A happy word sung sadly is sadder than a sad word sung sadly. Song titles like The Weeping Song or Broken Dream give us fair warning. We’re ready for a story of hope crushed by time or tragedy. The singer can deepen what we already expect, but they can’t turn our expectation upside-down. A Broken Dream can’t be fixed in a song Weeping can’t disguise itself as laughter. Sad words are sad words.
But what do you expect from a song called Cartwheels? Joy and spontaneous exuberance? The innocent, happy whirl of love’s first days or weeks? Watch Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas sing the word cartwheels into sorrow. How? Listen for the catch in the voice on the ar of cartwheels. It throws a shadow on shared memory of carefree love:
That subtle catch in the Ward Thomas sisters’ voices on the ar carries a whole history of relationship breakdown after glowing happiness. It changes our perception of the word cartwheels, but we hold our own personal picture of the word, as a thing of joy, at the same time. The subtlety of the singer shades the emotion of cartwheels into three dimensions, giving it an imagined happy past, difficult present and dark future.
Cartwheels, in this song, carries a shadow of summery joy. That shadow makes cartwheels sadder than a sad word. The shadow is in the singer’s voice. And in the story our imaginations construct for us as we listen.
It’s a little like the conflict set up by Lana Del Rey’s Summertime Sadness. We’re listening to the sadness, but we don’t let go of our idea of summertime as freedom, sunshine and light. Our happy idea of the word plays in our minds each time she sings it. Moderating that happiness in our own heads makes us mourn her lost happiness even more closely. We’re with her in nostalgia and what ‘should have been.’
The Ward Thomas twins choose their words well. And sing them well, once they’re chosen. There’s an added layer of sadness in their choice of doing cartwheels, not the more usual turning cartwheels. Doing cartwheels feels different.
So I’ve been doing cartwheels
Anything to save us
Anything to make you notice me
What difference does doing make here? Turning cartwheels is pure joy and exuberant freedom. Doing cartwheels, to save a relationship, is a forced and repetitive action. A desperate turning and turning. A sad display.
Cartwheel is one of those words that carries the sensation of its own movement within its sound and shape. Try saying the English word cartwheel out loud. It’s a round, turning word in its original, ancient meaning as the wheel of a cart. You can see why cartwheel was taken up, in the mid-19th century, as ‘the word’ for an athletic sideways somersault. Clever person who first used it. The word feels right as you say it. Can you feel the graceful, round, turning shape of the word in your mouth? The hard c propels you forwards onto your hands and the smooth whoosh of the ar glides you over. The tiny gap between t and w is that pause of stillness at the top of your cartwheel, before the long smooth eel turns you back onto your feet.
It’s all there in the word. Wheel has an ancient history in English. It’s a word that, satisfyingly, has been shaped, over time, to sound exactly like what it is: a turning circle. When you sing the word wheel, either in This Wheel’s on Fire or in Cartwheels, remember that physical feeling. Whether you sing the word happy or sad, you must sing it as a full, round movement.
If English isn’t your first language, check that you: Give the ee of wheel its full, long, lazy space, like this. Think of a wheel turning right round. Give the ar of cartwheel its full, wide, smooth English sound, like this. Think of a cartwheel as you sing it.
By the way, the Ward Thomas twins have a habit of upsetting expectations for ordinary words. You don’t often hear flowers and guilty placed side by side in a song:
© Sing Better English, 2016