Lyric Lens: “That Smile” by John Bucchino
Have you ever listened to a song over and over again because there was one line you just couldn’t quite hear? It’s happened to me more than once. Sometimes, it only takes a day or two of listening before I make out the words, but sometimes it takes a lot longer. I loved John Bucchino’s song “That Smile” from the very first time I heard it, but now, ten years later, there’s one line I didn’t manage to work out until the writing of this post. Now, I don’t mean to seem critical. I don’t think it’s the song’s fault at all that I couldn’t understand that line for awhile. And honestly, I’m happy that it took so long, because it meant that I got to listen to an incredible lyric over and over and over, and spend ten years growing to love it more and more.
I was introduced to “That Smile” at Sutton Foster’s 2004 American Songbook concert. Sound familiar? I’ve written before about a song from that concert. Apparently Sutton Foster was championing the work of NMT writers before they were NMT writers! Sutton sang a beautiful solo arrangement by her music director Michael Rafter, but the song in its original context is actually a group number from John Bucchino’s musical It’s Only Life. You can find several different performances of “That Smile” on YouTube, but coolest of all in my opinion is this video of the writer himself talking about and performing it:
I am so obsessed with the first three lines of this song that I could probably gush about them for an entire post. I mean, just look at this:
That smile, it cracks your face, it cracks me up
It cracks down hard on my resistance
To the “love me” in your eyes.
Look at the crazy, beautiful weirdness of the English language. The word “cracks” is used in three totally different ways, two of them involving the opposite words “up” and “down,” and it all fits together to paint one beautiful picture. I love the way that the three phrases with parallel uses of “cracks” increase in length to build to the third one that takes up two whole lines. The high school Latin nerd in me feels compelled to tell you that this figure of speech is called a tricolon crescens. You never know when that nugget of trivia might come in handy.
What I love most of all about these opening lines is how much I learn about a person by hearing about a smile. This smile—and by extension its owner—has a sense of humor, but it’s also determined, and it “cracks down hard” on anyone who tries to resist it.
And when you smile that lightning way you do,
You do away with gray
By flashing bites of blue behind my cloudy skies.
There are so many lovely uses of language in this next bit of the song. The pair of “do” and “do away” echoes the multiple uses of “cracks” from the previous lines. The phrase “bites of blue” is dazzling in both alliteration and originality. The whole sentence is tied together by weather imagery, from “lightning” all the way to “cloudy skies.”
Then we get our chorus:
I know you’re capable of glowing in the dark
And I know you’re kissable for grinning up that spark
To warm the deepest part of me,
To shine some sense on all I can be,
To help my aspirations meet their mark.
My favorite thing about this chorus is the contrast between “capable” and “kissable.” I like that one of those words sounds sophisticated and serious, and one sounds childish and almost made up. I like that one gives agency to the “you” being addressed, and one gives agency to the person addressing them. I like that each half of this alliterative pair is followed by half of another, “glowing” and “grinning.” Basically, I just like words a lot.
The other thing that’s so great about this chorus is that it says something that could be a cliché in a totally non-clichéd way. I had a teacher once who liked to say that clichés became clichés because they were so wise and true the first time people said them, which is why it’s so important for writers to find new ways to express existing truths. How many times have you rolled your eyes at a book that described someone’s smile lighting up their face? That’s essentially what this song is saying, except that it’s saying it in a fresh and more detailed way that’s absolutely captivating. It’s a song about a smile, full of words that refer to light, but they’re used in such inventive ways that it doesn’t seem like a tired comparison.
The second verse contains more examples of the features I’ve already talked about—a nice bit of wordplay with the phrases “bare your strength” and “bear the weight,” and some more lovely light imagery. I’m not going to spend much time on it, though, or the second chorus (which is identical to the first), because I want to get to the end of the song, which has a clever surprise twist.
And even though we’ve barely met,
You smiled one smile I can’t forget,
The basis for some grand internal wars.
You see, I think I’m falling for that crazy smile of yours.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that the second to last line was the one that I couldn’t figure out for ten years. I think maybe the language was too sophisticated for my ninth-grade mind when I first heard it, and then it was stuck in my head as not making sense. I don’t know.
What I do know is that the line that comes two lines before it is fan-freaking-tastic. “And even though we’ve barely met.” Wow. This is the first moment in the song where we learn that these two people are meeting for the first time. I definitely thought, until that line, that the song took place in the context of a long-standing relationship of some kind. These lyrics tell me that the singer knows the smiling person on a deep, personal level. And that may be true, but not because they’ve known each other forever. They just met a minute ago, but as the song proves, a smile—“That Smile”—can reveal a lot. How’s that for love at first sight?