Inspiration: Chemistry by Semisonic

This post is approximately 900 words and focuses on one of my favorite topics: Music.

Semisonic 1Oh man, I’ve been meaning to write a post like this for awhile. Ideas have been churning in my head for years. Years! I’m excited to finally get to it, and I hope this comes through in my writing! It will be the first in a series that covers storytelling in lyrics and what writers can learn (similar posts can be found here: Influencers). The hardest part, aside from finally taking the time, was choosing which song to cover first. Honestly, in two minutes I could list a hundred songs to write about, but as I listened to a playlist tonight, it came down to two: Prince’s “Starfish and Coffee” and Semisonic’s “Chemistry“.

A friend and former colleague one told me that Dan Wilson was “finest singer/songwriter ever.” As is common with people in the music biz, he said it with a fervor that would suffer no debate. And while I’m not overly familiar with Dan’s solo work, I do know a fair number of Semisonic songs. I find it hard to disagree. Because of that, this is not the only Semisonic track I’ll write about, though for the sake of diversity, I’ll probably write about a number of other songs before I get back to them.

If you’re curious, the other song would be “Singing In My Sleep“, though it lost out today for the same reason Prince did: I immediately knew what I would write about “Chemistry”. That said, I’m still a bigger Prince fan, and he’ll get a few future posts.

Using ‘chemistry’ in both its literal and metaphorical definition, the song tells the story of a young man’s dating life, during and after college. Sometimes things work out, but often they do not. If you’re lucky, you get another chance and you can apply what you’ve learned to (hopefully) avoid the same mistakes.

When it released, I was a few years out of college, married for 2 years, and a first-time dad. My ‘chemistry’ days were behind me, but the song spoke to memories in a nostalgic way. I think it was equal parts, ‘My life was like that’ and ‘What if my life were like that?’. It was instantly relatable, though perhaps to a lesser degree for me, but I loved the song because it effortlessly told us a story.

Take for instance, “I was old enough to want it, but younger than I wanted to be“. In fourteen words, Dan described what many of us have felt about young love, especially in our early years as adults. There’s an impatience, that in hindsight, might have had unfavorable results.

Further on, the song tell us, “From a fine, fine girl with nothing but good intentions and a
bad tendency to get burned“. In seventeen words, we’re already getting an understanding of the kind of girl he likes.

Describing either of these in a novel would require far more words, for good or bad. As a writer, it’s a fine, fine example of how easy it can be to convey your message to readers. As is the case here, sometimes less is more. As a writer whose manuscript currently boasts 167,000+ words, it’s probably a message I need to take more to heart.

Semisonic 2Beyond this, there are other succinct lyrics that paint a picture of the protagonist: “When I had nobody to call my own. I told her I was looking for somebody to appreciate.” Also, “…when I find myself alone and unworthy, I think about all of the things I learned“. Wrapped up in these brief phrases, we get insight into his views on dating, his self esteem, and his retrospective nature.

Similarly, he’s able to nail the analogy with similar skill. Not only is it perfect for this subject, but it’s brilliantly woven throughout the song. However, it’s a tough thing to commit to. Whether it’s a rhyming scheme, a character’s dialect, or an analogy like this, as the writer, you have to be ‘all in’ with your commitment here. You can’t rhyme for half a poem and then suddenly change your approach because rhymes that sound natural are too hard (side note: You can always tell when a writer runs out of steam, because suddenly ‘hand’, ‘wand’, and ‘began’ are rhymes.).

There are the clear metaphors, such as “conducted experiments” and “the two things we put together had a bad tendency to explode“, but to cement the analogy for the listener, there are other references to college life, such as “being amazed by the things I learned” and “I met a young graduate“. Together, it paints a vivid picture for the listener with an economy of words.

For a song that’s less than four minutes long, it’s surprisingly dense. Tight. It doesn’t have the filler that many songs have in the middle to stretch it out. It really is a master class in lyricism. And that’s what really speaks to me as a writer.

If you’ve read any advice on writing, reading a lot is always mentioned. To me, however, this goes beyond books, extending into music, movies, and games, too. Each medium offers unique views into storytelling and all provide helpful ways to tell your own story.

–Mike

Enjoy what you just read? Leave a comment or like the post and we’ll ensure that you see more like this!

© Michael Wallevand, June 2018

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