Trifles Make Perfection

TL;DR: When you’re doing something creative, look for details which, with only minimal change, could greatly broaden your work’s appeal and staying power. (Also includes examples.)

Every now and then, I run across a creative work which frustrates me, not because it’s bad, but because the author made one tiny “unimportant”  decision that severely cripples either the story’s longevity or its appeal.

The most common example I run across is fanfiction where, aside from a few too many mentions of something like MySpace (as opposed to more generic terms), the story could easily last at least a decade or more without feeling strange. (Though breaking the atmosphere is also a common problem with mentioning things we recognize as contemporary brands in fanfiction since the source material generally occupies a different mental universe from what we encounter in day-to-day life.)

Hence, I appeal to people. When you’re doing something creative, please take a few minutes to think about what other people might care more about than you do. Ask friends to help if you can spare the time. I just don’t want to see good things fading into obscurity because of a minor oversight.

How about a more direct example. Two days ago, I was discussing musical tastes with a friend and, to clarify what she meant by “fan-song”, she sent me a YouTube link to a My Little Pony song.

Now, in order to get my point across, I need to be clear about my opinions. I have nothing against My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic but I’m not a fan either and neither of us approve of the Brony subculture. I treat it the same way I treat Care Bears… and some of my fondest childhood nostalgia relates to Care Bears but I don’t still watch it. MLP:FiM is a well-done show for people much younger than I am and, if my young self had access to it, I’d probably be nostalgic for it too.

Despite that, I’ve been listening to “Lullaby for a Princess” a lot. It’s a truly beautiful song and the lyrics are very cleverly phrased at times. (eg. “but such is the way of the limelight, it sweetly takes hold of the mind of its host”)

It’s relevant to this topic because, were it not for four uses of the word “pony” where other two-syllable words could readily have been substituted, it could easily transcend and outlive its fandom as a masterful expression of a common literary theme.

For those who haven’t had a need to google up the wikia page yet, here’s a little explanatory backstory: A thousand years before the first episode of MLP:FiM, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna ruled together, the elder sister with domain over the day and the younger over the night, both immortals.

Living in her sister’s shadow, Luna ends up feeling unappreciated and, one day, can take it no longer. Consumed by her pain and corrupted by how her emotions have fed into her magic, she refuses to allow the morning to come, determined to force the kingdom to appreciate the beauty of her domain. (as covered by “The Moon Rises“, which is also beautiful but was recorded before the fan group in question found a female member to do the vocals.)

Celestia is forced to choose her responsibility to her subjects over her love for her sister. With Luna refusing to back down, Celestia takes over dominion of night and banishes her sister to the moon for a thousand years to allow her emotionally charged self-transformation time to weaken. (“Lullaby for a Princess” is sung following this event, exploring Celestia’s guilt at her own blindness toward her sister’s pain and the responsibility she feels for how things turned out.)

Obviously, not all songs can be made more generally appealing in this manner. For example, “The Moon Rises” has a point where the lyrics include “the ponies of Equestria” and, even if I were to suggest a replacement for “ponies”, I can’t imagine an easy way to remove the kingdom’s name without weakening the lyrics.

However, in Lullaby for a Princess, the four uses of the word “pony” can be replaced very naturally. In the context of the song’s narrative, Celestia is just as much a “princess” as a “pony” and, with only a few seconds of thought, I can see that “no pony” could easily be replaced with “nobody”.

In fact, I think that such changes would make the lyrics more powerful for two reasons:

  • The song is about a sovereign regretting that she neglected her sister to the point where she had to banish her to protect the kingdom whose “limelight” she’d been blinded by. Referring to her as “a princess” rather than “a pony” supports the theme more strongly.
  • Compared to something like “nobody”, the one use of “no pony” feels a bit superfluous and impedes the immersiveness of the story for non-fans. (Sort of like fanfiction authors who include random bits of Japanese, not because they lack good English equivalents or because it aids comprehension, but because they think it’s cool.)

That’s not to say it’s not a beautiful song nonetheless. I’d still recommend it to anyone who can appreciate it despite its context, but it could have been so much more broadly appealing with such a small change.

To quote Michelangelo, trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle.

P.S. For anyone who likes those two songs, another fan did a cover of “Lullaby for a Princess” with modified lyrics named “Luna’s Reply“. Her voice isn’t quite as suited to the melody and, from what I read on wikia, I’m not sure if Luna’s un-corrupted personality would still exist in a state distinct enough from Nightmare Moon for it to be canon-compatible, but the lyrics are still excellent and the song is nice to listen to.

In case of dead links:

Update: Perfect Picture (MP3) by StormWolf is an excellent example of doing this well.

It’s nowhere near as deep as the ones I mentioned before, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s a catchy techno-styled musical summary of a famous fashion photographer who just happens to be a pony.

There’s nothing specifically restricting it to the MLP fandom because the lyrics focus on her character, rather than needlessly pointing out the fact that, like everyone else in the setting, she is non-human. From the lyrics to the musical styling, it’s a catchy musical summary of a character which also works as a catchy summary of a type of person if you have no idea who Photo Finish is.

That means it has a good shot at getting shared well beyond the fandom and surviving as “another catchy song” when MLP eventually wanes.

Update: ponyphonic has released another two noteworthy songs:

  1. A beautiful song named Harmony Ascendant which is effectively a prequel to “The Moon Rises” and “Lullaby for a Princess”.
  2. A bouncy country song named Applejack which does what “The Moon Rises” and “Lullaby for a Princess” almost did: Despite being a masterful tribute to the eponymous character, you could play it on the radio and people would never realize it’s a fan-song unless they recognized the title or, possibly, that “I will be your sugarcube” is a reference rather than just a cutesy nickname.

Update: …and again. This time, he takes what Applejack started and perfects it with “Shy Heart“. From the great cast he sourced to perform it, to the “heartfelt exploration of what it means to be cripplingly shy” lyrics, to the beautiful violin solos and what sounds like a faint hint of vocal chorus for accent during the beginning of the chorus, it is a strong contender for his best songwriting to date. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear it on the radio some day.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Trifles Make Perfection by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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2 Responses to Trifles Make Perfection

  1. Samantha says:

    This is a very good post. Clear and concise arguments and it makes sense. The overt references to My little Pony will date the song and render it irrelevant when the inevitable next huge fandom burst onto the scene. And then this song will only matter to nostalgic fans.

  2. Pingback: My Little Pony Fics and Songs For Non-Bronies | Stephan Sokolow's Blog

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