Warning! The Offhand Band usually strives to write satisfying songs that are cool for kids, fun for families and great for the grown on their own. In part or whole, we believe this song doesn’t fit that description. Proceed at your own risk! Learn more.
|Play the song here!|
The pains have just begun
But we’re prepared, expecting all goes naturally
Upon first light, the babe to breast
She’ll stay with us for all the rest
All together as it’s meant to be
And then when doctors done
Back home to where our family future feels so bright
We’ll live to give a strong attachment
All life long without a catch
But on first light
We find out that there’s something not right
It’s not up to me
Not anything to do or say
Will it be alright?
Can’t will it to be
Want all my fears to take their flight
To stop, to end
Will it ever be okay again?
Arriving, all seems fine
Nine months, no complications through this very day
The sweat, the pain, through all the hours
The triumph that will prove your powers
But now you pray
One quick touch, then they took her away
It wasn’t your design
A newborn and her parents in two separate rooms
The bonding never comes to pass
She crying trapped behind the glass
You’re helpless, too
Their machines hold her instead of you
It’s not up to me
Not anything to do or say
Will it be alright?
Can’t will it to be
Want all my fears to take their flight
To stop, to end
Will it ever be okay again?
Back home they finally come
But they don’t feel a family yet, they self-condemn
Mistakes are made, they’re sad and rough
They wonder if they love enough
Just what’s the stem?
Is it what happened, or is it them?
They wish that they were numb
Attached to expectations, they can never win
Perhaps if they can just let go
Accepting that they’ll never know
What could have been
Maybe finally their love could begin
It’s all up to me
In everything I do and say
Will it be alright?
Must will it to be
Just stop my putting up a fight
I’ve got to bend
Or I’ll never be okay again
The pains have just begun…
Spintown decided to launch the SpinTunes songwriting contest. The challenge for SpinTunes 1 Round 3: Happy To Sad In 4 Seconds – Write a sad song about birth, a moment that is normally a happy moment, and make it a real tear jerker. You can’t use the words “Happy” or “Birthday”.
Just as in Round 1, my Round 2 song, Another Universe, had fared pretty poorly with the judges, barely passing me into the next round. Though much of the point of that last song was the contrast between the verses depicting a bland current life and the more lively imagined universe of the chorus, the biggest critique of the song seemed to be that the verses were lacking. There was also sentiment against the song being perhaps too generic and also too minimalist in production. Some more general comments made by one of the judges made me realize that I’ve been allowing myself to be too swept up in the nature of each challenge, and that it is more important to simply write great songs that happen to meet the challenge. My Round 3 song would need to be stronger and more specific throughout. Also, since the judges continue to weigh production despite the contest being nominally about songwriting alone, rather than continue with the minimal piano-centric approach I’d settled on in Round 2, I conceded to it being worth putting in extra time and effort on production for this round.
When the Round 3 challenge was announced, I wondered if it would be possible to meet it while sticking with The Offhand Band’s main “mission” of creating songs that are all-ages-friendly and ideally positive in nature. A few possibilities occurred to me, but I wrote them off, feeling that they wouldn’t allow me to write a song that could stand up to the judging as well as possible. I came up with the idea of a warning label to let visitors know when some content here may be worth screening first before letting just anyone at it. I suppose, then, that I have this challenge to thank for leading me to expand The Offhand Band’s possibilities.
Considering the broadstroke possibilities for basic plots, it seemed obvious that something bad had to happen, it would likely end badly, and then those around afterward would either live in depression, live in denial, or grieve healthfully and move on. But what about a bad thing that happens and ends well? This could still be a tearjerker, as the challenge demands. But the challenge also demands sadness, so this might be seen as a compromise.
I had a notion, though, that suggested a way to take a bad event, give it what at first seems a happy ending, and then reveal it to be not an ending at all, with things remaining pretty bad afterward in a different way. I felt this would make for a unique and powerful take on the challenge topic compared to the basic plots.
Despite benefitting last round from doing an Appreciative Inquiry even when I’d initially felt I could skip it, I did skip it this time, because I simply felt confident enough in my initial sense of what direction to take.
A sad birth story would be painful for practically anyone, staying with them for the rest of their lives. There is, though, a kind of person for whom it could be particularly tragic. Because of their values, not only would the situation itself be more painful than for most, but even if the situation were overcome, those very values could continue causing despair.
Parents engaged in a natural family living lifestyle, including approaches like attachment parenting and unconditional parenting, often believe strongly in providing powerful connection and support in infancy and childhood as the very means to help children naturally achieve healthy development. High priorities for many of these parents include natural childbirth, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby-wearing and stay-at-home parenting. They would feel very strongly about maintaining physical contact with the baby almost continuously from birth, nursing as soon after birth as possible and continuing as the exclusive means of nutrition for several months or even a year, and even having the baby sleep in the same bed with them. Sending the baby to a separate nursery room alone or to get nutrition from other means would be anathema for months, even years, yet no time more than the crucial first days of life.
Beginning labor believing that all was well and having such a strong and particular vision of what would happen afterward, a serious medical issue that demanded immediate separation would be devastating. Bad enough to be uncertain if your child would even survive. Far worse to go through that while also believing that each minute apart in the service of physical health could cause lifelong emotional damage to the child.
Underneath all this, though, would be a terrible, ironic truth. Truly unconditional parents would lament each moment of the crisis, but if they got through, they’d simply be grateful for the child’s survival, treating each day as a gift, an opportunity to make the child feel loved. Parents who couldn’t get over what may have been lost through the crisis, though, would reveal themselves to be conditional at heart. Rather than genuinely valuing love as unconditional parents are supposed to, they could attach greater value to an image of the perfection that they believed love leads to, and could therefore find themselves unable to fully love a child they see as less than perfect.
For these parents, even with the initial crisis overcome, that trauma is merely the beginning. With their idealized expectations of the child and themselves, neither the child nor they themselves can measure up. Every time they see a flaw in their child, they’d wonder if it was because of the birth crisis that was out of their control or because of their own ongoing failings as parents. The gap between reality and and expectation undermines their ability to provide the very things they believe all children deserve. Constantly plagued by the pain of that discrepancy, they would be forced to choose between either living a life of self-inflicted misery in which they harshly judge their child and themselves, or confronting the darkness inside themselves so that they might eventually align their hopes with reality. Only then could they become the parents they really want to be, helping the child grow up with as much genuine nurture as possible.
Opposing forces run through the story. The heat of pain increases as happy anticipation gives way to the terrible crisis and then again as the parents torture themselves emotionally as life goes on. At the same time, the nature of the pain is too much for these parents to bear, causing them to cling ever more to their expectations, denying reality, and so there is a simultaneous trend toward the cool of detachment. These streams, running at cross-purposes, and the ways in which they cause similar notions to change meaning in different contexts, are woven into the music and lyrics.
The music begins somewhat poignantly and quietly, a solo piano ballad, though one with busy motion. The feeling builds gradually, first when a synth pad comes in midway through verse one, then with ride cymbals upon the first chorus. Afterward, the song kicks in with bass guitar, acoustic guitar and full drum set. When the second chorus is done, bass and electric piano become frenetic — Muse was my muse for this climactic section. Through these macro patterns as well as various details along the way, the music conveys the growing sense of pain and conflict.
The lyrics tell a narrative fractured in two ways.
The plot itself is somewhat unstuck in time, with a sense of chaos and confusion that the music conveys as the song develops, perhaps as if the entire story is behind told in hindsight, by someone who keeps running over the various parts of it in his or her mind, first this, then that, all in circles, all repeating.
Labor begins along with the first verse, and the parents declare the vision they’ve had all along and the preparations they’ve made to achieve it. At verse’s end, they jump ahead to the moment when they realize something is wrong. The first chorus expresses the uncertainty and helplessness of the crisis, perhaps even the very first moment when nobody in the family really understands the nature of the crisis.
Verse two jumps back to arrival at the hospital, then forward to the tremendous sense of empowerment coming from going through unmedicated, natural labor and birth. That’s followed by the horrific disempowerment of the immediate separation of child from parents, then to some time later on when all are knee-deep in the crisis. The second chorus’ lyrics are the same as the first, as if all the family members just can’t get the uncertainty out of their heads.
The third verse reveals that the birth crisis is at some point overcome but that there is still more to the story, the pain continuing because of the parents’ unique emotional situation. The final chorus, with only slight rewording, conveys a completely new kind of uncertainty — one not about things outside one’s control, but about things very much in one’s control, if only one finds the courage to act.
The last line reiterates the first, meaning something new, but simultaneously giving that sense of the story swirling back on itself, repeating over and over in someone’s mind.
The chaos of fractured narrative is not the only distinguishing element of the lyrics, though. The story is told from shifting perspectives, amplifying the sense of chaos while, as in chaos theory itself, also hiding a definite sense of pattern and order within.
The first verse is told in the first person, plural, “we” — the collective family unit, expressing the notion of how they want things to be through their best laid plans. The second verse is told in the second person, as if they are dumbfounded by the crisis and can’t fully admit how out of control they feel. Finally, the third verse is told in the third person, plural, “they” — complete detachment, just as the parents are now feeling because of their reality gap.
Throughout, though, the choruses are in first person singular. The core feeling of uncertainty and fear lingers at all steps along the way, and it can only be experienced by each individual. Indeed, the choruses could be any of the family members talking — the mother, the father, perhaps even the child. The last chorus may seem primarily about the parents and how they must take responsibility for themselves, their expectations and their emotions in order to be the parents they hope to be. Yet it could just as well be the child, somewhere inside knowing that she must take responsibility for herself to the very extent that her parents are unable to do so for her. Even this, though, does point back to the parents, since they believe that the child can only become a healthfully independent and responsible adult if they can model it for her first.
The initial moment of uncertainty somehow remains with them, experienced over and over and never forgotten. The final chorus stays with them as well, but insists that the feeling will stay with them only as long as they are unwilling to give up their unrealistic expectations. That realization is itself the seed of a path back toward the optimism that started the song, but the path will be a painful one, through the traumas that led them to have unrealistic expectations in the first place. They must choose their pain — detachment and self-judgment everlasting, or self-confrontation. The latter may seem more daunting, but through the pain is the only way past it. As of the end of the song, no choice is made, only an attempt to muster up courage.
One way I wanted to draw out the contrast of the beginning and ending of the story was by using words in different contexts to mean different things. The core example is the chorus. The contest challenge inherently suggests fear and powerlessness, and this chorus speaks to that directly. “Will it” is both a question wondering what may happen in the future and a declaration that about people making things happen. “Okay” and “alright” at first refer to the fate and health of the baby but later on to the potential attitude of acceptance, as in being okay with something despite having alternate expectations. All these terms are doubly turned around by the way the last chorus turns helplessness into taking responsibility. Other examples:
- “The pains have just begun” — First, they are the labor pains. Later, they are the pains of the emotional growth the parents will need to undergo and had no anticipation of when they first decided to enter parenthood. On that note:
- “Expecting” has the double meaning of being pregnant and anticipating that the birth will go well, giving way to “expectations” in the sense of hopes and fantasies out of touch with reality. Likewise:
- “Attachment” first refers to the parent-child bond, but later refers to the way that people are “Attached to expectations.” Ironically, one kind of attachment makes the other kind impossible. In order to be an effective attachment/unconditional parent, one must be detached enough to not get too swept up in one’s own hopes and imaginings.
- “Upon first light” is not repeated with a different meaning but is used more than once, first to show their hope, then “But on first light” providing the first utterance of the crisis that contradicts that hope.
- The choruses, all about fear, refer to the fight-or-flight response: In the first two choruses, the narrator simply wants “fears to take their flight,” to go away. In chorus three, the narrator wants to “stop my putting up a fight,” revealing that all along, with the fears never having gone away, those involved have been resisting their fears. Only by letting themselves actually feel their fear may they be able to get past them — and consequently past the fight-or-flight response.
- A more minor pun, “She’ll stay with us for all the rest” is a reference both to co-sleeping in the family bed and more generally acknowledging that the child will stay with the parents through everything, unconditionally.
More Musical Details
Some final comments on the music, with a little bit of technical language that hopefully won’t bar understanding.
The song begins with an intro based on some chords very common in sad and dramatic music, which I’ll talk about as they appear in the song’s key. An Fm is followed by a Db, with Eb thrown in between though only with Fm and Db in the bass. It almost seemed cliche to use these chords, but cliches work for a reason, plus there are interesting evolutions from this pair of chords, noted below.
The verse chord progression is composed of a series of fairly rich but not too complex chords, including diminished, augmented, seventh and ninth chords. Underscoring them is an ascending bass line that is on one hand simple and linear but, on the other, a little unusual in moving all the way up from Bb back to F via half steps. All of this serves to build tension and uncertainty.
The chorus progression is built mainly around a chord with a name that is exactly right yet seems odd: the minor major seventh chord (mM7), sometimes referred to as The Hitchcock Chord based on its use in his films. Other chords are more dissonant, but there is something pure and horrifying about this chord, even when played very simply and softly. Although it can be found in chord progressions, I’ve felt that, in its purity as a frightening sound, it seemed very static, as if paralyzing someone with fear, coming out of nowhere and with no possible place to go afterward.
A unique property of this chord, though, suggested a progression to me. Using an FmM7 as a reference point, the notes of the chord are F, Ab, C, E. Remove the root F, and we’re left with an Ab augmented chord. But those three notes are equidistant. Travel four half steps repeatedly, and you end up repeating the sequence, Ab C E over and over up and down in pitch. That very fact means that these three notes can each serve as the root of an augmented chord — C augmented and E augmented contain the same exact three notes as Ab augmented.
Throw in the F to turn it into a mM7 chord, and one quickly realizes that, just the same, there are three mM7 chords that can be made, keeping the Ab, C and E and changing only the root note to be a half step above any of one of these three notes. Above the E, we get the FmM7. Above Ab and C, we get AmM7 and DbmM7 respectively.
Note, then, that two of the three mM7 chords in this trio are F and Db — the roots used in the intro, themselves four half steps apart just like the notes in the augmented chords embedded inside the mM7 chords. Using the three related mM7 chords consecutively, then, there is simultaneously the sense of fear from their general quality, the notion of paralysis since so much of the harmony is preserved as one moves through the three chords, and yet also a sense of motion and development that resembles but is much richer than the movement from Fm to Db.
Moving from the C7/E at the end of the verse, one expects to come back to Fm as happened midway through the verse. Even changing this to the scarier FmM7, it would be a somewhat predictable move, making the scary less scary. To enhance the feeling of fear and uncertainty in the chorus, the chorus begins with an apparent key change, introducing an AmM7 and sounding a bit terrifying as it’s intended to. From there, movement through the trio involves FmM7 and DbmM7, preserving the relationship to the intro but casting it in a new light. The progression then seems to resolve with the consonance of an Ab, though from there we go right back to AmM7 and the cycle repeats one more time, this time moving from Ab through a few other dramatic chords that bring things back to the verse. Somehow, these mM7 chords, despite their inherent horror and stasis, play nice and make for a poignant chord progression that seems ideal to go with the lyrics of the choruses.
After the final chorus, when the first line of the lyrics is repeated as the last line of the song, a repeated intro phrase gives way to an Fm/C and then a Dbm before turning around through C7 back to the verse theme. This is yet another alternate casting of the cliche Fm-to-Db. We’d have a DbmM7 with the addition of a C, and though there is no C simultaneous with the Dbm, the C was very prominent in the Fm/C immediately preceding. This suggestively evokes a bit of the terror of the chorus chords and highlights, as an alternative intro, the beginning of a new painful life chapter.
The final musical element I wanted to mention is the fade at the end of the song. I grew up on pop songs with ending fades, but they don’t seem quite as common anymore, and it rarely occurs to me to use a fade in my own songs. Part of it is simply that there is no fading when composing on most instruments, including certainly a piano.
Another part, though, is an idea that made an impression on me from an unlikely place. I once heard the Pet Shop Boys explain that the fades at the ends of their songs suggested that the songs never end, that somehow, somewhere, they play on and on. Though I kind of like the Pet Shop Boys, I thought this was a pretty pretentious thing to say, a rationalization for what most pop songs had been doing for years anyway as opposed to anything genuinely special about their own music. Ever since then, unless there were a particular aesthetic or symbolic purpose, I figured there was seldom a good reason to do a fade.
Seldom, though, is not never. When a song ends with the notion of something just beginning — like pains that have just begun — the situation seems ripe for a fade. So, at the end of the song, we hear an instrumental verse fading away, suggesting that the story, and the pain, is nowhere near over.
You can check out the Round 3 songs at SpinTunes, or more permanently at BandCamp, and you can get directly to Will It at Bandcamp — but you can listen and download for free from BandCamp right from the player at the top of this post.
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