When White isn’t Right

When you sing about love, it helps to think about chocolate. From  the whitest of white to the darkest of dark, with added chilli.  From Michael Jackson’s upbeat love in A.B.C. to Bob Dylan’s weathered disappointment in Love Sick.  Same word, different flavours.

You’ve tasted white chocolate, I’m sure: light, sweet and easy. White chocolate love is the version you learn at school – full of innocent enthusiasm: I love Maths. He loves kittens. We love Zayn Malik. 

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If you grow up in an English speaking country, the word love grows up with you. There comes a time when you start using love for men and women, not just rabbits and Geography. The word love gets coloured by your experience of romantic human love, good and bad. You will be able to shade the word when you say or sing it, from white to dark, and anywhere in between. Your thoughts will shape your mouth.

It’s the idea of love that you’re holding in your mind as you shape your mouth that forms the word. It’s not necessarily a conscious decision, but your audience will read the intention behind the love you sing or speak. Each time you shape the word for them.

Has anyone ever told you “I love you” without putting their heart and soul into the words? It feels disappointingly hollow, doesn’t it?

A white chocolate, emotion-free “I love you” communicates flippant disinterest, in a romantic song. When you’re looking into another human’s eyes, you need to use a milk chocolate love, at least. In song and in relationships, it’s wise to get the love flavour right.

If you learn English as a foreign language, the word love may never have an opportunity to grow up. If love stays, filed away in a corner of your mind, in a single, childish, white chocolate version, your mind will shape your mouth the same way every time you come to sing the wordYour audience will feel the mismatch if the song calls for emotion, but you offer them disinterested enthusiasm and an “I love tennis” version of love. You’ll lose their trust.

Yes, there are white chocolate love songs – usually written by very young, very innocent men. They’re light and casual. They skip along. They’re the only place that your jolly, white chocolate love will ring true. But, even in a white chocolate love song like the Beatles’ Love Me Do, first written out in a school notebook, notice Paul McCartney deepening and darkening the flavour of the title line, from white to milk when he sings alone:

Love Me Do was written by Paul McCartney, years before the Beatles formed and years before he recorded the song. He wrote it as a young teenager, but sang it as a young adult. When he sings alone, he colours the word love, from white to milk, to sound pleading; to convince his beloved to love him. When the rest of the band join him, he whitens the word love again, sounding casual and matter-of-fact.

It’s the difference between the tone of voice of a man uses, in private, to romance his sweetheart and the tone of voice a man uses to talk about her to his mates in the pub later.

When you sing Love Me Do – or any other song where a man sings, alone to his woman, then turns to sing along with his guitar-playing mates, always check for any subtle differences in tone and shade your love accordingly. As in life, so in music. It’s hard to believe a whole group of men singing together, in a warm, romantic way, to attract or reassure the same woman. Not without a fight breaking out.

If English is your mother tongue: call on your ability to colour love in the subtle shades of different emotions when you sing. Not in a ridiculous, “look at me” way, but knowing that love is a word that calls special attention from your audience, decide what you want to do with that attention. Your audience will ‘read’ you as you sing the word in a romantic song, just as they would read a lover. They’ll decide if they believe you.

If English isn’t your mother tongueremember: you are never taught English as a language of real-life romance in a classroom  – love stays neutral in textbooks. I love jazz, never I love you. You’ll need to add the right colouring to the word yourself. Your only alternative is to seek out a native English speaker and let them break your heart.

Next: Part 2 – Milk

© Sing Better English, 2016

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3 thoughts on “When White isn’t Right”

  1. I feel very identified with this post, as, I, well, have had my heart broken by an English native speaker. Very interesting!

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  2. Although I’m not a singer, I keep coming back for your gorgeous writing, Elaine — and of all the beautiful metaphors you’ve penned, this is my favorite yet. Thanks to you, for the rest of my days I will associate love with different types of chocolate (and count myself lucky for having run into only a couple of those dark, bitter bars). Thank you for this beautiful post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Heather. 🙂

      It had taken me a while to work out where the ‘you don’t really mean that’ feeling came from when some singers who’d learnt English as a foreign language sang the word ‘love.’ I know I’d have to consciously channel Jane Birkin if I ever wanted to assure a French man that I truly, deeply, honestly loved him. Even then, I think I’d find it hard to calibrate the word correctly.My use of j’aime, long ago at school, only ever extended to include swimming and ‘my parents.’ I think I’d have to spend years living in French to draw the language close enough to my heart to use it convincingly as an adult.

      In the meantime, I’d have to switch to English if I wanted to connect fully with a statement of emotion. Like the inhabitants of Gibraltar, who skip between Spanish and English, within the same sentence, if one language suits their thoughts better.

      Of course, singers don’t have that chance. If it says love in the lyrics, then that’s the word they have to sing. I hope the post reminds singers, not just non-native speaking singers – to dust off and examine the word before they sing it!

      Liked by 1 person

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