I like Katy Perry. “Teenage Dream” and “Firework” are catchy pop songs. “Not Like the Movies” feels like a ballad from a very contemporary musical. Perry and her collaborators write hits, and that’s not easy.

I also like her new song, “Roar.” It’s another hit, currently at or near the top of the charts.

In the tradition of Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” or Destiny Child’s “Survivor,” Roar is an empowerment anthem told in the first person about rising up from defeat. The “you” in these songs is the villain.

Here’s the verse of Roar:

YOU HELD ME DOWN, BUT I GOT UP
ALREADY BRUSHING OFF THE DUST
YOU HEAR MY VOICE, YOU HEAR THAT SOUND
LIKE THUNDER, GONNA SHAKE THE GROUND
YOU HELD ME DOWN, BUT I GOT UP
GET READY CAUSE I’VE HAD ENOUGH

There’s been criticism that Roar sounds too much like Sara Bareilles’s “Brave.” I think that’s unfair. Sure: both songs have a prepared piano bouncing on the four count, but that sound owes a much bigger debt to “Hard Knock Life” and all its hip-hop kin. Yes, Roar and Brave have similar chord progressions — but so do half the pop songs in history. The fact you can overlay two songs doesn’t mean they’re the same. It just means they mash-up nicely.

Besides, I would argue that Roar succeeds mostly because of its chorus, which is nothing like Brave’s.

Here’s the chorus of Roar:

I GOT THE EYE OF THE TIGER, THE FIRE
DANCING THROUGH THE FIRE
CAUSE I AM A CHAMPION AND YOU’RE GONNA HEAR ME ROAR
LOUDER, LOUDER THAN A LION
CAUSE I AM A CHAMPION AND YOU’RE GONNA HEAR ME ROAR
OH OH OH OH OH OH
YOU’RE GONNA HEAR ME ROAR

The OH OH OHs, which look ridiculous written down, are like little velcro loops that ensure the song sticks in your head. Musically, it works.

Lyrically, however, those first two lines bug the hell out of me. (UPDATE: There’s disagreement on Twitter what she’s actually singing in the first line. Is it really FIGHTER? If so, that T is silent in the recording. This may not be a lyric issue at all but rather a vanishing consonant.)

  1. She rhymes FIRE with FIRE.
  2. She uses FIRE to mean very different things in adjacent lines.

Since my instinct is to fix things that annoy me (cf. Courier Prime, Fountain), I thought I’d spend a few minutes looking at how this couplet might be improved.

Two fires at once

I GOT THE EYE OF THE TIGER, THE FIRE
DANCING THROUGH THE FIRE

Wait: Is FIRE a good thing or a bad thing?

In the real world, fire is obviously both: a small fire can keep you warm; a large fire will burn your house down.

In the first line, Perry has fire in her. This is clearly positive. She has drive and ambition. In the second line, Perry is dancing through the fire of adversity. But where did that fire come from?

  • Did her own internal fire ignite nearby combustible materials?
  • Is she dancing through herself?

It’s ambiguous and perplexing. If the song were about how ambition had destroyed her life — “Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home” — then this dual usage might be perfect. But in a down-the-middle pop song, it’s just confusing.

One of these FIREs has to go.

Rhyming fire with fire

Is it such a crime to rhyme a word with itself? No laws were broken. No one got hurt.

But we’ve come to have certain expectations about how songs work, and one of those is that you don’t just repeat a word to make the rhyme — unless you’re doing it for comic effect like in “Blurred Lines”:

I FEEL SO LUCKY, YOU WANNA HUG ME
WHAT RHYMES WITH HUG ME
HEY!

Let’s talk about the rhyme structure of the couplet in Roar:

I GOT THE EYE OF THE TIGER, THE FIRE
DANCING THROUGH THE FIRE

At a glance, the rhyme is obvious: “-IRE.” But when you actually sing or say the word FIRE you recognize a few things.

First, FIRE functions like a two-syllable word: FYE-yer. All the stress goes on the first part of the word. In fact, you can easily schwa the yer at the end: FYE-uh.

In a song built with a lot of soft rhymes1 (e.g. UP/DUST, UP/ENOUGH, BREATH/MESS) you could choose to match up THE FIRE with almost anything ending with an EYE-uh pattern, including PARIAH, MESSIAH, PAPAYA, SALIVA. None of these are good ideas, but they’re options.

In fact, Perry is already using THE FIRE as a soft internal rhyme with THE TIGER. And she soft-rhymes LION with I AM. (Blurred Lines does the same thing with LUCKY/HUG ME.)

My point is that there are actually a lot more choices for matching -IRE than you might realize. So…

Let’s find some rhymes

When you eliminate words that would never make sense (FRIAR, BRIER) or already contain FIRE (MISFIRE, DEFIER, PACIFIER), RhymeBrain gives us 20 interesting choices for making this work:

higher, wire, tire, liar, flyer, fryer, desire, choir, attire, crier, supplier, require, fiber, fighter, lighter, wiser, brighter, outsider, survivor, provider

Once again, let’s look at our couplet:

I GOT THE EYE OF THE TIGER, THE FIRE
DANCING THROUGH THE FIRE

We want to replace one of the FIREs. But which one?

If we want to replace FIRE in the first line, here are three options:

  1. I GOT THE EYE OF THE TIGER, A FIGHTER2
  2. I GOT THE EYE OF THE TIGER, DESIRE
  3. I GOT THE EYE OF THE TIGER, I’M WISER

DESIRE is the only perfect rhyme, but I like the other choices better.

If we want to replace FIRE in the second line, we’re looking for six syllables, so we’ll need to create a phrase that ends with our rhyme:

  1. THE FIGHT AND DESIRE
  2. EACH DAY FLYING HIGHER
  3. STRONGER AND WISER
  4. THAT LIGHT GROWIN’ BRIGHTER
  5. AND I’LL NEVER TIRE
  6. SINGING WITH THE CHOIR
  7. IN BATTLE ATTIRE
  8. AND I’M NOT A CRIER
  9. YES I’M A SURVIVOR
  10. FOREVER OUTSIDER

Let’s also consider the rhythm of the line. The original DANCING THROUGH THE FIRE has a DUM-DUM-duh-duh-DUM-duh pattern. Of the ten choices above, only #6 matches it exactly; most of the others are duh-DUM-duh-duh-DUM-duh, and #3 actually drops the first syllable. But I think they fit the hole just fine.

I’m not claiming any of these suggestions are the right choice. But most of them are better than saying FIRE twice.

Why it matters (if it matters)

Look, Katy Perry has a bunch of Grammys, while I only have one Grammy nomination for a ridiculous (but catchy!) jingle sung by melting animatronic puppets. So I get that it’s presumptuous for me to be offering to fix perceived flaws in her tremendously successful song.

Here’s the thing: Katy Perry will never see this post, but other songwriters might. If that nudges them to spend the extra half hour to find a better lyric, then mission accomplished.

Writing is writing. Words matter, whether they’re spoken or sung or read on the page.

UPDATE #2: According to the official lyric video, the last word in the first line is a flexed muscle emoji. If we now have to start rhyming emoji, the game just got stepped up significantly.

  1. I’m using soft rhyme as a catch all for the not-quite-perfect rhymes, a.k.a. near rhymes, slant rhymes, etc. The Wikipedia page on rhyme has a good breakdown of the categories.
  2. This is exactly the line some people say she’s actually singing.