My guilty pleasure is reading bad writing and then making savage but unspoken criticisms of it. It’s easy to lambast writing that may have been produced with great effort and with the best of intentions, but with insufficient skill or talent. But are such negative reviews justified – or even real? One has to think very carefully and be as reasonable and objective as one can – as they say: critique the work, not the writer.
As a result, I don’t often put pen to post to publicize and poke fun at poor prose. I may think it, but I don’t publish it. But other people do – and occasionally I have to agree with their opinions and concede that they put it better than I could have. As a result, a novel or song that should’ve sunk like a stone into the depths of obscurity, instead becomes famous – like the line which led to the forming of the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest.
The competition, to choose the “most atrocious opening sentence to the worst novel never written”, is named for Sir Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, begins with the now infamous line; “It was a dark and stormy night.” Everyone knows it, and knows that they should avoid writing Purple Prose of that type. This is the 2021 Grand Prize Winner:
I’d say that is quite over-the-top, wouldn’t you? I certainly would not like to read the rest of the novel that begins like this.
Oops, the reviews are not good
This week, when I read the scathing critiques of the new stage musical about the life of Princess Diana, called Diana: The Musical, I thought, now there’s a contender for a Razzie award, while my toes curled gleefully at the both the reviews and at the actual lyrics of the songs.
I rather enjoyed reading the horrible reviews, and I could not resist sharing this story because, having read some of the lyrics of the songs in the musical, I concluded that the critics are spot-on. (How did I find the lyrics? What happens very quickly after music is published is that the lyrics are identified, transcribed and documented on various Internet sites by bots, users or fans. It’s unavoidable if you are a mainstream artist.)
The reviewers had previewed the filmed Netflix version of the musical prior to its theatre premiere on Broadway this month. Some of the nicest things that the critics had to say about it was that it was “tolerable” and that it is “good-natured fun with a big heart” – but best viewed after having had a couple of glasses of wine. Other critics had nothing good to say about it, calling it “hysterically awful”, “absurdly over the top”, “campy” and “a shellacked lump of product born solely of cold, money-minded cynicism”. (Oooh!!)
They mostly hated the lyrics, one commenting; “…worse still are the shlocky lyrics, which made me feel like I was being bludgeoned over the head by a commemorative crockery set.” And that about sums it up.
Horrible lyrics are everywhere
Lyrics, as you know, are even harder to get right than poetry, because they have to scan – they have to fit the features of the music: the rhythm, the beat, the tempo, the tone, the emotion, the subject, etc. All in all, it’s a tough challenge and a problem as old as song-making itself. As “King Henry VIII” asks “Thomas Cromwell” in Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel:
There are plenty, plenty! of songs with really bad lyrics out there – even songs that have become hits. Lyrics can be considered bad because they are crude, dirty, meaningless, violent, incomprehensible, over-simplified, don’t scan, don’t rhyme, contain nonsense words, are offensive or outrageous, or don’t have enough words in them to even be considered lyrics, and so forth. They can be called bad because of the taste and interpretation of the listener. A lot can go wrong.
According to Forbes, the worst lyrics ever written include these lines in Justin Bieber’s song “Yummy”: “Yeah, you got that yummy-yum/that yummy-yum, that yummy-yummy.” Well. Wow. Maybe it sounds good. I’m not checking.
After you, the lyricist or songwriter, has realized that there’s nothing you can do about people’s tastes, and sorted out the technicalities, the trick with lyrics, according to DJ Armin van Buuren in his Masterclass lessons, is to express yourself authentically. The audience will not feel what you feel unless you are sincere and honest in your expression.
From what I can make out, the critics do not like Diana: The Musical, because overall it has a lack of authenticity, sincerity and depth, and because it’s not to their taste.
I think the lyricists intended the songs to be amusing and irreverent (the tagline is, after all “Royalty. Redefined.”) But I think that the life story of Diana, Princess of Wales, is not good material for satire.
On the other hand, these reviews will probably make people flock to the stage performance to gawp and jeer – just like they did to poor old Florence Foster Jenkins. It has happened that stage productions and films that got terrible reviews nonetheless ran for ages and made a ton of money, and – perish the thought! – sometimes the critics do get it wrong.
Ultimately, there shall be profits, which, in the minds of some people, justifies all this brouhaha.
Read and judge for yourself
Here are lyrics in Diana: The Musical, that have riled the critics the most. You be the judge.
(The paparazzi sing when chasing after "Diana") "...It's better than a Guinness, better than a w**k/snap a few pics/it’s money in the bank." ("Diana" sings)"Alright, I'm no intellect/but maybe there's a discotheque/where the prince could hear Prince/and we'd all get funkadelic." ("Diana" sings to her baby son, "Harry")"Harry my ginger-haired son / You’ll always be second to none." ("Diana" gatecrashes one of the parties of "Camilla", and the guests sing "The Main Event") "...it's a 'thrilla in Manilla/but with with Diana and Camilla." ("Charles", cradling his newborn) "Darling, I’m holding our son / So let me say, jolly well done." (A man dying of AIDS sings to "Diana") "I may be unwell / but I’m handsome as hell." ("Diana" sings) "Serves me right for marrying a Scorpio" "I could use a prince to save me from my prince." (Others sing)"He’s a third rate Henry VIII/and she’s Godzilla." "Feel the groove / even royals need to move..." "Hearts bend, break, burst and sever..."
There you have it. But so what? You and I can laugh all we want at lyrics that we think are bad, but then, we should understand why they sound bad to us, and if we are lyricists ourselves, try to do better. Also understand that all the criticism that you publish – even if you mean it to be informative and you hope it will lead to better writing – will probably only further promote that song, album, production or writer – the “Cobra Effect” in action. (So that includes this post…*sigh*.)
The same principles apply if you were a fiction writer, poet, teacher, or reviewer, criticizing a novel that you think is badly written: you must be able to avoid those mistakes that you have pounced on yourself, and everything that you publish about it will only serve to increase the author’s celebrity – E.L. James being a good example.
Here is a full transcript of one of the songs, “The Main Event”, quoted above:
[ENSEMBLE] Another night with Charles' friends I pray to God that it soon ends! Nights like this, I envy the poor Their parties can't possibly be such a f**king bore We stand and chat, try to look alive While we wait for the prince to arrive His mistress smiles and does her bit I wonder how she puts up with this shit [CHARLES, spoken] I'm here [CAMILLA, spoken] Darling, finally [DIANA, spoken] And I'm here too. Surprise! [ENSEMBLE, sung] Goodnight and goodbye to my discontent I just got a ticket to the main event It's the "Thrilla in Manila" But with Diana and Camilla! ("Thrilla in Manila" with Camilla!) So hold onto your hats These cats are gonna fight This suddenly became onе hell of a night! Now let's start the show Rеady, set, here we go! Go, go, go! [CAMILLA, spoken] Diana... [DIANA, spoken] Actually, it's "Your Royal Highness." [CHARLES, spoken] (to Diana) You swore you wouldn't cause a scene [DIANA, spoken] (to Charles) You swore you wouldn't see her again [CAMILLA, spoken] (to Diana) Perhaps you and I should go somewhere private - the basement [DIANA, spoken] (to Camilla) Love to! [ENSEMBLE, sung] A rather tough night for our beloved sir Between him and his wife I'd put my money on her I'd swallow my pride to have a seat ringside! Ringside, wanna be ringside! [CAMILLA] Here we go, a chance to chat [DIANA] You and me, how about that? [CAMILLA] Tell me then Will this take long? [DIANA] I'll be brief I want you gone [CAMILLA] Here's the truth about royal life A prince has his lover, as well as his wife Don't you know? Must I make it clear? I picked you out [DIANA, spoken] What? [CAMILLA, sung] And put you here [DIANA, spoken] No [CAMILLA, sung] I love Charles for who he is For his strength and the noble life he lives You love Charles for who he's not Some fantasy prince in some storybook plot! [DIANA] Oh oh oh, you're completely mad Such delusion and confusion; how bloody sad! [CAMILLA] You're a fool! [DIANA] You're a fling You're a thing on the side While I'm his celebrated bride! [CAMILLA] I've been discreet, stayed out of your way [DIANA] You showed up to the church on my wedding day! [CAMILLA] At least I have class [DIANA] Well, you hide it well [DIANA, Camilla, BOTH] Just so you know, I'll fight like hell! I'll fight like hell! I'll fight like... (I'll fight you) I'll fight like - [CHARLES] Stop this now! You've had your goddamn fun We'll take our leave Your little stunt is done [DIANA] (to Camilla) You thought I was a ninny You could mold me as you like Well the skinny on the ninny Is she's really rather bright I've suffered through divorce I know how it destroys I've had it done to me I won't do it to my boys! [ENSEMBLE] Ladies and gentlemen, now this is a show And I'm front row for the blow-by-blow! It's the "Thrilla in Manila" But with Diana and Camilla ("Thrilla in Manila" with Camilla!) For years this story will trip off my tongue I was part of a party where the mud was flung Who will the winner be In a marriage of three Three, three, three? [DIANA] And while we're all here, shall we clear the air? You aided and abetted their entire affair! You lent them your flats, you hid them out Don't say you don't know what I'm talking about! [CHARLES] That's enough, that's enough Now you've gone too far - [DIANA] No it's not, no it's not! Now call the car [CAMILLA] That's right Time to go [DIANA] Grab my bag Grab my hat Grab my feeble little husband (overlapping with ENSEMBLE) Goodnight and cheerio! [CHARLES, spoken] I'll ring you [DIANA, spoken] No. No, he won't! [DIANA, sung] Well, thanks for the party, we really must run I wish we could stay, but I'd say that we're done Now I'm leaving with my man... [DIANA, spoken] Oh my gosh, this was fun! [ENSEMBLE, sung] Fun, fun, fun!