You’ve just sat up half the night fine-tuning and agonising over your latest lyrical piece de resistance, but reading it back in the cold light of day you discover that what your previous night’s magical inspiration reads roughly like this:
Your love is like a platitude …
I Love you and you love me,
Love is forever, can’t you see?
Call on me, I’m down on my knees,
Together babe we can be free.
Like the rain on a mountain top,
My love for you will never stop.
I know I’ll be rambling for years
With nothing but my fears and lonely tears.
I think of you each lonely night
My angel of the starlight.
How I cried with foolish pride
Without you there beside my side.
I saw you walking down the street
Hoping that one day we’d meet;
When you walked into the room
You picked me up out of the gloom.
You said you would be my wife
When you came into my life.
All that we have left is strife;
Cold as ice, cuts like a knife.
I want you, I need you, I love you;
Hold me close, my dream come true.
We used to make love all night long
And feel our hearts beating as one.
You looked at me with eyes of fire,
And told sweet lies of love’s desire,
You ripped apart my broken heart
And now I don’t know where to start.
I’ll be riding out of Georgia
With that railtrack on my mind,
Gambling with the queen of hearts
Coz you know love is blind.
Believe in love and feel the pain.
Baby take me back again.
We could be much more than friends;
Keep it real, don’t let it end.
You know I’m lost without you
After all that we’ve been through.
Let’s get together and be one;
We should be having fun in the sun.
Ooh babe, all my love is more than words can say …
Ooh babe, I believe in you …
If that sounds like one of your songs, you need help. If you think that sounds like a perfectly good lyric, you’re in serious trouble. You also need to get a life and move to a different state.
The world is full of drunk and depressing Country and Western ballads; songs about how great it is to rock’n’roll or whatever it is you like to put your hands in the air and shake your thing to; or how emotionally disturbed or rich and famous you pretend to be. If you want to stand out from the crowd, you need to edit your work.
When you’re writing new material, you don’t need your internal editor to get in the way. We all tend to go for rather obvious rhymes when we’re first downloading a lyric from the ethers. That’s fine. The trick is to go over it afterwards with a critical eye and do something about the bloopers.
What is a cliché?
A cliché is anything that has been overused, recycled too many times or done to death. It is stereotypical or banal. The first time someone used the line it was genius, but that was in thirteen-canteen – now it just sounds lazy and insincere. Many proverbs, aphorisms and popular turns of phrase come into this category. Sometimes they’re unavoidable, occasionally they can be appropriate, but rarely are they a master stroke of song-fu.
Generally, it is wise to avoid writing about:
Combinations of weather, elements and geographical features: rain, storms, clouds, snow; mountains, rivers, valleys, streams, oceans, and so on. Crossing or climbing one or more of these to get to your love-object. Love being deeper than the ocean, higher than the sky or whatever. Comparing their body parts to beautiful things in nature. Any reference to angels or hearts. Travelling or rambling from town to town. Either in a train or car with your baby, or alone, searching for, or running away from your baby. Use of the word baby. Gambling. Rolling of the dice in any way, shape, or form. Ace of spades, queen of hearts, shooting crap. Weapons: usually guns or knives. Anything about how heart wrenching it is when they leave and perhaps take some part of you away when they go and so on and such forth.
Now, I know what you’re thinking:
River Deep, Mountain High,
Walk On By,
Whole Lotta Love,
Highway Star songs like that are classics!?! Sure, but they’ve been done. That lamp-post has been pissed on by every dog in town. Your task is to think of something better, different or funnier.
How to avoid clichés
The first great tip is: get clear what your song is actually about. Know what you’re trying to say. Rip out any lines that don’t make sense or add to the emotional build-up.
The best way to avoid clichés is to write from your own personal experience with as much specific detail as possible. Don’t just hold your lover’s hand, stroke their nervous fingers with your awkward shaking palms. Or something better than that. Authenticity cannot be bought or learned; it is more about what you don’t do than what you do. Sure, write from the heart, but write about what you know. Real life often juxtaposes ideas and events in a way that you would rarely imagine. Ruth is much stranger than Richard.
Elvis Costello revitalised tired old aphorisms by turning them round on themselves:
A death worse than fate,
Your mouth is made up but your mind is undone. Diane Warren turned round a worn-out phrase and wrote
Unbreak My Heart. Talking Heads turned round the entire concept of Joni Mitchell’s
Big Yellow Taxi in
(Nothing But) Flowers. The trick is to think of it first.
Find a new angle
Say you want to write about an event that occurred at night. You just happened to be in Georgia and it was actually raining. And you really were headed for San Fran with a floral hair-do. You are going to have to approach this from a different angle if you don’t want to labelled as a lyrical lamer. Try writing it from someone else’s point of view. Relocate the action. Placing a well-worn concept into a new context or juxtaposing it with other familiar themes can often rehydrate those stale old chestnuts.
Learn to use a thesaurus
Songs written using a thesaurus or rhyming dictionary can often sound mechanical and contrived, but if your heart-felt sentiment has just come out sounding like Phil Collins or The Black Eyed Peas, get a thesaurus and find some different words that say the same thing. It’s good practice to avoid repeating words – the above example repeats the word
lonely in close succession. As well as criminally over-using
heart. Find an alternative.
It doesn’t have to rhyme
Or scan for that matter. Lyrics with monotonous rhythms and rhyming patterns tend to sound trite whatever you do. This is often exacerbated by using bad grammar or street slang in order to make the line fit. Let the melody do the work. Setting up the expectation of a rhyme and then failing to fulfil it can have great comic and dramatic effect. Try using an odd number of syllables, learn about assonance, alliteration and internal rhymes. Try cutting it into pieces and rearranging them. Alternatively, rewrite the whole thing as prose the way you would say it. Or the way someone witty and clever would say it.
Listen to classic songs within the genre. Make a note of what is considered great and what is generally reckoned to be awful. Bear in mind there is such a thing as so-bad-it’s-good, the prime example of which is
MacArthur Park by Jimmy Webb. This is actually a classic, but you’re probably not going to get away with it. If Bob Dylan used the line, you must not. Not even as a
quote – don’t do it, think of something else, try to think of another way to say the same thing.
Break the rules
Never listen to advice. It’s your song. If you write from the heart, put some effort into your choice of words and then sing it like you really mean it, you will probably get away with it. You may even end up composing a classic – great songs have been known to just download themselves from the ethers if you get yourself out of the way enough. That said, most people have to work at it to a greater or lesser extent.