not a beautiful or unique snowflake (nothings) wrote,
not a beautiful or unique snowflake

Buffy: Once More With Feeling (musical episode)

Some long and random comments on (the music/lyrics of) the Buffy musical episode Once More With Feeling follow. (Note: overall, I like it.)

I noticed there's a lot of formal humor in some of the songs, and not in others. By formal humor, I mean humor relating to the formal properties of the piece; in other words, humor that relies on the fact that it is a song. The formal humor comes across as very Buffy-esque, although I suspect it's not uncommon in musicals in general. (These are my observations from watching it twice (plus once more with commentary) in the last half-week, although I'm verifying some things as I write from a ripped copy.)

  • "She's not even half the girl she... ow" (the joke here is that "ow" rhymes with the previous line. rhyme is a formal property. hence, this is formal humor. of course, there's other humor here, like the mere choice of the word "ow" as a reaction to being stabbed to death.)
  • "How can I repay..." "Whatever" (same as above)
  • "She ain't got that swing" "Thanks for noticing" (here the interplay of the action and the music is different than normal--the music stops for the action, until she restarts it with the latter line--there's actually cricket noise in the intervening time, although the effect is way subtle compared to the pre-Bunnies pause)
  • At first I thought that the above was it, that Going Through the Motions was the one song where Joss was doing this. And it is about the only place he does it with rhyme. But on reflection, there's more. Although I realized I'll Never Tell was related first, I'll stick with chronological order. In I've Got a Theory, "It could be witches, some evil witches, which is ridiculous 'cause witches they were persecutedWiccagoodandlovetheearthandwomenpowerandI'llbeover here." is a variant on the classic "limerick with a line that doesn't scan" joke (as well as being classic Xander etc.) [Man, I don't think I noticed the "which is" pun until I typed it in there. Joss == dangerous.]
  • "I've got a theory, it could be bunnies" is just plain humor. But the silence in response (amplified by the aforementioned cricket chirping) is formal humor. (I.e. one way to read it is "not only are the other characters at a loss for words in reaction, but the orchestra is at a loss for music as well". I don't really interpret it that way, but it should make it clear why it's formal: the presence of music is a formal property of the musical, and absence is the lack of presence.)
  • The changeover to Anya's rocking Bunnies is obviously formal. On the other hand, switching songs on the fly isn't out-of-form for a musical (e.g. when this song eventually morphs into If We're Together). On the first hand, this changeover is special--Anya's song erupts suddenly, cutting off Tara's offering of yet another theory. ("Or maybe midgets" and the final "Except for bunnies" at the end of If We're Together are just humor, not formal humor.)
  • In I'll Never Tell, there's an early bit where Xander says "when I'm right in her tight... embrace, tight embrace", which is humor, but I wouldn't consider formal humor. (It rhymes, so you could argue that Xander avoids saying something he shouldn't and manages to make it rhyme, haha, but I think the joke is just 'haha what was he avoiding saying'.) However, later, when he's about to rhyme Scoobies - rubies - ??? and switches to "tight embrace", that's classic formal humor--you know where he was going because of the rhyme scheme. (It's classic in the sense that it's an old abused folk song tradition. In this case, given that the song contains "penis" and other songs contain "bitch", it's clear Joss would have no problem with having Xander say "boobies" on TV, so it's Xander avoiding saying it. Which I guess makes it a little more ok.)
  • "This is my verse, hello?" is obviously formal humor. (Why is it always Anya interrupting people? Oh, I guess that is in character, ain't it.)

I believe that's it for formal humor.

So, at first I thought it was just in the first song, which I thought was odd. Eventually I traced it into those three songs, and it didn't seem quite as odd, and then I realized that there's an overall dramatic arc to the story that leads to "comedy at the beginning, gloominess at the end"; and that in fact all the songs that are humorous contain formal humor (and those that do not, do not, of course), so in fact Joss consistently made use of the opportunities of form to add humor to the places where he wanted humor.

He did seem to try to keep playing with form, not humorously, but either in the interests of variety or, as an author, simply experimenting.

  • Going Through the Motions: humorous trading off of lines
  • I've Got A Theory: Bunny interruption, If We're Together transition
  • Under Your Spell: is reprised with a different meaning
  • I'll Never Tell: described above (also use of an intro not otherwise related to the music; compare McCartney's Honey Pie, which I guess is pasticheing the same era)
  • Rest in Peace:
  • Dawn's Lament: surprisingly incomplete/short
  • What You Feel: trading off sections with independent rhymes ("'Cause I know what you feel, girl." "No, you see, you and me wouldn't be very regal." "I'll make it real, girl." "What I mean--I'm fifteen so this queen thing's illegal.")
  • Standing:
  • Under Your Spell / Standing (Reprise): fitting the two songs against each other
  • Walk Through the Fire: overlapping vocals at the end
  • Something to Sing About: the weird interposed syncopated bits (which have weird time signature shifts for the ones with lyrics); the overall structure--something like AABCD B AABC ED B E
  • Walk Through the Fire / Rest in Peace (Reprise): Here the lines are more or less alternated, instead of strictly overlapping.
And here I'm not even touching on, say, genre variation / experimentation.

Also noteworthy are Joss's effort at rhyming. One of my favorite lyricists is Aimee Mann, in part because she almost always uses perfect rhymes (as opposed to almost-rhymes or assonance) yet without being obvious that a word choice was done for the purpose of rhyming. Joss makes a good showing in this regards.

In my last 24-hour-album, I did a lot of what I call "triple rhymes", using the same rhyme sound three times, rather than just twice. (Although it's often obvious the word choice was done for the purpose of rhyming.) Peter Gabriel's Solsbury Hill ends with this verse:

When illusion spin her net
I'm never where I want to be
And liberty she pirouette
When I think that I am free
Watched by empty silhouettes
Who close their eyes but still could see
No one taught them etiquette
I would show another me
which manages to sustain two different rhymes four times apiece, although the text is so poetic and metaphoric it comes across as rather strained, and I consider the addition of the "s" in the fifth line to be less than perfect. (I attempted to top this here.)

So one thing I noticed quickly looking at lyrics is how Joss was really mixing it up with rhyme schemes, and a lot of triple rhymes / "internal rhymes". (I tend to think of internal rhymes as being full-fledged rhymes with shorter lines, most of the time, which is how I've notated it below.)

  • Going Through The Motions: first verse: ABAA CBCA DDD, second verse: ABAC ABCCC DDD (I'm reusing the letters but they're not the same rhymes of course). Some of the triple/quadruple rhymes here are "I've been making shows of trading blows just hoping no one knows", "wavering... Just doesn't mean a thing / she ain't got that swing / thanks for noticing". Also the bridge is triple: "Will I stay this way forever / sleepwalk through my life's endeavor / How can I repay... whatever".
  • I've Got a Theory: The main verses don't rhyme. Bunnies rhymes incompletely. The chorus(?) is ABAAB: "I've got a theory / we should work this out / it's getting eerie / what's this cheery / singing all about" and "I've got a theory / we should work this fast / because it clearly / could get seri- / ous before it's passed". Note the fudge of "clearly" (but "serious" makes up for it). Note also that "we should work this fast" isn't very sensical.
  • If We're Together: AABCBC
  • Under Your Spell: verse ABABCC, chorus ABBABB. (All three choruses have the same A; two have the same B: "be / me / free / easily / sea / helplessly / ecstasy / tree".)
  • I'll Never Tell: intro AABC DDDBC EEE F, intro' AAAC BBBC EEE F, verse AAAB AAAB CCCC FF. (The As: "wheezes / freezes / cheeses / breezes / please is / diseases". Cs: "scary / ordinary / temporary / hairy". Both "freezes" and "breezes" seem a bit forced to me.)
  • Rest in Peace: verse: AAA, chorus: ABBAA, bridge: AAAAA ("possessed / breast / guessed / chest / unimpressed")
  • What You Feel: ABAB CCB (Bs: "style / smile / white", "shout / out / about", "long / strong / song"), AAB CCB. The crazy alternating section: A; BBBC; A; DDDC; EE; FFFG; HH; IIIG. (Although I've been ignoring it otherwise, it's worth pointing out the feminine (bisyllabic) rhymes in this bit are A, C, E, G, and H--the last word of each person's lines.)

It goes on like that, but that's enough. You can see there's a lot of variety, and there's none at all of AABBCCDD or ABABCDCD, which is the sort of thing I almost always write.

I'll Never Tell ends with an oddly changing meter which effectively accelerates the timing of the last few outtro lines, which is a very pleasing effect. (It apparently totally discombulated Nicolas Brendon, who tells Joss he's befuddled by it on the documentary on the DVD, and his onscreen performance looks a tad off as well.)

The funky syncopated bits in Something to Sing About have an erratic beat-dropping to them towards the end, for no apparent reason. I guess to wig out the audience. Despite a lot of experience with funky time signatures, it took me a lot of rewinding and counting to find the beats. I'm curious what the official music notates it as, but I break it down as: 4/4, 4/4, 7/8, 4/4, 5/8. The transition from 7/8 to 4/4 almost sounds like an edit to me, though, rather than making any musical sense. (The 5/8 seems to be a truncated 6/8, and almost makes sense.)

It seems like far too many songs make use of a particular melodic device: the last word of a line is held and then dropped in pitch one tone. I'm not sure if any or all of them are "suspended fourths" (a fourth dropping to a third)--in fact, I don't even know whether the intervals are half steps or whole steps for all of them. I just noticed it happened a lot. I guess I should be specific, let me go through and see.

  • I've Got a Theory: "It's getting eerie, what's this cheery singing all about." Well I might as well check these notes on the guitar... ok, that's a suspended fourth. "I've got a theory, it doesn't matter" (a sus4--this is actually over different music, beginning If We're Together--it then gets repeated throughout that song, but in the middle of a line, e.g. "face" in "What can't we face if we're together"--emphasized when it ends the song).
  • Under your spell: "It's magic I can tell" (2nd to root), "You make me believe" (6th to 5th).
  • Rest in Peace: pretty much every verse line ends with a descending interval, although sometimes two consecutively and sometimes the interval is a third. "But you can make me feel" ends with a 6th-to-5th (the 6th was the 3rd of the previous chord), although this might be a vocal ornamentation (it's not present in the second verse). "More than I can say" (third stanza) does 6th-to-5th, and appears more clearly to be written that way. "And let me rest in peace" ends on a 2nd-root. "Find my sweet release" ends on a maj7th-6th the first time and an aug4th-maj3rd the second time.
  • Standing: "Lead you through the land": 6th-to-5th. "Wish I could stay here": 6th-to-5th (over different progression). "But now I understand": 2nd-to-root.
  • Walk Through the Fire: "and it's black": 2nd-to-root. "should crack and peel" root-to-7th (I think--if so, the bass note is the 3rd), "walk through the fire" root-to-maj7th.
  • Something to Sing About: built around a descending 5th-4th-3rd melody on the last word of the line. Then there's the tritone, discussed elsewhere.
  • Walk Through the Fire / Rest In Peace (Reprise): "I died" 2nd-to-root (different from the original version)

I should have checked to what degree the non-chord tones were notes from the previous chord (they almost always were) and whethere they were actually being sung over the previous chord, which I think would make them all qualify as suspensions. This wikipedia article has details; for the most part these were not passing tones or neighbor tones, since the first note of each interval began on the chord change.

Anyway, it might be the case that if you went through anybody's music, you'd find a lot of these, I dunno. And certainly for every one listed above, there are one or more than don't do this; there are a few (but VERY few) that ascend an interval, and then some that descend an interval larger than a second, and a ton that just hold a single pitch. (Most of the demon's lines wander all over the place ornamentally.) But this jumped out at me the first time I watched the episode--the suspended fourth in I've Got A Theory, the "suspended sixth" (can you call it that?) in Under Your Spell, and the prominent root-maj7th melody of Walk Through the Fire.

There's something really screwed up with the Xander-Anya harmony held out at the end of the intro to I'll Never Tell. (It's an odd, unexpected minor chord or something, and I think one of them wavers on finding the note.)

The big chorus of Walk Through the Fire doesn't work for me. It's somehow anti-dynamic or anti-melodic or something. (I note that Joss's commentary says it is "laying back", or some such, seemingly a criticism, so perhaps he agrees.)

The "heaven" bit of Something to Sing About doesn't work for me. The vocals sing a 5th over a Bm, then the piano tinkles in a b5th and the vocals descend to the b5th as well--so probably call it a Bdim. This transition doesn't work for me, and the vocals aren't really in counterpoint to anything. I think some similiar effect involving a major-minor shift, or maybe the same chords and an ascending interval, e.g. m3rd to tritone, would have been more effective. Also, Sarah Michelle Gellar doesn't really nail it; she switches notes early sometimes, and I'm not sure sliding between the pitches was a good idea.

I guess I need to check out the Joss demo version and see how that part and the weird time signature stuff comes across.

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