Lyrically Speaking: Dear Everything

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

A few months ago I got word that a brand new musical, WILD (A Musical Becoming), with songs written by Justin Tranter (mega-hit songwriter and former student), was coming to the A.R.T. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tickets immediately secured.  

WILD is a musical with an environmental message, a great cast, and even a children’s choir. But the songs, the songs are what I came for, and Justin (and his co-writers) did not disappoint. The action, set in a farming community, centers around a financially struggling single mother Bea, who must decide whether to lease her farm’s drilling rights to a corporation, a decision that her daughter, Sophia, sees as a betrayal, an act that would harm an already fragile environment. It’s a musical fable about both generational dissonance and environmentalism.  

A short way into the musical, a passionate Sophia steps forward and sings a wonderful song, “Dear Everything,” addressed to the farm, the planet, and to, well, everything. Written by Justin, Caroline Pennell, V (formerly Eve Ensler), and Eren Cannata, it begins with two verses: 

I don’t know what’s happening to me  
Feels like my chest is losing all the air  
I feel overwhelmed and unprepared  
A little shaken and a little scared


I don’t know what’s happening to me  
Feels like my heart is beating overtime  
Trying to make sense of a blurry line  
Am I normal, do I see it right  

I was immediately drawn in. I could feel her confusion, her anxiety. Of course, there was a wonderfully expressive melody with harmony to match, but there were other elements at work, helping to create the sense of longing and ache that I felt. Look: 

I was immediately drawn in. I could feel her confusion, her anxiety. Of course, there was a wonderfully expressive melody with harmony to match, but there were other elements at work, helping to create the sense of longing and ache that I felt. Look: 

I don’t know what’s happening to me  a 
Feels like my chest is losing all the air
I feel overwhelmed and unprepared 
A little shaken and a little scared 

An abbb rhyme scheme feels unresolved, like something’s missing, even though there are four matched 4-stress lines, because odd number of rhymes works against the even number of lines, creating tension and instability. Say it aloud, then compare it to this more stable aabb rhyme scheme: 

I don’t know what’s happening to me a 
I feel overwhelmed by what I can see a 
Feels like my chest is losing all the air 
I’m a little shaken and a little scared 

Say that one aloud. Then try it again with this abab rhyme scheme: 

I don’t know what’s happening to me  a 
Feels like my chest is losing all the air 
I feel overwhelmed by what I can see a 
I’m a little shaken and a little scared 

With either of these two stable rhyme schemes, the ideas feel more factual. Like I’m just telling you how I feel rather than making you feel what I feel. Rhyme schemes create motion, and therefore e-motion. Interesting, the difference in feeling a sonic roadmap can create.  

The two abbb verses create a double whammy of instability, forcing us to move on. There must be some way outta here… 

So we move to the pre-chorus: 

I’m freaking out  x 
I can’t unlearn  a 
That the world is on fire x 
I feel it burn  a 
Don’t know where to turn
or how to turn it off b 
sómething’s góing réally réally wróng   b 

Again, the rhymes, in conjunction with line lengths, create an interesting and unstable journey, especially in the long (5-stress) last line of the pre-chorus. Then the shorter and unrhymed chorus opens the gates into the cosmos: 

Dear everything  
Dear everything  
I see u I see u  

Note how the chorus evolves (or clarifies) the Point of View from what seemed to be a 1st Person Narrative into the more intimate Direct Address, making the 3rd verse, even though it contains no 2nd Person pronouns, change its color. Now we see Sophia speaking directly to everything

Does anything feel lonelier than truth  a 
Cus it swallowed me and spit me out  b 
Cus I’m a different person now  b 
I’m a different person now  b 

Again, the unstable abbb rhyme scheme leads into the 2nd pre-chorus, now explicitly Direct Address, opening with a 2nd Person pronoun: 

You are like a mirror  x 
A mirror to a secret 
It’s a secret only I know  x 
But everyone can see it 
They can see the way you hold us  x 
And lift us at our weakest 
I’ve always had the words  x 
But I was too afraid to speak it 

There’s a lovely surprise here: the final line balances the section, rhyming with lines 2, 4, and 6 instead of rhyming lines 7 and 8 like the first pre-chorus. And all in equal 3-stress lines. The stability here creates a feeling of resolution: Sophia coming to a realization.  

The final chorus is equally balanced, reinforcing Sophia’s sense of resolve: 

Dear everything  
Dear everything  
I see you  
I need you  
Dear everything  
Dear everything  
I love you  
I love you 
 

What a lovely piece of character development over the span of just one song. As in all effective musicals, the song should move the plot or the character forward. By the time it ends, something important should change. In Dear Everything, Sophia moves from initial confusion to final commitment, and with wonderful prosody: the structure, the rhyme scheme, and line lengths, move from unstable to stable as she comes to her realization: 

Dear Everything  
I love you  

And now she knows the path she must take, which will unfold as the musical progresses, the result of a combination of elements, intentionally crafted and combined. 

Though you may not consciously notice these structural elements, you will feel their effects. They are an integral part of what makes a song move you. 

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