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Lyrics On the Nose

Sep 22 2006 Posted by in music, writing | Comments Off on Lyrics On the Nose

Ever enjoy a catchy tune and then open the CD booklet only to find the lyrics read like something out of your sister’s junior-high journal? Where has the great tradition of lyricists gone? Our Leonard Cohens, our Rogers Waterses, our Joni Mitchells? The stuff that could just as easily be published alongside Rimbaud as Rick Springfield. Sure, in the modern era we’ve got scribes like Eddie Vedder, Nick Cave, and Thom Yorke, but pop poets are MIA.

The beauty of music is that it can combine sounds that move your ass or heart with words that inspire your mind at the same time. But pop stars don’t write their own music anymore anyway, so it’s unsurprising that the lowest-common-denominator prose we now get reads like it came fresh from the focus group’s report. Especially in hip-hop and country, they’ll get that damn rhyme to fit by any means necessary.

Lyrics don’t have to be rocket surgery. Just find something you’re passionate about (skip the Elavil that day), and get it on paper. Let it flow uncensored at first, but don’t settle for just instinct. The first words you scribble will not be the most effective ones. Unfortunately, most people stop here. Instead of just calling things exactly what they are, on the nose, as they say, find a metaphor. Put it in a different context. Dress up its wardrobe. Shift the teller’s point of view. Play devil’s advocate. But most importantly, allow room for interpretation. That’s a key ingredient to an enduring classic.

Here’s an example of some typical tired prose, with blue suggesting the same things in an interesting, ambiguous way.

I was walking down the street
Cracked pavement trailing hopeful feet
Hoping that you I would meet
Eyes plead the crowd will reveal
You’ve been away from me so long
Turning seasons cast cold light in your wake
My broken heart must stay strong
Essence of being finds comfort in routine

So what the hell is that verse about? Pining over a regretful breakup? Maybe. I prefer to think it’s about missing the summer ice cream stand all winter when I was a kid, but that’s just me. Stone-age lyrics would’ve robbed me of that opportunity to identify.

Make the listener participate. It’s always more meaningful when they can project their own story onto yours, filter the meaning through their own experiences.

And don’t just pick up the pen when you’re depressed; try to bottle some other slices of life as well. As Diamond Dave used to say, “All work and no play makes for alarmingly-predictable lyrics.”