“Big Yellow Taxi” by Counting Crows ft. Vanessa Carlton – Episode 006

 

What gets us to agree with somebody?

I’m not talking about what gets us to think “You are technically right, but you are also a jerk about it, so I’m going to disagree with you.” And I’m not thinking of how people can “win” an argument, at least not in the way people usually think of it with one person shoving their point down the other person’s throat until the other person just wants to never see the first person again.

Have you ever heard someone make a point and you thought “You know what, I’ve never thought of it that way, but now that you put it that way…”? That’s the kind of effective discussion I’m looking for when I listen to someone on YouTube or on Facebook, and that’s the kind of effective discussion I’m talking about.

Oddly enough, lyrics can be just as persuasive as the spoken word or the written word, if they’re done right, and “Big Yellow Taxi” by Counting Crows was a great example of persuasive, effective rhetoric done in lyrics.

 

I’m Hunter Farris. And for years, I’ve wondered “Why do we like the music we like?” So in today’s episode of Song Appeal, let’s take a look at why we like “Big Yellow Taxi” by Counting Crows ft. Vanessa Carlton.

You can find the full transcript for this episode and the shownotes at SongAppealOfficial.com/BigYellowTaxi.

 

[music: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” from the end of the chorus]

 

It’s a beautiful clear day in Hawaii, and Joni Mitchell is waking up in a hotel room. “[She] threw back the curtains and saw beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, [she] looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see” and she felt her heart break at the sight of a blight on this little patch of paradise That’s when she sat down, pulled out her guitar, and started to and started to write “Big Yellow Taxi”.

Over the next 40 years, it touched people enough that it was covered by Moya Brannen, Amy Grant, The Neighborhood, Joe Dassin, Bob Dylan, Pinhead Gunpowder, Edda Magnason, The Idea of North, J-Min, Green Day, and BB Gabor before its most recent and successful cover by Counting Crows ft. Vanessa Carlton.

So how did it touch that many artists that powerfully? Through its rhetoric.

Now, sometimes we give rhetoric a bad rap, but it’s more than just “Language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect, but [that lacks] sincerity or meaningful content”. That’s a perfectly legitimate definition. In fact, it’s almost a word-for-word quote from the Oxford English Dictionary’s second definition. But for the purposes of Song Appeal, let’s use the first and much more useful definition: “The art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques.”

Because rhetoric can be anything from teaching that 2+2=4 and minus 1, that’s 3 to asking “Will you marry me?”, to explaining a fan theory about the next Marvel movie. The real question about rhetoric isn’t “Is it manipulative?” or even “Is it impressive?” The real question is: “Does it make its point clearly and persuasively?”

And that’s the kind of rhetoric this song delivers, because “Big Yellow Taxi” that makes a point clearly and persuasively through its rhetorical structure, a rhetorical structure that allows for ideas to flow persuasively from one to the next and allows for build-up to an emotionally powerful moment.

 

Now at this point, someone’s wondering “What’s a rhetorical structure?”

It’s the order in which ideas are presented, and it can make or break a piece of rhetoric.

You see, rhetorical structure is essential to getting a point across clearly.

Imagine telling a joke in any order other than set-up, build-up, punchline.

Imagine reading a journalism article that puts the information in random order instead of in order of most important to least important.

Imagine reading a five-paragraph essay from school that scrambles the order of the pieces of information so that instead of “introduction, point 1, point 2, point 3, conclusion”, it goes “point 2, introduction, point 1, conclusion, point 3”.

Those pieces of rhetoric would be so much less effective and make so much less sense.

So what’s the rhetorical structure behind “Big Yellow Taxi”?

The rhetorical structure is about the order of ideas, not the order of verses and choruses, but in the case of this song, the rhetorical structure happens to fit into the song structure really well.

The Counting Crows version has 2 verses, and each one is a vivid example of the song’s principle that “you don’t know what you’ve got, ‘till it’s gone.”

Here’s verse 1:

 

They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot

With a pink hotel, a boutique

And a swinging hot spot

 

And here’s verse 2:

 

They took all the trees

And put them in a tree museum

And they charged all the people

A dollar and a half to see ’em

 

After each of these vivid examples is the song’s principle:

“Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone?”

 

In the first bridge (or 3rd verse in most versions) we get an action item when the song pleads

Hey farmer farmer

Put away that D.D.T. now

Give me spots on my apples

But leave me the birds and the bees

 

And then we’re back to the principle:

“Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone?”

 

Most versions of the song turn the next section into a 4th verse, but Counting Crows turns it into a second bridge, which turns it into something that seems like an “exigence”, or the “issue, problem, or situation that causes or prompts someone to write or speak” (source: https://www.thoughtco.com/exigence-rhetoric-term-1690688), and turns it into a second principle. More on this later, but here’s that section:

Late last night

I heard the screen door slam

And a big yellow taxi

Took my girl away

 

And that seeming exigence and second principle is used to transition into the original principle:

“Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone?”

That’s one way a song can use its song structure to support its rhetorical structure.

 

But it’s not enough for a song to have a rhetorical structure. After all, if a rhetorical structure is just “the order in which the ideas are presented”, every song has some kind of rhetorical structure. The real question is “How effective is that rhetorical structure, and why is it effective?”

When it comes to “Big Yellow Taxi?” The rhetorical structure allows for ideas to flow smoothly from one idea to the next.

The verses and bridges flow smoothly into the choruses, not just through a transition word or two, but because the idea of each verse is evidence for the ideas in the chorus.

The chorus is stating the “thesis” – the point that the song is trying to make. But the only way any point can be made effectively is by backing up that point with examples, evidences, and appeals to emotion and character.

The brilliant part of this exact rhetorical structure is that the examples, evidences, and appeals to emotion and character come before the point they’re trying to support. That way, the audience agrees with the example and then hears the principle the example is supporting and thinks “Well then, I guess that principle is true.” If they had the principle first, the audience might be tempted to disagree with the principle before the example comes and being stuck in “disagreement” mode the say some people are as soon as controversial topics like “gun control” or “abortion” are brought into a discussion.

That form of rhetorical structure – a structure that allows examples to lead directly into the point of the song – leads the audience to agree with the point of the song more naturally.

 

There’s another reason this exact rhetorical structure is effective: It consistently builds up to one point until that point hits us powerfully.

I mentioned that the Counting Crows version turns the 4th verse into a second bridge, the part that goes:

Late last night

I heard the screen door slam

And a big yellow taxi

Took my girl away

And that the change from verse to bridge makes this part feel more like an exigence (the reason the song is written in the first place) and a second thesis. Why? Because Counting Crows emphasizes this part after a lot of build-up.

Every other version of “Big Yellow Taxi” makes this part just another example of not knowing what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone. But Counting Crows takes it exactly the opposite direction. After 2 verses, 2 choruses, and a bridge showing that “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone”, they give this section a slightly different tune, a completely different instrumentation, and a much more emotional vocal style. That kind of emphasis makes it feel like this is the most important part of the song, not the chorus.

And if this is the most important part of the song, we have to wonder “Why is this kept until over half-way through the song? Why didn’t Counting Crows make this the chorus, especially since it contains the name of the song?”

This may be a bit of speculation, but since Counting Crows hasn’t talked about this song… ever, this seems like the best way to answer that question:

I want you to imagine you’re talking with your friend, Ben, in a parked car. And after a while, Ben just starts monologuing about this natural paradise they tore down to make room for a hotel. And he asks “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone?”

Honestly, if I were in that situation, I’d be a little confused. I’d be wondering “Why exactly are you telling me this?” But I figure Ben has a good reason to tell me this. He seems passionate about it, and he’ll tell me the reason soon.

So he continues to monologue about this place where they cut the trees down and put them in a tree museum where you have to pay to see the trees that were already there and he asks again “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone?”

Now that he’s got my attention and that I’m agreeing with his principle, he finally sighs and explains: My girlfriend left me last night. And he feels like he didn’t know what he had until she was gone.

And suddenly I realize: That’s why Ben wanted to talk about environmentalism. He wanted me to understand the feeling he had before telling me why he felt that way, so that I could really empathize with him and say “I understand what you feel.”

Now, that’s obviously not the original songwriter’s intention. But when you listen to Counting Crows’ version, at least part of the feeling the song turns out to communicate is that this second bridge is the real point of the song because of its emphasis and build-up.

 

Now obviously, rhetoric isn’t the most important part of a song. But many songwriters say they want to write a song about a specific topic. And what’s the point of writing a song about something and with an unclear point, or worse, writing it in a way that gets people to disagree with the point.

And obviously, the rhetoric’s structure isn’t the only important part of being clear and persuasive.

But rhetorical structure is a part of writing lyrics that many people don’t think about when they’re writing music or listening to music, and it can make or break the point a song is trying to make.

In the case of “Big Yellow Taxi”, the rhetorical structure is essential to persuading people because it makes ideas flow persuasively into each other and builds up to an emotionally powerful moment. That’s how it succeeds in persuading people to appreciate their environment, appreciate the world around them, or appreciate the people in their lives, because it communicates those points effectively.

When it comes to “Big Yellow Taxi” by Counting Crows ft. Vanessa Carlton, that’s at least part of what gets us to agree with them.

 

[music: “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot”]

 

Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, check out SongAppealOfficial.com for the full transcript and for more episodes. You can also support this channel on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal. Again, thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk with you soon. In the meantime, have a great day, and enjoy your music.