Finding Great Lyrics
by Chris Porter
For many consumers of music, lyrics sometimes don’t seem to be that important. But for the songwriters and artists, at least, they can be absolutely critical.
For many artists, the whole purpose of becoming an artist in the first place was to express themselves AS an artist, in their own way, and, more importantly, in their own words.
But no one becomes a fantastic or insightful lyricist overnight. Like so many disciplines, you have to put the hours in to become an expert – and that requires experience, patience and time. You can take shortcuts, of course, like collaborating with more experienced writers…
But if you can’t do that, or don’t want to, or while you are honing your craft, you may wish to record and release material to the waiting world, so here are some guidelines to assist in the sometimes sticky selection method.
1. Choose subject matter that compliments your music
If you write your own melodies then you will already be dealing in lyrical melodic shapes. You will almost certainly have an opinion on the type of music you are creating and are therefore likely to select lyrical subject matter that is appropriate for the musical backdrop that you have created. Loving words can be matched to ballad music and angry, threatening language knits more easily with thrashy, energetic riffing and heavy drums. Unless you are wanting to…
2. Create a deliberate tension
Some artists have a very specific agenda, and the more passionately they follow their creative muse, the more outlandish or outrageous their choices can get. It’s wholly possible to mix a very personal and tender, delicate set of lyrics with thrash metal – why not? If you love the idea of a backdrop of music that is the aural equivalent of Armageddon being accompanied by beautiful rhyming couplets, there is nothing and no-one that can tell you you’re wrong. However…
3.Think about what your audience wants
If you’re creating music for your own entertainment or satisfaction, then that’s great, and anything goes. Because YOU are the audience, and the audience is going to be happy. However, if you have aspirations to sell your music, or have a legion of fans to keep happy, you will need to think about whether your selection is ticking that box. Yes, it’s a beautiful lyric about your dog dying, but does anybody else want to hear about that? Really? Think about the subjects you would want YOUR heroes to cover in their songs…
4. Does the song title look good on a tee-shirt?
In these tricky times, merchandise is more important for a musician’s income than ever. Yes, you can view this point as a deeply cynical one, but it’s still worth mentioning. Does the song’s title (or a cool line or two from within the song) have the potential to be a quotable fashion accessory? Which leads neatly on to this more artistic consideration…
5. What is memorable about the lyric?
Come on, if you’re looking for lyrics, you’re going to have an opinion about them. If a title has drawn you in, and the synopsis of the lyric has still got you gripped, read through the whole thing and then ask yourself if there are any memorable lines, images or ideas that have piqued your interest. Be ruthless and be honest! There are thousands of lyrics out there waiting to be covered, so you should definitely do your homework and look for a great one, rather than ‘That’ll do’. Is there some clever wordplay, a joke, an unusual word or two? Something that jumps out and demands attention? Think about defining moments in music, such as Toni Braxton’s ‘Unbreak My Heart’, where a new set of words were invented to re-tell a very familiar narrative. Or Panic at the Disco’s witty line “I’m not as think as you drunk I am”. Or even Silento’s ‘Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)’.
6. Is there some repetition and an obvious chorus within the lyric?
There doesn’t have to be, of course, but most popular music relies on repetition, as history has shown us that music consumers will want to hear a great hook a few times within the space the same song. If you can’t easily identify a chorus option within a lyric, check very carefully for rhythmic or other clues as to how it can be performed to be repeated in a catchy and memorable way…
7. What tone are you going for?
Subject matter is one thing, but the tone of a piece of lyric writing is just as important. Do you want a narrative, story-telling style and tone? Or a deeply emotional, soul-searching exploration of feelings? Or a witty, cerebral piece of social commentary to set to music? And in any and all of these instances, it’s absolutely essential to select a lyric that suits the artist perfectly.
Because when considering any of the questions above, it’s worth remembering that AUTHENTICITY is the single most important consideration you can have when making your selections. It’s all very well to love or admire a piece of lyric writing, but if it doesn’t suit the artist in question it runs the very real risk of undermining them AS an artist. Poor song selection has ended careers. So while you’re busy choosing, keep asking this: would actually say/perform this? Does it suit their persona? Is it a good fit? Does it enhance their brand/compliment their character? If the answer to any of these questions is no, move on to the next. A great lyric will only lead to a great song for the artist if it’s a great fit!