting the music. To her it’s obvious that they haven’t paid attention to the music, have no idea what it truly means and are just wiggling to it, without respecting it.

        I think respect’s the key. Otherwise it’s like a lot of the Mexican ‘street food’ cafes that are so fashionable in England at the moment – a big colourful sign outside with a few Posada calaveras dancing on it, and, inside, a sludgy menu of flour tortillas, mashed beans, melted cheese, a smidgeon of avocado and a load of hot sauce to drown out the taste. Nothing a Mexican visitor would recognise from home. Or want to recognise.

        Oh dear – that’s a giant response. I’m drinking coffee as I write – maybe that’s why! Anyway, I’m glad to hear that you sing as you cook. In my book, that makes you a singer. The more song in the world, the better – so keep your window open while you cook. You might be the sound that soothes a fretful baby or brings a drop of joy into the heart of a neighbour walking home after a hard day at work, or a hard day without work.

        Un abrazo
        Elaine

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thanks Rosa. I sympathise – we’re sinking into a heatwave here now. The trains are running slow and everything’s grinding to a halt. It’s funny in the UK, we can only deal with weather that’s in the middle – snow or heat cause chaos because nobody plans for it. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I can’t sing at all! I can’t remember the words a the right time – I keep replacing them for new ones – even if I have listened to them many times – I still switch them.
    It’s not a tragedy – my singing voice is worthless. 😀
    your post are delightful!

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    1. No, no, no José – surely not worthless. I don’t think birds judge their voices when they sing – the world would be a sadly hushed place if they did.

      And I think words settle to music as butterflies settle on flowers. There’s always another possibility, another butterfly. If your new words fit the music, they’re just as valid as the ones picked by the songwriter. Otherwise the words become like those butterflies you see pinned in glass cases.

      Which is a long and winding way to say – thank you for visiting! And keep singing – the world needs song!

      All best wishes
      Elaine

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hello Elaine, I had to start a new thread, because the reply option was used up 😀 . About the belly dancers, oh yes, I know exactly what the Egyptian woman means, I’ve seen this also when people dance ‘salsa’ in Europe, it has nothing to do anymore with enjoying the subtle combination of rythm, body movements, sharing with others, etc. On the dance floor people hit you in the face with their arms or long hair while spinning around, they put en elbow in your back while moving there legs form one side to the other, but just all to show off, which to me has nothing to do with dancing. As a dancer you should be able to perform taking into account the space you share with others, like in an orquestra, where the volume you use while playing or singing also depends on all the other musicians. And when talking about the preparation of food in restaurants or look alikes, I find it always so hard to find a (simple) meal for a reasonable price but just made with love and dedication. In fact it’s so easy! That’s why I prefer to cook myself, 😀 and sing with a bottle of olive oil in my hand. 😉 My best wishes! Hope you can deal with the heath. xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Rosa – absolutely. There’s something about the heart of a dance that deserves respect, especially if the dance comes from somewhere far away. Otherwise you’re ripping the heart out and you’re left with a zombie dance.

      Over here salsa classes are where you go if you’re recently divorced and looking for a new love. I don’t know if it’s like that in Spain. Salsa is considered an ‘easy’ dance and so people feel they can shine. Which is nice, and valuable on a human level, but not very fair to salsa itself.

      I like the idea of a dance floor as an orchestra. In some ways it’s amazing that people don’t knock into each other more (I always think that when I see people flowing along a busy street or at rush hour, where everyone is quickly reading everyone else’s trajectory and calculating whether to walk a little to the left or a little to the right so as not to crash into them).

      Singing with a bottle of olive oil in your hand sounds like the best kind of therapy. When I was a child, in England, they only sold olive oil in tiny bottles, in the chemist’s – it was a treatment for earache (you warmed the oil a bit and put it in your ear).

      The heat is turning into thunder storms, which are more fun. We’ve been eating a lot of watermelon. feta cheese, basil, olive oil and black pepper salads. I hope the heat is mellowing where you are.

      Un abrazo
      Elaine xx

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    2. Just remembered something I think you’ll enjoy, Rosa, thinking about the dance floor as a shared space and as an orchestra – it’s about different conductors and how they bring their orchestras together. It’s worth watching to see Bernstein conducting with his eyebrows https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9g3Q-qvtss
      (by the way – if you don’t like TED talks or don’t want to watch the rest, Bernstein and his eyebrows start at 19.30 in).

      Next time you’re out at a dance, get those eyebrows moving and the world will start to behave! 🙂 xx

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A wonderful TEDtalk. Eyebrows are so essential in communication. In drawing I also use the eyebrows to create expressions. It also works when talking to children, I mean instead of yelling 😉 xx

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