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Acceptable /unacceptable Elements In Lyric Writing


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I propose that we collectively identify and discuss the merits of different writing elements that impact a lyrics clarity of message and story, in an effort to effect a style, build a mood, etc,

Here are examples to start things off:

Metaphor. What does it take to use it effectively?

What is cryptic writing? I would say it is writing that conjures ideas that are hinted at through phrases that, by themselves, have no apparent meaning. 'Yes' and other groups have made a career of it.

What other writing elements are commonly criticized for obscuring the clarity of the story or message, that may have justification in their lyrical use?

At what point does poetic license make a song more effectivel, and at what point does it become inappropriate?

Do we fall into the trap of reviewing songs for their clarity of message at the expense of their lyrical beauty, which is only revealed when set to music? Are there a lot of successful songs that don't have a clear theme, message and story? Are these usually performed by the writer? Or are they portable, and can still be effectively sung by others?

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  • 2 weeks later...

Carnival

This is a great thread. I think the only reason no-one has replied to it before now is that you pose some pretty difficult questions! I have spent the last ten days trying to find the time to reply to it. There is a similar thread started by Jan.

These are issues I spend a lot of time thinking about. To start, and to be a tad controversial, I'm going to start with one factor that I think is important for lyrical impact. It's really important, if you are submitting lyrics in writing for review, that you can at least string a sentence together and spell. I'm not referring to typos, I mean that if you aspire to write something that other people can at least understand, let alone relate to and appreciate, they should not have to expend energy on working out whether you meant e.g. 'their' or 'there', 'where' or 'were'

The great thing about a forum like this is that anyone can have a go, give and get feedback. Generally most of the lyrics posted here at least show promise and there are not too many examples of what I am describing. The focus should be on the lyric more than the writer but the writer changes that focus, to their detriment, if they either do not check their work before submission or they don't have the basic literacy to make their point. So I guess that I am saying that not anyone can write a good lyric although that shouldn't stop anyone aspiring to do it. It may be they have to work on their syntax, grammar and spelling before they attempt to articulate their ideas.

I suspect I am going to be in a minority of one with this viewpoint!

I'll post more thoughts as they occur.

Edited by Alistair
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I suspect I am going to be in a minority of one with this viewpoint!

You are not alone, Al.

I am a great fan of syntax, grammar and spelling.

I figure anyone wanting to write needs to learn language.

But Norman asks some tough questions as usual.

Useful to ponder but impossible to answer.

cryptic writing?

My favourite cryptic writers I guess would be Donald Fagan and Walter Becker.

Dylan often gets pretty deeply cryptic too, but without the musical sophistication.

Other examples are legion and obscurantist styles are just as often praised as questioned.

I do think effectiveness can lie in their ability to sustain interpretations from the listener.

I don’t find that appropriateness can be measured – just responded to.

A matter of taste – and convincing delivery.

Do we fall into the trap of reviewing songs for their clarity of message at the expense of their lyrical beauty, which is only revealed when set to music?

This happens too easily with me, I think.

A recent personally salutory example would be Lyricallies’ ‘Late Night Alibi’ – where my initial inability to parse shape and structure satisfactorily (in terms of my own rooted aesthetic pretensions) was abandoned immediately I heard the whole song unit as musical performance.

Are there a lot of successful songs that don't have a clear theme, message and story? Are these usually performed by the writer? Or are they portable, and can still be effectively sung by others?

A resounding ‘Yes!’ to the first question…. with an ‘Often’, followed by a ‘Sometimes’, in response to the two subsequent posers. ‘MacArthur Park’ is an extravagant jumble of utter nonsense, for instance, and became very successful. But the writer – Jimmy Webb – didn’t perform it. Due to its unexpected success in the hands of actor Richard Harris it became a number that others wanted to tackle and was added to the repertoires of unlikely others such as Donna Summer and Frank Sinatra.

‘Let It Be’ is another interesting example. Don’t know if people are generally aware of this, but it was written for Aretha Franklin. She duly recorded but held up the release because she couldn’t really get a handle on what it was saying – no clear theme, message, or story – and Jerry Wexler lost the rights to first release. Not until hearing the Beatles own release was she finally able to figure a way of getting a hold of meaning, and eventually let it out on 1970’s ‘This Girl’s In Love With You’.

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You are not alone, Al.

I am a great fan of syntax, grammar and spelling.

I figure anyone wanting to write needs to learn language.

I agree - no-one would accept a bum note on a guitar or a stick-man in a figurative painting, so why accept incorrect language?

As for cryptic writing, one of my favorites must be Genesis with Gabriel - where you can grasp the meaning if you read it closely. A great example is "Carpet Crawlers" on the "Lamb" album.

These Carpet Crawlers crawl through a red ochre corridor - which is the first clue. The other clue: you gotta get in to get out ... the song is about you before you met the egg in your mother.

The rest of that album is a testament to cryptic writing - it has a liner story which follows the lyrics putting it all together. There are tons of references, metaphors and images.

For my part I usually tend to be a bit more clear - but not always: Vultures of Culture on my last album is about music critics, for example.

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Would the use of the cliché' fall into this discussion. I've noticed i use a good amount of them in lyrics. I write with my ear and even though the words seem to flow well together, when I sit back afterwards and read over the lyric, the mood falls at times. I couldn't for the life of me figure out what was happening. Even though the message was clear, it ended up uninteresting. Yet it still sounded good. My mind would just veer off for a while, and if no spark ever came back, would stay gone.

I get what's happening, but feel like the bleeding is so bad in some of the lyrics it would take a complete rewrite or scrapping altogether to bring it up to speed. See there, everyone knows what I'm talking about. It sounds good. But it completely washes out the sentence. It doesn't make the sentence memorable, and I think that's the problem in some lyrics.

Or, does the underlayment of music carry clichés onto the next verse with little noticeable falter as well? I would think that if it falls with no music, it would fall with music, but as I am not a musician, and have yet to collaborate with one, I don't have any experience with the marriage of the two aspects other than the fact that I have listened to music all my life.

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  • 2 weeks later...

One thing that is extremely clichéd and should be avoided is ANY REFERENCE TO BURNING LOVE LETTERS/PHOTOGRAPHS/MEMORIES. It seems to be the most overused metaphor in the music industry. In fact, almost any reference to fire has to be carefully thought out because it can very easily sound cliché.

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Someone mentioned somewhere that lyrics mentioning pick-up trucks are cliched. But there are a hell of a lot of pick up trucks around and they are common to many people's experience. So if lyrics are trying to connect with people, and communicating a shared experience is a way of doing that, does that make the common experience a cliche?

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no-one would accept a bum note on a guitar

I wish that were true, Finn.

Tuning clearly doesn’t appear a hugely necessary priority for many successful bands.

ANY REFERENCE TO BURNING LOVE LETTERS/PHOTOGRAPHS/MEMORIES.... seems to be the most overused metaphor in the music industry.

This is something I have never personally come across.

Maybe I listen to the wrong stuff.

Would the use of the cliché' fall into this discussion.

Yes.

Cliché is an essential tool for the lyricist.

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Someone mentioned somewhere that lyrics mentioning pick-up trucks are cliched. But there are a hell of a lot of pick up trucks around and they are common to many people's experience. So if lyrics are trying to connect with people, and communicating a shared experience is a way of doing that, does that make the common experience a cliche?

Only if you burn the fecker!

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