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Use Of Cliches In Songwriting

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Hi friends

John Nightwolf made me think of the use of cliches in songwriting which is a subject I've been flirting with for a long time. His comments were something like that the use of cliches did not enhance the content of the lyric. My take on this is that the stream of words that make up a particular cliche' can be used as originally as the single word. I also think that in our struggle to avoid cliches at all cost in order to achieve originality we sometimes can compromise the way the lyric is intended to make the listener feel. Perhaps I am wrong here, but I'm a strong believer in that the way the listeners feel when they hear the song is more important than than what they think when they hear the song. In other words to touch the emotional parts of the listener is more important than to address their rational part, especially in conversational writing. It would be very interesting to find out what others think about the use of cliches in songwriting.

Thanks for bringing it up John


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You're quite welcome Jan. Great idea for a topic, thanks for kicking it off.

My gut reaction to your post is that we must address the whole mind, true emotion and intellect can be two separate parts, but they do IMHO influence each other a bit. Once either side says it's a no-go, the other side shuts down. For example (and this has nothing to do with any Lyric in particular) Rational Mind says"that's a stupid line" or "that's been done". Once that decision has been made it will be much harder (but not impossible) to reach the Emotional Mind.

in addition, once it is established in the listener's mind that it has been done, it now associates the Lyric as a whole to the original Song, and now the Lyric, as a whole, must rise above the original in order to shine through. I'm not sure about this bit, but I'll leave it in for discussion anyway [smiley=bounce.gif]

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Sounds like we're all pretty much on the same page, each expressing it a bit differently. A lot of good lines have been used before, once or twice. I google all suspect lines, and I find hits. But I look to see how they were used.

So when does an overused line become a cliche? You're cliche may be my soulful echo of a time gone by. What I have heard 10 times over, you may never have heard once.

To me, a cliche is defined by its usage. The cliche works beautifully when it is the perfect phrase for the lyric. The more familiar the cliche, the higher the standard of usage. If you don't meet the standard, you've written a cliche.

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hmmm. I totally agree on the point about circumstances. Lyrical context is crucial, but so are the intended audience.

For example... dance clubs thrive on cliche.

But what is cliche?

To me a songwriters generally want to use sayings, rather than cliche. What makes a saying a cliche? Context.

Your intended audience make a HUGE difference. Young teens are still pretty unaware of cliche. Everything is still pretty new, so songwriters can lazily overuse them. Similarly at a club level songs can easily be pitched that are entire cliches as songs, never mind lyrics. Don't get me wrong, these scenes still have their innovators!

I do agre with norm about the flow of the lyric, but I do find that the concept you try to convey with a cliche can be good, but it tends to be more accepted if it is subtly altered, or has a little twist. This has a similar effect to changing the context.



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It is a very, very difficult thing to arrange words in a sequence that is completely new and has never been done before. This is even more true in lyrics than in everyday conversation. In lyrics there are other less overt cliches like rhyming, meter, structure and so on. An A/A/B/B rhyme scheme can seem like a cliche even if the words within it aren't.

I think there is a place for cliches in lyrics and sometimes they are an economical way of getting a point across in a tight space. But, like most things, if used excessively then the whole lyric becomes a cliche. Some lyrics (especially Contry ones) are cliches as ideas, no matter how original the phrases used.

We also need to know the difference between cliches, figures of speech, metaphors, similes, sayings, proverbs and so on. All too often these are all described as cliches, simply because they are familiar patterns of words. But speech contains familiar patterns of words - if it didn't we'd all sound like we were speaking in a Shakespeare play - and all of these language patterns thrive in a living language. They are as much part of a living language as original ideas and new cliches are evolving all the time. For example, the first time I ever heard the expression 'Back in the day..,' was when John Nightwolf used it in one of his posts a couple of years ago. I have just used it in my latest lyric (see 'Everyone Plays Guitar' plug plug). But it's not a cliche in the UK because we don't generally use it: it's US English, but is it a cliche to you in the US or just a saying? But it gets my point across quickly and (IMHO) is not surrounded by other cliches. I think it is difficult therefore to avoid using cliches as what is not a cliche to one man may be to another.

A cliche to me is an overused phrase that has either lost its meaning or is used inappropriately. If it retains its meaning, is used appropriately and is not in the company of too many other cliches, then why not?

I think we have seen sosme lyrics on Songstuff where writers (say they) have tried to write the song only using cliches. That's pretty hard to do too!

Edited by Alistair
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For example, the first time I ever heard the expression 'Back in the day..,' was when John Nightwolf used it in one of his posts a couple of years ago. I have just used it in my latest lyric (see 'Everyone Plays Guitar' plug plug).

point is you owe me royalties son! [smiley=bounce.gif]

Here's one fer Tom:

Drivin along this ole dirt road

In a beat up pick up truck

It struck me how I love this land

As I run to punch the clock

With old dog blue here by my side

Drivin away from the family farm

Make a left on the gravel road

Past my favorite local dive

sorry :whistle:


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Young teens are still pretty unaware of cliche.

I cannot agree with that observation - sadly.

Wherever I go, I hear teen diaogue containing little that is not cliché.

So much so, in fact, that their common practice became the subject of one of my own song-lyrics.

But, quite apart from that, cliché generally is a most wonderful and valuable tool for lyricists - especially in the title and hook departments.

If we are wielding repetition as a tool to get into people's heads, it makes good sense.

With a cliché, a lot of the groundwork is already prepared.

First examples that popped in to my head are Marvin Gaye's "Can I Get A Witness" and Irma Thomas's hit "Time Is On My Side" (written by Norman Meade & Jimmy Norman).

From my own titles, I would cite most immediately "It's A Jungle Out There" and "Things Turn Out That Way".

It's not the cliché per se but the way it is used.

Like all language.

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I think you may be misunderstandering the point Lazz.

Thanks John - I thinkyour prodding has helped me get it now.

You're saying that teenagers use cliché more unselfconsciouslly than older folk - I think.

But maybe that is a little deceptive, too - perhaps we oldsters just use a different set of clichés.

And also pretty unselfconsciously, too.

This "back in the day.." phrase, for instance, is one which I cannot imagine effectively dribbled from the mouth of a teen.

Yet I hear it regularly on the lips of older people on this side of the Atlantic.

In the UK, that same preface in my experience would be "in the old days,..."

And few users may be aware of any status as cliché.

We also need to know the difference between cliches, figures of speech, metaphors, similes, sayings, proverbs and so on.

All too often these are all described as cliches, simply because they are familiar patterns of words.

But sometimes each of these figures of speech are also clichés at the same time.

They would achieve that status through their very familiarity. So perhaps all sayings and proverbs quickly become clichés. Many common metaphors already lean in that direction and similes are absolutely abundant with examples.

"as good as gold"

"fits like a glove"

"fly like an eagle"

"fly like the wind"

"fly in the ointment"

"fly me"

A cliche to me is an overused phrase that has either lost its meaning or is used inappropriately.

Not to me.

Even when meaningful and appropriate, a cliché is still a cliché.

I am also interested in the extent to which such figures of speech can stradde language cultures.

In a piece of writing somewhere in my past, for instance, I once described someone as being "covered in barge-pole bruises".

Now, I know this raised a passing smile from those familiar with the clichéd UK metaphor "I wouldn't touch him/hjer with a barge-pole" - but non-UK readers would share little comprehension.

It seems this one is just too culturally specific - like the clichéd term "at sixes and sevens".

I discovered from an exchange with Didier, however, that clichéd phrases like "mad as a hatter" and "talking through one's hat" were completely translatable and understandable and equally pre-existent in the French language culture, because of the shared history of hat-making processes. Similarly, a shared military history may make "the whole nine yards" an effective shared metaphor and cliché.

Interesting topic.

I find writing from the cliché-book is a great exercise.

My point is that clichés can be used well, or they can be used poorly.

And that, for songwriters, I think they can be a very valuable technique.

Edited by Lazz
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A cliche is a cliche because it is used a lot, and because it works. IMNSHO: if it works, use it - but if you're in doubt - remove it. Personally I have often successfully tried rewriting cliches slightly, or using them in an off-context as a means for itself.

Examples (which I just thought of now): "In your hair tonight", "I glow you" (meaning, you're so hot).

I often tend to doubt and remove plain cliches when I otherwise come to use them in a lyric.

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Good insights from Lazz. The bottom line is that a lyric needs to be written and heard on it's own merits, and not on pre-conceived notions of its component phrases. It's also important to remember that reading a lyric is different than listening to one. It's much easier to be critical when reading, where you can stop and examine a word or phrase at length. When listening, we are carried in the flow, and the music is an integral part of the phrasing, and therefore the meaning and context of the words.

The purpose of learning the characteristics and uses of the minute components of lyrics is not to be able to write 'perfectly', but to develop better instincts for what works, and what sounds good. We learn to forget. But in doing so, our instincts have changed, hopefully for the better.

American football provides an apt analogy. It's an incredibly complex sport from the coaches POV, and the players need to learn all of the nuances of their respective positions, not so they can think each play through clearly, but so they can react properly with no thought at all. One of the greatest running backs of all time was Marcus Allen. In an interview years after his retirement, he said that what enabled him to be so successful is that he could line up for a play, and know what every player on the field was going to do. That's 21 other people he was tracking in a matter of a few seconds. He had learned the elements of football so well, he didn't even have to think about it, and could just rely on his lightning fast instincts to guide him. It may not be coincidental that, even as a young man, I always thought of his running style as 'poetry in motion'.

Edited by Carnival
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Jes' a thought. I consider cliches to be a useful form of cultural shorthand. Since the purpose of a song is in most instances to communicate, being able to express an idea in a frame of reference you are pretty sure is shared by a lot of your listeners is potentially a positive thing. Of course one doesn't want to repeat what's already been done before, and done well--but it's the *idea* I don't want to repeat. Any tools I can use in the service of presenting an innovative idea are fair game, as far as I am concerned.

I got rid of my aversion to cliches by writing a song that was entirely cliches. As far as I knew, it had never been done before. I took the Plain English Society's list of "Worst Cliches of 2003" (I am on some weird mailing lists) and made sure I included every one. And a bunch more, of course. It was a love song, of course (a cliche in itself), and a waltz--again, of course. Hight "Twenty-Four Seven." It's on my Soundclick page somewhere. Recorded it for my wife for our anniversary--and she still hasn't said whether she liked it or not.

I do perform it. Audiences like it. And while I'm not about to do *that* again, cliches don't bother me any more.


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