The Power of the Placeholder
Dummy lyrics aren’t actually so dumb.
I don’t know about you, but I was mesmerized watching The Beatles’ songwriting process in the recently released documentary Get Back. The most eye-opening practice was how Paul and John often sang whatever came to mind and slipped off their tongues … no matter how silly or unrealistic the idea was.
This wasn’t necessarily unfamiliar to me, but the more I watched the more I realized I don’t do it as much as I used to. Hmm.
In the song “Dig A Pony,” for example, John originally sings the words “I dig a skylight.” But he knows it isn’t right yet. We can almost see his brain turning as he twiddles a pencil, repeating the line over and over again until “road hog” occurs to him quite randomly. He realizes it’s the right choice as soon as he utters it.
Merriam-Webster defines a road hog as “a driver of an automotive vehicle who obstructs others especially by occupying part of another’s traffic lane.” I didn’t know that! I always assumed that a road hog was some kind of street animal. But why would you “dig” an inconsiderate driver? John was a writer who didn’t care about logic. He simply liked the sound of how words fell together. “Road hog” may not have been as polite as “skylight,” but John wasn’t exactly known for his manners. So there we go. He dug a road hog. OK!
The entry for “Dig A Pony” in the online Beatles Music History Newsletter states that “the randomness of the lyrics suggest that the author possibly didn’t have any intended interpretation in mind at all.” As John Lennon himself often professed, “Words meant whatever the hell one wished them to.”
I get it. But that concept is a hard pill to swallow for someone like me who teaches a college class in pop songwriting, especially since I instruct my students to be sure to give context in the first verse of a song and clarity throughout the body so the listener doesn’t have to work so hard to understand what’s going on. It’s my belief that aspiring songwriters should learn the rules before breaking them … and that, if you do choose to break them, it should be done artfully. In this case, the extracted norm should be replaced with something that provokes the same or similar emotion.
In the process of birthing “Something,” John counsels George to “just say whatever comes into your head each time … until you get the word.” For the line “attracts me like no fill-in-the-blank,” John offers up “cauliflower.” Ridiculous, yes, though it has the correct number of syllables. But we can also hear the connection between cauliflower and “other lover,” which George eventually stumbles on — we can see how one led to the other. How the two very softly rhyme. The relationship is there. And so, the logic.
And then there’s Paul sitting at a piano discovering “The Long And Winding Road.” He’s contemplative, open, noncommittal with his word choices. Did you leave me standing there? Or waiting there? It’s a tie. In the end (and with a little help from a friend — roadie Mal Evans), he uses both words in different parts of the song.
In my many years as a professional songwriter I’ve often been asked to find words for a “placeholder” lyric (sometimes called a “dummy” lyric) sung by a collaborator over a track he or she put together. If that person has a good sense of semantic aesthetics, half my work is done. Their verbal “road map” will be extremely suggestive of where I go with it.
On my own, though, I don’t use placeholder lyrics as much as I used to. I wonder why. Perhaps over the years I’ve become jaded? Not as playful? Downright lazy? But watching how effortless and fluid it was for The Beatles, and knowing how excellent a song can be even when the meaning is totally ambiguous, has inspired me not to think too much — to see what feels right, as opposed to literally being on the money.
Songwriting is an endless work in progress. We’re constantly learning how to expand or add to our tool box … and sometimes how to get back (no pun intended) to tools we have forgotten. I look forward to being a little dumber and welcoming that particular tool back in.