Whataya Want From Me? A dialogue.

If you’d like to skip to the mash-up, scroll down to the bottom.

Adam Lambert’s Grammy-nominated smash hit Whataya Want From Me was written and recorded by P!nk and friends for her Funhouse CD, but never released. Later, the song was handed over to Lambert, tracks and all.

It’s an amateur mash-up artist’s dream.

It also provides an exercise in dividing a complexly motivated monologue so that it becomes a powerful and coherent dialogue, a skill that is very useful to authors or screenwriters who find that they need to split a character in two, or for editors and script-doctors trying to tweak dialogue so that it sounds more authentic.

The Source Material

First, let’s take a look at the song itself. I was impressed how well the lyrics accomplished something rare in pop music. Most songs either read well or sing well. If they read authentically, like something someone might actually say, lyrics typically stumble through the music, straining the meter or just plain tripping over it.

On the other hand, if the lyrics sing well, allowing the vocalist to swing through the rhythm of the song like an audial dance with the backing music, they typically read absurdly or (worse!) forced and clipped.

Whataya Want From Me, however, nails both of these artistic virtues. Turn the song off and read the lyrics. Other than the occasional rhyme and the repeated refrain, it reads like a very believable letter from one lover to another.

So, I did a little research to see who actually wrote the song, and discovered its history as a track intended for Funhouse. It’s a testament to the talent of P!nk and her co-writers that this song achieves both musicality and authenticity at once. Pop songs don’t often get this sort of literary praise, but let me dish it out: as both a fiction writer and a songwriter I can tell you that this ain’t easy.

Found Poetry
(And a Teachable Moment)

When I finally got my hands on P!nk’s original (which isn’t easy, since it only appears on the German version of her greatest hits CD) and realized that not only was it the same song, but the exact same background music, I decided to mash-up a duet.

Coming from a religious studies background, elbow-deep in the “Documentary Hypothesis,” digging through a text listening for distinct voices has become second nature. However, since (unlike the Torah) the song was originally written in a single voice, dividing it into a duet would require digging into the motivations of the song’s narrator, finding inner conflict there, and bringing it out as interpersonal conflict between two lovers.

And, there is plenty of inner conflict in the song. The lyrics oscillate between defensiveness and pleading, eagerness and hesitancy, draw and distance: a true push-and-pull of emotions and motivations.

The fact that solidified my decision to find a dialogue/duet in the song is that the two renditions are not perfectly identical. There is a key difference in the lyrics, a single yet significant word change. The original line in question, as P!nk sings it: “He messed me up, need a second to breathe.” For whatever reason (I sincerely hope it wasn’t to avoid controversy in light of the fact that Adam is openly gay) Lambert sings, “It messed me up, need a second to breathe.”

A tiny, two-letter alteration, but one that changes the entire story told by the song. P!nk’s version is about a girl who was hurt by a third character, implicitly an ex-boyfriend, and the trauma threatens to poison her current relationship with hesitancy and doubt. Adam’s version, lacking a third party, implies something completely different: a guy taken aback by overwhelming and unexpected feelings for someone.

Both are powerful, but the original version is far more complex, both emotionally and narratively. When you’re looking to create a dialogue from a monologue, you want complexity, so I decided early on that the line would go to P!nk. And that, as Robert Frost would say, made all the difference.

I had two speaking characters, to whom I will refer as pink (obviously) and blue. To distinguish them emotionally and motivationally, I had to give them different needs and doubts.

Pink, as her key line shows, is acting from doubt caused by earlier suffering. Her angst is externally informed. To create character differentiation and dynamic tension, blue‘s doubt has to be current (caused by fears about this relationship) and more internally informed.

We have a classic lover’s struggle: one character relatively over-committed and afraid because the relationship isn’t moving fast enough, the other relatively under-committed (at least on the surface) and hesitant to move forward.

Whataya Want From Me?

A couple of caveats before we get into the monologue-to-dialogue process. First, I didn’t present the mash-up up front, as this analysis would interrupt the flow of the song. You can scroll down to see it, or wait until after you’ve read the following breakdown of how I divided up the text.

Second, let me clarify that this mash-up is in no way intended to replace the original song or undercut its revenues. Go buy the originals, seriously. Furthermore, I am claiming the dialogue/duet as original “found” art that, moreover, is intended for the educational purposes of delving into the creative process. Fair use.

Lastly, please don’t come away from what follows with the sense that I clinically and laboriously pick apart things as I write. Most of the weighing and deciding I describe below happened, in real-time, at the “blink” speed of instinct. The clinical and laborious part was the introspection required after the fact, to distill the underlying reasons from those gut feelings.

Hey, slow it down.
Whataya want from me? Whataya want from me?
Yeah, I’m afraid.
Whataya want from me? Whataya want from me?

Putting pink/P!nk in the defensive position in this opening exchange was a no-brainer. It highlights the conflict between the two characters right from the start, even if the cause of that conflict has yet to be revealed.

Giving Lambert the line “I’m afraid” also emphasizes the over-committed nature of his blue character, and gives pink‘s titular “Whataya want from me?” a strong sense of head-shaking, hands-thrown-up weariness that is largely absent from the song as monologue.

Also, against the defensively distant “Whataya want from me?” blue‘s line “slow it down” is transformed (in the transition from monologue to dialogue) from a request to stop moving forward to a request to stop pulling away, an irony that I feel projects sharp contrast on the different positions from which the blue and pink characters are approaching the conflict.

The vague way the song opens is true to real-world romantic arguments; not getting right to the meat of the problem is incredibly authentic, even as a monologue. But, putting these lines in different mouths, with the vagueness going to Lambert and the questions going to P!nk, heightens the sense of angst in the blue lines and gives the pink lines an exhausted affection necessary for the tension that drives the dialogue.

Here, blue wants to talk, but doesn’t want to get to brass tacks. Pink, on the other hand, wants to get right to the issue to get the talk over with.

There might have been a time when I would give myself away
Once upon a time I didn’t give a damn;
but now, here we are…
So, whataya want from me? Whataya want from me?

I decided that the dismissive “there might have been a time” line fit well with the premise that pink had been hurt in the past and was not ready to deal with further emotional demands from blue.

Giving blue the “Once upon a time” line makes it imitative, or even nervously mocking — painfully representative of the “so what” tit-for-tat to which we often desperately resort during the touchy discussions that typify troubled relationships.

In dialogue, the line now says: “Big deal, things have changed for both of us.”

It also provides background for blue, that his over-commitment to pink is a new development in his emotional life. It establishes a certain agonistic equity between the two characters that demands resolution.

Then, once again, the blue line pushes for new commitment: “But, now, here we are.” In response (and defense) the pink line shrugs it off, retreating into the same question left unanswered before. So far, the dialogue has gone nowhere.

But now, blue presses forward with something more specific. In screen-writing terms, we’re done with the set-up and arrive at the first plot point:

Just don’t give up..
I’m workin it out!
Please don’t give in, I won’t let you down.

Here, the romantic argument/negotiation begins in earnest, and so does the narrative intensity.

The over-committed blue asks for what seems like the simplest emotional commitment possible: “Just don’t give up.” Pink responds with a defensive excuse that, touchingly, does not exclude blue‘s request. Instead, pink gives in a little, asserting that she is trying her best.

Blue follows with a pleading reiteration of the request, and a promise (“I won’t let you down”) that foreshadows by contrast the next revelation from pink:

He messed me up, need a second to breathe

Here, pink introduces a new character with a single pronoun, provides background in three words (“messed me up”) to explain the conflict of the story, and gives insight into her motivation in the conflict with the following clause.

Just a masterfully efficient use of language by the original songwriters.

And, as part of a found dialogue, a pitch perfect under-committed defense against the anxious pressure of the over-committed blue character. Here, pink essentially says, “Can’t you understand why I can’t move forward at your pace?” She is neither dismissive of blue nor submissive to his demands.

Instead, she pleads for understanding. The drama moves onward.

Just keep coming around
Whataya want from me?

I have to confess that I considered giving P!nk the line “just keep coming around” as an offering to Lambert’s over-committed character, something to show that pink truly cares for blue and just needs time to get over the trauma of the previous relationship.

But, I realized that it worked just as well as a desperate negotiation from an over-committed blue who has been forced to accept the emotional predicament in which the pink finds herself.

I felt the touching give-and-take between two characters was better served by giving this line to Lambert, allowing blue to say, “I know what you’re going through, and I’m reducing my demand to this barest necessity.” He’s no longer even asking her not to give up, just to continue her physical presence in his life.

Yeah, it’s plain to see that baby you’re beautiful and there’s nothing wrong with you.
(There’s nothing wrong with you!)
It’s me, I’m a freak.

But, thanks for lovin’ me
’cause you’re doing it perfectly.

This exchange gave me a lot of heartache, as could be expected, since it is the heart of the emotionally twisted monologue P!nk and friends provided as source material.

I originally wanted to give the first lines entirely to P!nk, to highlight pink‘s feeling (caused by her ex) that there was something “wrong” with her.

But, I finally decided that the line “thanks for loving me” could only authentically be spoken by the under-committed pink to the over-committed blue, which required the previous set of lines to go to the opposite character.

Moreover, giving blue lines intended to boost pink‘s self-esteem naturally follows from the premise (introduced in the refrain) that her doubt stems from a bad relationship. The exchange makes more narrative sense for both characters if blue aggressively flatters and pink hesitantly thanks.

Still, blue‘s “you’re beautiful and I’m a freak” line — although it accurately characterizes the assessment of an over-committed romantic — reflects very poorly on the under-committed pink character … if left unanswered.

Listening to the dialogue fall out this way gave me a sick feeling in my stomach. I had to find a way, within the constraints of the lyrics, to redeem the pink character in light of blue‘s self-flagellation.

The over-dubbed echo of “there’s nothing wrong with you,” which exists in both P!nk’s and Lambert’s versions of the song, provided a perfect opportunity for the pink character to voice an objection to blue‘s self-denigrating flattery: “You say there’s nothing wrong with me? There’s nothing wrong with you either!”

Nevertheless, blue insists on pushing the contrast with “It’s me, I’m a freak.”

At this point, given her previous objection, pink can be forgiven for refusing to argue and simply thanking blue for being a good lover. The stirring, if still reserved, sympathy of the response reinforces pink‘s desire for things to work out despite her emotional hang-ups.

There might have been a time when I would let you slip away
I wouldn’t even try, but I think you could save my life

These lines fell into a natural rhythm. First blue pushes, restates the background introduced in the first verse, and recommits to his devotion to pink. Then, pink expresses renewed hesitancy, nearly dashing all hope for the relationship with “I wouldn’t even try.”

Then, the word “but” asserts a shift in the dialogue. (Actually, it completes the shift foreshadowed by the conditional mood of “wouldn’t.”) Here, the tension of the song begins resolution as pink is about to confess (even if in a round-about way) the commitment blue is seeking.

Here, because pink was confessing a sense of romantic need that blue had expressed throughout, I felt that bringing Lambert up to share the hyperbolic “you could save my life” line with P!nk brought the story to an emotional turning point in the mutual necessity (although certainly for different reasons) that the conflict between the two lovers demanded.

After this, they repeat the tensions of the refrain, and collapse into a breakdown:

Just don’t give up on me
I won’t let you down

Here, the tension is released as the roles become significantly reversed, with pink finally expressing needful anxiety and blue reiterating his promise, which rings more confident after pink‘s plea.

The line “just don’t give up” was previously blue‘s, and I considered giving it to Lambert again. But, the addition of “on me” changes the emotional dynamic of the line dramatically, especially in light of pink‘s confession that blue could save her from the damage she suffered in her prior relationship.

So, I gave the line to pink, as another opportunity to meet blue more than halfway, i.e., in that climactic, narratively satisfying place closer to mutual romantic satisfaction.

And with that brief lyrical exchange, the previous strength of pink‘s defensive armor is replaced with open vulnerability and an express need for blue‘s continued commitment, while the weakness of blue‘s desperate desire for pink‘s commitment is replaced with the strength of his vow to provide her the safe haven she needs.

The gentle antagonism that opened the song is resolved and replaced with a fuller understanding and commitment.

3 Comments

  1. I think you did as beautiful a job breaking it down as you did mashing it up. Thank you.

  2. I can’t find the play button. It’s one of those mornings. But, I just wanted to say, talking about monologue/dislogues .. there’s a great Tori Amos one that’s like a spoken word song. She did an album of covers and it’s on there. I think the original is by Eminen. Truly it’s worth a listen

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