For a writer who is exclusively interested in good lyrics, it is a minor tragedy when a song begins with fantastic poetry only to end on pedestrian, jay-walking prose. Sometimes, this is a result of the writer falling victim to their own success. When Morrissey writes
“I am the son and the heir
Of a silence that is criminally vulgar”
There’s no where to go from this Everestian peak but down. To be born out of silence is already a splendididea, especially when one considers how loud an affair birth is. Then, to imagine a vulgar silence as one’s parent is more gorgeous still, more nuanced and rich.
Add that rare adverb “criminally” and you end with a phrase that’s quadruply special– you are born of a silence (unusual), that silence is vulgar (nearly unheard of, especially as vulgarity is associated with a poor choice of words) and that vulgar silence is criminal, entirely unrecognizable. To all these you must add that “son and heir” are puns on Earth’s most life-giving forces — the sun and the air– and one ends in quite possibly the most gorgeous and convoluted sentence of that poet’s pen, an ever-lingering phrase that’s best taken in small doses at a desert retreat. But this isn’t a post on “How Soon is Now?,” that kuan-titled song.
No, the song I have been thinking of , on and off for years, is Hazel O’Connor’s “Will You.” It is a song that opens on a truly marvelous note, deceptively simple and explicitly coy, but profound and meaningful all the more:
You drink your coffee and
I sip my tea
And we’re sitting here, playing so cool
Thinking – what will be will be.
It is one of my favorite literary tricks, which song-writers rarely bother with — articulating differences through mannerisms. You know the singer is less confident and more cautious from the way she only “sips” her tea, her lover more muscular and at ease from his “drink[ing]” of the more intense and arousing drink. Differences are seldom so neatly captured in one’s choice of beverage and drinking method. Listening to this, I wish I had done more sipping and less drinking in my life, too.
Neither of the next 2 lines is special by itself. On the contary, they are among the most common modes of expression, with thousands of songs using either one. But then, I defy you , as common as these 2 lines are apart, to find them elsewhere together! Why would this require defiance? Because the whole point of “playing it cool” is the playing, the facade under which one is quietly reeling from anxiety and anticipation. Yet, “thinking – what will be will be” is actually cool, it is a stoic banality that el Duderino himself would endorse.
So which is it — are we playing cool or actually thinking cool, calm thoughts? The intensity of the song suggests the playing. But combining it with a cool thought is, well, cool — the ideal of playing it cool, perhaps the ideal of most forms of deception, is to actually be able to deceive yourself. As George Constanza famously said – “it’s not a lie if you believe it.” Here, from one line to the next, we have the transformation from playing it cool to actually thinking it cool. The dancer has become the dance.
Oh, and the “and”s — how I love Hazel’s “and”’s! You have to know you have something special going on as a lyricist when you see Google editing out part of your lyrics. In this case,
“You drink your coffee AND
I sip my tea”
“You drink your coffee
I sip my tea.”
Why the change? Likely, Google’s algorithm doesn’t like two “and’”s in a single sentence, so it decided to offer Hazel some proof-reading assistance. Indeed, past the age of 5 people rarely employ multiple and’s in a sentence, precisely because of the association with a childish impulsive sentence structure that cannot bring itself to stop or coordinate its different points beyond a -never-ending string of “ands”.
Maybe there is a willing association with children here — what do little girls like to do more stereotypically than have tea parties? If so, it is a very awkward association, as we are about to see this drinking exchange turn quite a bit more heated than the tea. But it does give another bit of nuance to the sense of insecurity and fear that the sipping detail gave us. She sips because she’s not sure she can handle drinking, just as she’s not sure she’s ready to move on to the next phase of the relationship when her sentence style is so laden with conjunctives.
Skipping over the refrain for a moment, the next stanza is more generic, but to me still beautiful:
I move a little closer to you
Not knowing — quite what to do
And i’m — feeling all fingers and thumbs
I spill my tea
Oh silly me!
The gender reversal of the girl moving closer to her lover, unsure of her own initiative, is beautiful. More beautiful still is how awkward the singing is — it is all fingers and thumbs, indeed! The elevation of the pitch placing the stresses in all the wrong places, pausing the line in the oddest of spots — this is a beautiful echoe of not knowing what to do. “Spill -tea”, too, is a gorgeously off off-rhyme with “s[pi]lly,” rhyming two words with one and that one not ending the sentence. Unlike tea, it takes quite a bit of talent to spill rhymes.
We end the good part of the lyrics with the lines that repeat the most, arguably the best-sung lines of the lot:
But it’s getting kind of late now
I wonder if you stay now, stay now, stay now!
Or will you just, politely, say goodnight?
Hazel here is taking a trope of feminine chastity and turning it on its head. Endless fictional women say “it’s getting kind of late now” because they don’t wish to pursue the romance further. Here, our singer says it because she does, because she’s urgently eager for the night not to end, and fears the running of the clock.
The last two lines are , again, magical in context — as perfectly casual as they sound on a piece of paper, in Hazel’s voice they are the tension between civilized, polite social intercourse and passionate need for actual intercourse, the imperative “stay now” overtaking its primary, polite sentence of “I wonder if” and all-but-ignoring it with its ferocious repetition.
I almost feel scared hearing this commandment couched in a polite question, “I wonder if you STAY NOW!” The syntactic revolution alone of turning the dependent clause into an independent one is daunting to anyone invested in grammatical stability. But then, the last line is even richer in this rendition; “politely” is sung in this ominous but also diminutive tone, somewhere between “would you like to say goodnight” and “I defy you to be so polite!” The “just” is barely audible, while its neighbor “goodnight” is all-but-demonic. So much done with so little. This really should have been where the song ended.
There is a well-known problem in narrative desire — we want tension resolved, but then we read for the tension. We want to figure out if a character will be with one partner or another, but the moment they choose, the book ends, somewhat deflated. We want to know who the killer is and how he will end, but as soon as we do we lose interest in the whole project. “Oh!” is the devastating result of too many narratives, at once a signal of surprise and relief. Once we are released of our desire by getting its object, we tend to discard both desire and object. This is what happens to me with this song.
“And then we touch — much too much”
Yes, indeed! The lyrics are so disappointing here, they inscribe their failure immediately — they are much too much. The singing, so poignant and rich to this point, turns whiney and nauseating. The layers dissipate into sheer painful lust. Urgent need, without the opposing politeness, turns into angry, petulant neediness:
“Take up your eyes
Bear your soul
Gather me to you and make me whole
Tell me your secrets…”
After so many singing nuances, nothing here surpasses the monotone, there’s no distinction between one line and the other. The sentiment, too, holds no tension — just do everything I need, ok? No more questions and lateness and spilled rhymes and polite overtures — no, bear your soul, gather me to you and make me whole. It’s like a sickly unintentional parody of Jerry Maguire.
There is an attempt at a redeeming uncertainty, at a “this moment I am so unsure” — but it is quickly subsumed by screeching anger:” is it something you’ve been waiting for — waiting for, too?!” Hard to believe the same singer recorded both parts of the song.
What happened here, why does the song decline so rapidly with its conquest? Giving Hazel credit, this might be the point – this might be why the touching is much too much. It turns curious, confused, coaxing lovers into possessive, whiney partners. It’s as if Hazel asked hereself: “How will they know that this is too much? “ and figured: “ Oh, I’ll make them hear it in my voice!”
But I don’t know that this is the case at all, and if i had to guess, I wouldn’t find it likely. I think in the turn from tension to consummation, Hazel figured she would simply bring more volume and intensity to every word, and the result, like shooting all your fireworks out at once, was overwhelming.
I think we can’t all hit single notes of the highest intensity without making our listeners reach for their nearest ear-plug, likely their fingers and thumbs. I wish Hazel understood that her power lay in subtlety rather than storms. I wish the song had stayed a little longer with its coffee and tea. But it’s getting kind of late now.