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There are many things about Broadway musicals that make me shift in my seat. One is when the heroine winds up alone on stage and sings wistfully, and at agonizing length, about how lonely she is. Another is the power “I love you” ballad the two leads slam out together, climaxing with a seismic belt and the obligatory applause.
But the third, and by far the worst, is the newest bad habit of modern musicals: songs with a lyric written in the second person. These are the songs when the character in question, once they’ve broken into song, can barely utter the word “I.” Instead, they layer their words with “you,” distancing themselves from the outburst and rending musical moments like a stack of platitudes of bumper stickers. They sound like musical fortune cookies.
I think I blame Sondheim for this modern stylistic entrenchment. In 1970, his main character in Company reached his big epiphany about loneliness while singing “Being Alive” in the second person.
Someone to hold you too close,
Someone to hurt you too deep,
Someone to sit in your chair,
To ruin your sleep.
He went on like that for a few verses because he had to. He was a character who couldn’t embrace his needs, who shelved them while his loved ones developed and moved on around him. Finally, in the last verses, he switches to the first person, indicating he’s finally made his personal breakthrough.
Somebody, hold me too close,
Somebody, hurt me too deep,
Somebody, sit in my chair
And ruin my sleep
And make me aware
Of being alive,
It was a good song. It worked. And the trick of using the second person worked for a good reason. Bobby wasn’t fully an “I” yet. He was all super-ego, and resisting the naked urges of his ego. I suspect that in some ways, he reflected Sondheim himself, who takes an intellect-first approach to writing and perhaps by constitution isn’t automatically emotive.
But it was too good. It became iconic. Seventeen years later, Stephen Sondheim wrote a musical chock full of people who could barely sing a meaningful realization without casting “you” as the subject of the sentence, even if — especially if — they weren’t talking to anyone else in particular. They were alone, yet still singing “you.” It was called Into the Woods, and it sent a generation of aspiring writers down a dark, slimy path where no character could look themselves in the eye again. Sondheim loves You now.
It’s an old trick, a common lyrical device, that’s gone haywire. The classic writers did it now and again, but sparingly. One of the few songs to go gung-ho in displacing the feeling from the feeler was Perry Como’s “All At Once You Love Her,” which has a lyric by Oscar Hammerstein II from Pipe Dream.
You start to light her cigarette
And all at once you love her
You’ve scarcely talked, you’ve scarcely met
But all at once you love her.
That’s nice, right? So is “Some Enchanted Evening,” which has lots of You in it — and which could also be argued that those Yous were intended to mean Nellie, to whom Emile sings the song. But it was a one-song trick, and nearly never tried unless the singer was actually singing to someone.
Now, lyricists throw You around in monologue as if it’s the way anyone talks. As if the peculiar semantics of the American song permit such unnatural rhetoric. As if their own characters weren’t using first person just a minute before, when they were speaking, and then mysteriously flipped into the theoretical once the underscoring began. A song is supposed to be the moment when a character is so overflowing with emotion that they simply must soar above the moment with music. So why the self-possessed Woody Allen act? Why the cognitive disassociation?
Second person isn’t just a way of announcing, I’m a musical! I’m talking metaphorically about abstract concepts! It’s also a way for writers to distance themselves from the toughest feelings their creations have. As if to apologize for the absurdity of breaking into song, lyricists use You to provide some intellectual breathing room. It’s the hot mitt of musical emotion.
When I hear Yous, I wonder what’s making the writer defensive, and what’s inside them that’s keeping them from making their characters face the music.
Songwriters, don’t let your characters get away with deflecting their feelings. Make them stare their guts down. See what kind of truth they tell then.
Jason Robert Brown’s material is particularly you-happy, and so he’s unwittingly spreading the You virus among his myriad imitators, but at least his characters usually use You because they’re singing in absentia about some girl that broke their ever-loving hearts. But Next to Normal, a recently heralded musical that was less than honest about the reality of living with mental illness, regularly switched their characters into You Mode right when I Mode would have had more punch. Sing the couple about their disintegrating marriage:
When it’s up to you to hold your house together
A house you built with tender loving care
But you’re grappling with that gray and rainy weather
And you’re living on a latte and a prayer
Can you keep the cup from tipping
Can you keep the grip from slipping
In despair, for just another day
Would using “us” be too earnest for today’s jaded audiences? (I recently wrote another huge thing musical writers are doing to slip songs past audiences.) Is second person a way to fly messages under our Irony Radar? In some songs, such as “The Break” and “Song of Forgetting,” characters seem to flip back and forth between first and second person within a few lines.
Brian Yorkey, the perfectly capable lyricist of that show, isn’t alone if your ears are open. Even the great Howard Ashman did it in The Little Mermaid‘s anthem “Part of Your World,” tossing an errant (and unnoticed) pronoun — “flippin’ your fins, you don’t get too far”— into a sea of emotive Is. Second person, once a lyricist’s way of conveying a Big Idea, is now so entrenched that audiences aren’t jarred when it appears, so we can’t even be called forgiving if we don’t notice that it comes and goes.
Let’s not even address the problem of the other You in that song; just who is she addressing in the song title? But that’s another stylistic quandary we’re all too ready to forgive in song what we’d never tolerate in a spoken script. Can you imagine Scarlett O’Hara tossing down the radish, looking at the camera, and declaring as emotion soars, “You’re sick of radishes! As God as my witness, you’ll never be hungry again!”
It would be annoying. To me, so is this trend. When I hear “You… you… you,” I’m shifting in my seat, thinking, “Aye, aye, aye…”
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