Meaning and Metaphor

© I.Woloshen

Recently, someone in rec.music.makers.songwriting posted a question as to why many of the songwriters in the group didn’t seem to make much use of metaphors in their lyrics. Actually, I’ve seen them used quite a bit…but I do think that some writers are intimidated (even by the word!) and don’t know how beautifully it can paint a picture if used well. I’ll try to give some examples as I go, but first I’ll give you the definition if you’re not quite sure what a metaphor is:

In the Webster’s Dictionary, “metaphor” is defined as: “Transference of a term to something it does not literally apply to…”. Probably the most familiar setting of a metaphor would be with the words “like a” as in “I ran like a bat out of hell”. Someone recently pointed out to me that this is more accurately called a “simile” which is defined as “comparison, especially in poetry”. To insert “like a” does technically make a difference in how you define the term, however, the idea is the same. Here’s a line from a Shawn Colvin song called “Steady On” on her album of the same name…

‘I am weaving
Like a drunkard
Like a balloon up in the air
I am needing a puncture
And someone to point me somewhere’

What’s nice about these similes is that she carries the image through to the rest of this verse…you can really let your head go off in some interesting directions lyrically when you get a vision of something you’re trying to describe. The fact that she’s weaving like a drunkard could imply that she’s admiting to irresponsibility or being out of control…the “puncture” line seems to imply that she really needs a dose of reality. The interesting thing about similes and metaphors is that although they may be trying to evoke something specific, they can, in fact, take the listener on a very personal trip. I’ve found many times that people have interpreted my songs in their own way. I like the idea of someone being able to put their own stamp on something I’m expressing. You can’t really be too inspired with lines like “You broke my heart” after you’ve experienced some truly fascinating lyric-writing. Here’s an example in an early Joni Mitchell song called “You Turn Me On (I’m A Radio)”(definitely a metaphor!!):

‘Oh honey you turn me on, I’m a radio
I’m a country station, I’m a little bit corny
I’m a wildwood flower waving for you
I’m a broadcasting tower waving for you’

Here she personifies what she is describing…I can only imagine her getting into the visuals of some small Saskatchewan town (in the Canadian prairies where she grew up) pulling out and playing with all of these images. This is only one of many, many examples of Joni’s craftiness and creative use of imagery. She has the uncanny knack of stuffing a novel full of images all in one line. Everytime I go back and listen to a song of hers I’ve heard many times, I find some new dimension to it, a new meaning.

Which brings me to the “meaning” part of songwriting. Cliché’s are one thing, but over-used phrases as the “You broke my heart” line above, really don’t have any life of their own. They don’t evoke emotion, which is a very powerful tool for a songwriter. How can you bring your song to life, and give it deeper meaning? One way is to listen to examples of others who have a knack in this area. Another is to try free-association when you’re writing. Don’t worry about the meter or anything else, take the line and sit down and come up with as many images you can around it. For example, Joni’s trick of being a “wildflower waving for you”…the wildflower waving is a great visual, and the fact that it’s waving “for you” and not “at you”, gives it a supportive, positive feel. All that in one little phrase!

In a song I wrote (uh-oh, she’s getting desperate now!) called “Fusion & Fire”, I had alot of fun playing with metaphors using the universe (literally) and planets as a theme for long-lasting love. I also used Joni’s trick of personification in that one. Mary-Chapin Carpenter wrote a brilliant song called “This Shirt”…in it she basically used the shirt as a time-reference for a love affair, where it travelled, how it was used as a pillow, the sleeve rolled up with a pack of cigarettes, how she wears it now when she’s doing the housework…from a stinky old shirt, you get so much! Here’s a bridge from a Shawn Colvin song called “Set The Prairie On Fire” from her “Fat City” album. This bridge gets to me everytime I hear it…it just screams passion:

‘In the cool dusk of horses
Through the rusted wires of sleep
With our arms around midnight
We’re headed for release
We go riding in the wind
We go riding in the dark
Riding, riding…oooh’

Now, don’t you wish you could fire up those kinds of images? Don’t ever compare yourself with others, that’s a waste of time because you are unique. But DO admire others clever crafting, reading or listening to it could put you in exactly the space you need to be more creative with your own writing. And try a metaphor today!

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