Unlike both the official style and plain style, the creative style allows authors to construct literary worlds through virtually any means necessary. The use of many different types of language and rhetorical devices gives the authors the freedom to build their stories with different, layered, and ambiguous meanings, giving the readers almost endless possibilities for interpreting the works. One example of creative style comes from the lyrics of Built to Spill, an influential rock band from Boise, Idaho, in the song “Carry the Zero.” On the surface level, this song appears to be about math. However, after a closer look, the song appears to be about the narrators confrontation with their significant other and the collapse of their relationship that follows. Through the use of metaphorical and figurative language, assonance, rhyme, and tone, a song has been constructed that conveys powerful imagery, deep, complex meaning, and still has catchy and memorable lyrics.
One of the first things that a listener notices when listening to this song is the appearance of mathematical terms. This might catch their attention, as it did mine, because math is not commonly associated with music, but the sciences. But the mathematically-based lyrics of the song are used to communicate something much deeper. Doug Martsch, the band’s singer, uses math metaphorically to convey the feelings about the end of a relationship. Writing “Found the pieces, We counted them all alone. Didn’t add up, Forgot to carry a zero,” Martsch compares the couples relationship to an item that was dropped and broken. When the couple attempts to clean up the pieces of the item, they notice that not all of the pieces are there, much like their relationship. The appearance of mathematical language in this excerpt gives the listener a visual image. Because many people have had experience counting and doing simple math, the visual image depicted by Martsch allows the audience to more easily empathize with the emotions of the narrator. Also, because math imagery is not common in many songs, math imagery helps to make this lyric and the image created by it more memorable.
Later in the song, mathematical language appears again, but in a different way. Similar to before, Martsch’s writing shows the lack of compatibility between the couple, “And you’ve become, What you thought was dumb, A fraction of the sum.” This lyric shows that the narrator now feels that their former significant other is no longer a complete person, possibly from trying please everyone around himself or herself by changing instead of remaining unaltered. The use of the term “fraction” also echoes the previous statements depicting shattering and the suggestion that this couple is no longer a strong union. However, unlike the previous lyrics which seem to criticize both people in the relationship, this lyric appears to be a criticism of only the significant other. Not only does the narrator use the term “fraction of the sum” to describe the other person, but also the term “dumb.” The inclusion of “dumb,” which the narrator aims at his or her former companion, changes the tone of the song from self-reflective to one that seems more positive and forward-thinking, but still not totally joyous. And from this point on, the narrator seems to feel uplifted and positive about his or her future.
Although a large amount of the imagery comes from the play between the mathematical and metaphorical language, they do not contribute substantially to the organic flow of the song. This natural rhythm seems to come from the heavy use of assonance and limited appearance of rhyme. Martsch uses similar vowel sounds to string together the stanzas of the song. The first four lines all end in words that contain a definite [o] sound: “home,” “broke,” “alone,” and “zero.” Because all of these lines end by using similar sounds, they appear to be held together in sound pattern, emphasizing the building of meaning throughout the four stanzas. Also, by using assonance and ending with the word “zero,” Martsch is able to emphasize the importance of this word and the phrase it appears in, guiding the reader to his possible intended meaning.
Rhyme also appears in this song, but only in roughly six lines, and is used complementary to the change in tone to create a climax in the song. Rhyme can be found in the following lines:
And you’ve become
What you thought was dumb
A fraction of the sum
Yeah, you’ve become
Yeah, you have become
A fraction of the sum...
In this song, the only time that Martsch uses rhyme is also when he chooses to shift the tone of the poem. The sudden appearance of rhyme invites the listener to listen more closely to the song at this point and helps to create a message that appears to flow more quickly and more effectively in terms of communicating the change of tone.
The change of tone is an powerful part of this song. Through the use of tone, Martsch is able to construct strong visual images, such as the broken object in the first stanza, with the catchy lyrics that he crafts with his use of rhyme and assonance. Tone allows the reader to shift emotionally, as the narrator does, throughout the poem and quickly empathize with the emotions being expressed by the narrator, resulting in memorable content and meaning.
Because songs are a form of oral communication, the musicians need to have catchy and memorable lyrics in order to make a mark on their listeners. This necessity usually results in the creation of a refrain. Think about all those bad pop songs on the radio. Most of the annoying parts that get stuck in your head are the ones that are repeated once, twice, or maybe three times throughout the course of the song. Those lyrics make the song recognizable, whether that is a good or bad thing is another topic entirely. However, this song, “Carry the Zero,” lacks a true refrain, making the band use a different technique to create memorable lyrics. Built to Spill uses different, rhetorical devices to create a lyrical climax. They emphasize this climax with a change in tone and the use of metaphorical language.
Ultimately, A song has personal meaning for both the musicians and the listeners. Martsch not only captures and enhances this meaning with many different elements of the creative style, but also builds a song that is catchy and memorable.
A big thank you goes out to Captainsdead.com for the great image of Built to Spill!