8 Jan 2010 8:00 am   //   Filed under: Music

Tell, don’t show

If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you’ve probably been taught “show, don’t tell.” We’re supposed to communicate with revealing details instead of broad statements. Strunk and White tell us, “Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.”

But does being specific always serve us well? Is it possible to omit detail to reach some deeper truth—say, in a song or a poem (or an image caption)? I thought about this recently after listening to two songs, one with very strong lyrics and one very weak lyrics. The stronger song tells, the weaker song shows. Do we have this rule backwards? See what I mean…

1. “Human” by The Killers

This is a tightly played and tightly written song, but the lyrics are anything but specific. Take a look at the end of the first verse:

Close your eyes
Clear your heart
Cut the cord

What’s it mean? I don’t know, but my mind translates the rhythm of those nine, one-syllable words into a deep feeling of risk and anticipation. A few bars later, we get to the song’s most powerful verse:

Pay my respects to grace and virtue
Send my condolences to good
Give my regards to soul and romance,
They always did the best they could
And so long to devotion
You taught me everything I know
Wave goodbye
Wish me well
You’ve gotta let me go

It’s a song about casting off from some place safe, about confusion and creative danger. The song builds to a soaring bridge that asks: “Will your system be all right when you dream of home tonight?” That’s where the song comes closest to sinking into the mire of bad high school poetry, but it’s saved by the choice of one unexpected word—system. This is a damn smart song. It’s so good that we’ll even forgive the odd grammar in the chorus (“Are we human or are we dancer?”). Somehow it works.

2. “Fireflies” by Owl City

Lots of people enjoy this song, but as a piece of writing, it is almost unfathomably bad. And its badness comes from too much of the wrong kinds of detail. Here’s how the first verse begins:

You would not believe your eyes
If ten million fireflies
Lit up the world as I fell asleep

Holy specific! We get a species of insect and an exact census: Ten million of the critters! The lyrics don’t improve much in the chorus:

I’d like to make myself believe
That planet Earth turns slowly
It’s hard to say that I’d rather stay
Awake when I’m asleep
‘Cause everything is never as it seems

Do you hear any certainty or conviction in those words? This ain’t exactly the 23rd Psalm. That’s five wimpy lines burned with nothing to show for it. This song wastes words like H&M wastes clothes. Continuing:

‘Cause I’d get a thousand hugs
From ten thousand lightning bugs
As they tried to teach me how to dance
A foxtrot above my head
A sock hop beneath my bed
A disco ball is just hanging by a thread

Calculator please? In a mass extinction, we’ve gone from 10 million fireflies to just 1/10 of 1 percent of that. Even if we politely ignore these numbers, what do we make of the image of 10,000 bugs hugging the singer? It’s hard to escape the image of a man overcome by a horrific swarm. Also: Foxtrot? Sock hop? Disco? Welcome to the lamest dance party ever. These details do not help the message of the song, which is that dreams are bizarre. It’s trying to be profound, but it’s not.

* * *

Consider this. “Human” and “Fireflies” are essentially the same song. They’re both perky pop songs about a young adult character in confusing times. Both songs were carefully engineered and marketed to get spun at parties and rack up downloads on iTunes.

Same message, different writing styles. The Killers song sets up some arcs and lets us fill in the details ourselves. It demands just a little bit of work from the listener: It’s your song, feel what you want to feel. And it’s good. Owl City’s “Fireflies,” despite its massive commercial success, won’t stand the test of time. “Fireflies” gives us the details first (10,000,000 bugs!) and then tries to wrangle them into some kind of flimsy framework (It’s all a dream!). The song relieves the listener of the burden of thinking. In this case, the songwriter who preferred the general to the specific did a better job.

In conclusion, The Killers rock and Owl City sucks.