It’s in our nature to seek reinforcement of our preferences. We cling to the familiar and want more of the same.
Until we grow tired of it.
Repetition deepens perception, but with it comes predictability and cliché.
Do you want to elevate interest? Capture attention? Never grow old? Would you like to create radio formats and ad campaigns and characters in fiction that sparkle and dance and live?
1. Bring positive and negative into close proximity.
2. Resist the temptation to clothe them in insulation.
3. Witness the flow of electricity as it leaps between the two.
From “The Power of Two,” an article by Joshua Wolf Shenk on John Lennon and Paul McCartney in the July- August 2014 issue of The Atlantic:
“The work John initiated tended to be sour and weary, whereas Paul’s tended to be bright and naive. The magic came from interaction. Consider the home demo for ‘Help!’ — an emotionally raw, aggressively confessional song John wrote while in the throes of the sort of depression that he said made him want ‘to jump out the window, you know.’ The original had a slow, plain piano tune, and feels like the moan of the blues. When Paul heard it, he suggested a counter-melody, a lighthearted harmony to be sung behind the principal lyric — and this fundamentally changed its nature.”
We’re talking about the magic of duality, the power of opposites: Tigger on one side, Eeyore the donkey on the other. Kramer on one side, George Costanza on the other. Phoebe Buffay and Monica Geller. Oscar Madison and Felix Unger. Cartoons like Tigger, Kramer, Phoebe, and Oscar provide the happy counter-melodies for tortured souls like Eeyore, George, Monica, and Felix.
Shenk writes, “When he began to write songs, Paul [McCartney] wasn’t thinking about rock and roll. He wanted to write for Sinatra.”
Light shines brightest in the darkness. Springtime is beautiful because of winter. McCartney encountered Lennon while he was looking for Sinatra.
In the beginning, Frank Sinatra was merely a teen idol, the heartthrob of teenage girls. Twice he tried to enlist as a soldier in WWII but was rejected because of a punctured eardrum. As the other young men went off to boot camp or basic training, there were a lot of lonely women left in the land. Sinatra was every girl’s boyfriend, singing of his loneliness.
(Read the biographies, and you’ll find that Frank Sinatra and John Lennon were both profoundly lonely as boys.)
When the soldiers came home, Sinatra’s career fell flat. Dark, tortured soldiers aren’t looking for dark, tortured music.
“One thing is certain: For many of those who came back from WWII, the music of Frank Sinatra was no consolation for their losses. Some had lost friends. Some had lost wives and lovers. All had lost portions of their youth. More important to the Sinatra career … the girls started marrying the men who came home. Bobby socks vanished from many closets. The girls who wore them had no need anymore for imaginary lovers; they had husbands. Nothing is more embarrassing to grownups than the passions of adolescence, and for many, Frank Sinatra was the passion.”
— Pete Hamill, Why Sinatra Matters
What Paul McCartney was to John Lennon, Nelson Riddle was to Frank Sinatra.
The first product of the Nelson Riddle/Frank Sinatra partnership leaped out of the radio with a beaming smile on April 30, 1953. “I’ve Got the World on a String” became a runaway hit.
“Lightness shines as the primary ingredient of the Riddle style…. Riddle always manages to make everything sound light; that way, the weightiest ballad doesn’t become overly sentimental and insincere.” — Will Friedwald
“I love how Riddle used Ravel’s approach to personality,” said Quincy Jones, who has written arrangements for everyone from Count Basie and Ray Charles to Michael Jackson. “Nelson was smart because he put the electricity up above Frank. He put it way upstairs and gave Frank the room downstairs for his voice to shine, rather than building big, lush parts that were in the same register as his voice.”
Here’s how to make the magic, generate the electricity, and bring the heat: The next time you create something good, stumble upon something good, or need to bring a good thing back to life, ask yourself this all-important question, “What’s the last thing a person would expect to accompany this?” And then add that thing. Do the unexpected. Create a contradiction. You may not get it right on the first try, but it’s a lot less dangerous than adding something predictable.
Predictability is boring.
Predictability is tedious.
Predictability is death.
Now go make some money. You’ve got bills to pay.