One of my favorite lyricists, Yip Harburg, wrote a detail-rich song that’s become a classic: “April in Paris.” Not only had Yip never been to Paris, he’d never left the U.S. of A. He wrote the lyrics based on a close reading of travel brochures.
Yip’s lyrics contain only two details describing Paris. In the verse he writes, “The tang of wine is in the air.” I have no idea what that means.
But in the chorus, an indelible description:
April in Paris
Chestnuts in blossom…
As I understand it, you can see lots of flowers blooming in Paris in cold, rainy April. But the chestnut trees generally wait for the warmer weather towards May.
Even though it’s not quite an accurate description of Paris, the details of the chestnut trees in blossom captured the imagination of travelers everywhere. Lyrics don’t need to be packed with details to resonate.
Lyrics — Imagination vs. Facts
Contrast this with Cole Porter’s song “I Love Paris.” Unlike Harburg, Porter had actually been to Paris. He could run circles around Harburg with facts about Paris. Do you get a sense of how he felt about it from these lyrics?:
Every time I look down on this timeless town
Whether blue or gray be her skies
Whether loud be her cheers or whether soft be her tears
More and more do I realize that
I love Paris in the springtime
I love Paris in the fall
I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles
I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles
I love Paris every moment
Every moment of the year
I love Paris
Why, oh, why do I love Paris?
Because my love is near.
What does that lyric tell you about Paris? Nothing—except that Cole Porter loves it. Or, since he wrote this for the Broadway musical Can-Can, that the character singing the song loves Paris. But it’s just a list song. A fairly boring and lazy one at that (“drizzles/sizzles”—doesn’t do much for me).
Want to profess your love? For me it’s not in the repetition, it’s in the details. Notice the beauty, describe the beauty. Don’t just wear your sweetheart down with a million I love yous.
Also published on Medium.