What is it about a lyric that makes the message universal? What is it that makes that message unique? So often, when I’m sent lyrics to critique, reading through them I find they “sound” the same as the last set of lyrics sent to me, but by a different writer! How can this be?
I remember being a teenager and coming to the realization that my thoughts about this world were not so much my own, they were thoughts that I’d picked up from my parents, my teachers and other mature individuals whom I respected. What a realization! It depressed me! I decided that I had to make time to come to my own conclusions about everything, but that was a pretty ominous task. This is the problem I find with newer writers…they are repeating lines they’ve heard a million times…cliché’s some of them, but others just ordinary, uninteresting phrases that make your eyes glaze over every time you read them. They have trouble coming up with a new way of saying something old…well, no kidding! When I wrote my first few songs…maybe the first couple of hundred!…I did the same thing. Not only were my thoughts not my own, neither were my lyrics.
The first hint of what’s coming is when a writer says…”Without the music, the lyrics don’t sound as good, so you should hear them with the music!” If you feel that way about your lyrics, take it as a sign that they are not finished yet! The age old argument, that a song isn’t completely understood without the music, may be true on some level. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the lyrics may be weak…no music, no matter how wonderful, actually improves the state of the lyrics!
So how do you uncover your own individual thoughts, your unique perspective of the world around you? One of the keys is in your unique experiences…your life is different from many others lives in many ways. The things that happen to you, although they may have something in common with others, also have elements that are different.
For instance…say your whole family goes on a picnic, and the usual things happen…someone brings a football and the men play on a field…people bring baskets of food and drinks. The kids scream, people plaster sunscreen on. These are the common elements of a family picnic. But what might be different from others? That you have an Uncle Derek who has a gold front tooth that he flashes everytime he gets a touchdown. That your mother always brings tunafish sandwiches and makes you eat them before you can have the potato chips…that your cousin smuggled beer in a gingerale bottle because it’s almost the same colour…
The family picnic experience is common, the characters and events are not. When you begin to look for these little things that make your life unique, you begin to uncover your own voice in your lyric writing. Over time, it becomes easier to identify the interesting stuff! You didn’t just wear a suit to the prom…you wore a dark blue suit and the collar of the shirt scratched you in the same place all night every time you danced with this one particular girl…there you go. Later on in this series of articles, I go into more detail…about detail!
Eventually, you may find yourself INVENTING these details because your creative mind begins to feel freer to do so. My writing has developed to a point now where I can mix reality with imagination…sometimes I do that to “beef” a song up. People often ask me what elements about my songwriting are true and what I’ve made up! I almost never tell them! But I think I’ve finally begun to think, and write, for myself…