How to Write a Golden Globe-Nominated Song With Google

A search engine can be a great source of lyrics.

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The film Youth turns on a song. Released last month and starring Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, and Harvey Keitel, the movie begins as a royal messenger asks the aging composer Fred Ballinger (Caine) to conduct his most famous work for Prince Phillip’s birthday. It’s not until the film’s final minutes that we finally do hear that piece: “Simple Song #3.”

“Simple Song” is up for a Golden Globe for best original song on Sunday, the only classical entry in a field dominated this and most years by pop stars. (Wiz Khalifa, Sam Smith, and Brian Wilson are nominated in the same category.) But “Simple Song” was written by David Lang, a contemporary classical composer with little prior film experience whose best-known work remains the Pulitzer Prize-winning Little Match Girl Passion.

So “Simple Song” represents something a little different for both Lang and the Globes. And a survey of its lyrics reveal that they also seem … a little different. They spin out, phrase over phrase, in a repetitive syntax that feels just shy of familiar:

I feel complete
I lose all control
I lose all control

I respond

“Simple Song #3” must play a delicate emotional role in the film: It’s both Ballinger’s most beloved work and one that transmits a hidden emotional message to his wife. But Lang was faced with how to write a conceivably popular song that amounts to, as he put it, something someone would whisper to their love: “what people say to their lovers that they don’t want anyone else to hear,” he told me Wednesday.

“I was trying to think of how to convey to an audience what the most personal statement between this man and his wife would be,” he said. “He’s made this song, he’s offered it to the world, and the world understands it in a particular way but that’s not the way he understands it.”

“That kind of really focused, personal communication is more like a whisper. It’s not something you would sing or shout or yell or publish, it’s something you’d whisper to a lover,” said Lang.

So he chose an unusual text-assembly method.

“I just typed in a Google search—I just typed, ‘when you whisper my name I…,’” he said. “I got thousands of pornographic things and terrible things and things that were so specific I couldn’t really use them. But I got a general catalog of what people say to their loved ones that they don’t want anyone else to hear.”

Lang then accumulated some of those results into a text, repeating some as necessary.

It worked, he said, “because people share everything on the Internet—things you wouldn’t want to say to your best friend, you have no problem broadcasting them to the world.”

Return to the lyrics, and their unusual structure becomes more clear. When you whisper my name, I…

I feel chills
I wake
I know on those lonely nights
I know on those lonely nights
I know everything

These sound like Google auto-complete suggestions.

“In a way it doesn’t matter what he’s whispering to his lover. But the idea that he has this private communication, that’s the thing,” Lang said.

It was the first time Lang had worked with Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian director behind Youth, though it was not the first time Lang’s music had been used in his films. Sorrentino licensed and chose various Lang compositions for La grande bellezza, which won the 2014 Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.

Lang collaborated with Sorrentino almost entirely by emailing him demo recordings. Sorrentino then would reply by email, essentially saying whether the music sufficiently moved him. As Lang told the Times: “I kept sending demos of the song to Paolo, things that I thought were emotionally devastating. He would write back and he’d say, ‘I’m sorry, I am crying a little, but I need to cry a lot.’”

Sorrentino never wanted Lang to describe his method—either at music composition or text arrangement—to him, which meant that when “Simple Song” finally made Sorrentino cry a lot, Lang never told him certain elements of its writing.“I never ran [the text] by him. I never showed it to him,” he told me this week. “I never told him I got it from the Internet.”