When you sing in English, small words offer big opportunities. They can stretch and dance in song. Give them room; pay them attention. Be ready for Russian doll words: tiny words that appear then reappear, nestled inside bigger, emotion-carrying words. Listen to tiny ‘in‘, working alone and within:
When you read or imagine a word, you create a physical shape and a ‘feeling’ inside your mind. The form adapts and flows. Heart holds one shape in the mind of a surgeon in the operating theatre and quite another when she’s back home, reading a precious love letter.
All singing is choice. Choice carves sound. Watch Birdy singing Bon Iver’s Skinny Love and you’ll see her curving her lips inwards and letting them rest together on the m as she sings my, my, my, my, my. Her pause on the round body of the m weighs down the flyaway y. It adds a layer of resigned melancholy to the word.
It’s a choice. Birdy doesn’t round her lips in the same way when she sings the other words that begin with m in Skinny Love: moment and morning. Why pause on the m of my but not the m of morning?
If you want to feel your brain dancing, listen to Franz Ferdinand’s Take Me Out. The lyrics give you opposite meanings for the same phrase and your brain begins to swerve between them. It’s the closest most of us get to being Schrödinger’s cat.
As soon as you know that the phrasal verb Take Me Out is the title of Franz Ferdinand’s song, your brain starts shuffling through all the possible meanings. You wait patiently for the singer, Alex Kapranos, to provide a clue and a context for you to choose the right one.
Franz Ferdinand are known for their surreal lyrics, so Take Me Out could be an unloved library book‘s monologue, or a dustbin feeling restless on collection day. All meanings are possible until Alex Kapranos makes things clear.
Alex plays you, like a cat with a ball of wool. He starts his song with words of love: ‘So if you’re lonely/You know I’m here waiting for you.’
“Aah,” thinks your brain. This time, for this song, take me out must mean, as the Cambridge Dictionary has it: ‘invite me somewhere to do something that you’ve planned and will pay for‘ in the sense of ‘take me out on a romantic date.’ Forget library books, dustbins or bank loans. Focus on romance.
Just as you relax into the ‘right’ meaning, Alex throws you a surprise. He sings: ‘I’m just a cross hair‘ and you feel your brain turning somersaults. Suddenly, in a love song, take me out also means ‘kill me or destroy me,’ just as snipers ‘take out‘ enemy soldiers.
As the song continues, you feel yourself swerving between the possible meanings of take me out. Each time Alex sings the phrase – and there are 7 times – you make your choice between love and death. You choose and you understand. Most times you hold both meanings in your head at once. Love and destruction.
One question – as Alex sings, do you ever hear him shout? Watch his face:
Looking at the Spanish Top 40 this week, I saw Birdy’s cover of People Help the People at Number 2. I remember seeing Cherry Ghost performing their original version of the song on Jools Holland back in 2006. So I thought I’d see what has brought Birdy so high in the Spanish charts. The letter h has been her secret weapon.