1.Tuesday’s election wins by Sharon Engle in Nevada and Nikki Haley in South Carolina were helped immeasurably by those candidates’ association with two words: Tea Party. That had me thinking of something my dad, songwriter Carl Sigman, used to say: getting the right title for a song was often half the battle.
His favorite example: In 1951, while playing around with a melody written by former United States Vice President and Nobel Prize-winner Charles Dawes — an authentic patriot — he came up with the phrase “It’s all in the game.” Once he realized that was his title, he said, “The song wrote itself.”
2. The name Tea Party evokes — was no doubt conjured to evoke — deep deep associations with The Boston Tea Party, a stirring public challenge to corporate monopoly and monarchy studied by every American schoolchild. Now, thrown together with carefully-chosen words and phrases like “Take our country back,” “socialism” and “Hitler,” the Tea Party purveys the exact opposite — restoring corporate monopolies and viciously rejecting a popularly-elected president. When purported media watchdogs fail to challenge the blatant hypocrisy here, these word distortions gain even more power.
3. Words matter. I’d like somebody in the Tea Party to explain to me how the president — who, only a few weeks before the BP blowout off the coast of Louisiana, attempted to curry favor with Republicans by advocating more offshore oil drilling; refused to push for a public health-care option; and did nothing to roll back the Bush Administration’s policy of Wall Street giveaway — how that president is a “socialist.”
4. My dad knew words mattered. Having written a number of songs with the word ‘fool’ in the title, he seemed sucker-punched when he heard Lennon/McCartney’s Fool on the Hill.
5. For better or worse, you can’t copyright a title, let alone a word. And while no one is likely to copy Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine, Johnny Mercer’s Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive, The B-52s’ Rock Lobster or Gary Stewart’s She’s Actin’ Single I’m Drinkin’ Doubles, there are dozens of cases in which two or more songs with the same title have become popular.
Thank God — and I use the word in many of its various meanings — no one can own the title America. In addition to the public domain song we all know so well, that title has been used by Neil Diamond, Yes, Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim for West Side Story, Paul Simon and so many more. ( American Tune is an even better Simon composition.) And you can’t argue with The Five Satins’ In The Still Of The Night even though it came long after Cole Porter’s identically-monikered masterpiece.
But let’s get real — Dion, not Donna Summer, is The Wanderer; Buddy Holly, not The Partridge Family, owns That’ll Be The Day; Rag Doll is Frankie Valli’s girl, not Art Garfunkel’s or Aerosmith’s; and Don’t Be Cruel will never refer to anyone but The King via Otis Blackwell — and certainly not Bobby Brown!
And Born in the USA is Bruce Springsteen’s, not Ronald Reagan’s, despite the fact that the image-conscious actor-turned-politician who attempted to leverage the song in 1984 by twisting its meaning from bitterly ironic to “morning in America” flag-waving. At some personal cost, Springsteen rebuked the president. “I think people have a need to feel good about the country they live in,” he reportedly told Rolling Stone. “But what’s happening, I think, is that that need — which is a good thing — is getting manipulated and exploited.” When Glenn Beck took the time to read the lyrics to Born in the USA in March, he understood what was going on, and flipped out.
6. When we notice a songwriter or politician pilfering a title associated with the intense emotions of an existing song or event, instead of getting angry it’s useful to try to divert our stream of consciousness. So when we hear the words “Tea Party,” we could conjure the Mad Hatter’s soiree in Alice In Wonderland, a far more fitting connection.
7. A little more originality in naming things would be nice. A few dozen words crop up so frequently in pop song titles, you’d think today’s writers would avoid them as fast as Rand Paul dodges the press. But a look at this week’s Top 40 reveals that young, forever, boy, need, girls (spelled “gurls”), love, romance, want and kiss are still going strong.
8. I’ll bet we could write a hit song using only cliches. The first verse could go something like this:
Hey angel heart lover
Tell me why your foolish mama
Ain’t gonna wanna believe
That girl’s crazy, lonely dream
Now all we need is the right title. Maybe the famous lyricist Chairman Mao wouldn’t mind if we borrowed his line, “A revolution is not a tea party.”
Michael Sigman is a writer/ editor, media consultant and the president of Major Songs, a music publishing company.
Crossposted from Huffington Post with the author’s permission.