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Unrecognised genius

Alistair S

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This is something I wrote a while ago and it appears elsewhere on the site (but it's pinned, which means it is invisible to the average human). If you are reading this I appreciate that you must be bored out of your skull and searching for something anything to fill the soulless void of your existence so I do hope that it at least entertains a little - or maybe acts as an emollient while you wait for your wife/husband to finish doing whatever the fuck they need to do when it's time to go out and do something a little more interesting than the mundane routine that we all fall into eventually...

 

Here goes ...

...

So, you’ve listened to songs for a long time now and you’ve decided to write lyrics of your own. It doesn’t look hard. Hell, it can’t be hard – just look at some of the stuff that gets recorded!

What’s more, you are a damaged individual. It may be that you had a bad childhood, you were excluded at school, your marriage failed, you can’t get laid, you had problems with substance abuse, and any or all of myriad reasons that people decide to write songs - choosing that path from all the other masochistic pastimes they could choose.

 

You see, what that dreadful former life made you was ... a keen observer. You are a walking empath. You can see the big picture and the tiny details of people’s lives. You don’t judge – oh, no! You bear witness to the fumbling, daily slapstick and you can relay truths about life and the pitiful vanities of our existence with good humour, wit and kindness, lending insight and wisdom that helps us to laugh at ourselves and love one another just a little more than we otherwise would. You are a latter-day saint and a poet and a warrior, all rolled into one (yes, women can be warriors too).

 

But, more than that, it made you want them to understand you. Admire you. Whatever. They have to think you are pretty goddamn cool. That’s fo’ sho’.

 

So you write. And you find that it’s not so easy to do all that. In fact, it’s hard to do all that - in 3 minutes, especially.

 

And people aren’t quite as bowled over by your genius as you expected. And, because you are a damaged individual (hell, we all are), you don’t like that one ... little ... bit.

 

Help is at hand.

 

Here’s a handy list of the 10 things you do wrong when you write a lyric. I’m guilty of all of them (sometimes in the same lyric! I'm that talented).

 

There are more, but 10 is a catchy number ! Which is why I wrote 11. I despise “catchy”.

 

1. You use the wrong pronoun

You visualise who is talking to who in the song itself - and you also take into account the fact that, when the song is sung, there is a singer talking to an audience. Go, you!

 

However, if you paid too much attention to the latter, you still got it wrong. “I said this and she said that” can sound like a whine or a rant (see point 7, below). It also doesn’t really help the audience to connect. If it was simply “you said that”, it would work so much better and be more immediate.

 

Wait. You went for third person.

 

Third person can work for stories (but the story HAS to be interesting,and yours wasn't - not really). In all other circumstances, you need a good reason to move away from 1st and/or second person.

Mind you, 1st person can get you into trouble with point 7, too.

 

But let’s talk about that later. The point is, you chose the wrong pronoun(s).

 

2. You use the wrong tense

Past tense, in particular, is boring.

 

Some parts of the song can be in the past tense but it needs to be made relevant to the present and, ideally, we would have a time progression that would lead at least to the present and, possibly, into the future.

 

Stories can be past tense – but are they REALLY interesting? If not, don’t bother singing them to me. What if they were related to the present, at least in the bridge?

 

It would be slightly less boring, at least.

 

Or you could make the story funny. That works in whatever tense.

 

3. You lose rhythm by cramming words in

If you don’t understand meter, maybe this thread will help (but read it later. I'm talking.).

 

Even if you do understand it, aren’t there times when you try and cram in two syllables where only one fits?

 

People will say it’s OK. Singers will even cram it in for you. Friends will say it sounds OK.

 

Songwriters will say nothing, and simply be glad they weren’t that guy. Do you want to be that guy?

 

4. You don’t change rhythm between sections

You have a great rhythm running through the song. Still running. Getting bored with it now. Where’s the chorus? Oh! We had it already and I didn't even notice! It had the same rhythm. Please give me a bridge. And change the damned rhythm!

 

Words make rhythms. Words can force a change in rhythm. If the words don’t do it, the musician (maybe you) has to be much more innovative in changing rhythm and/or melody than he/she would otherwise need to be. Think of the musicians :)

 

5. You don’t grab attention early enough

Your lyric has a killer line (or twist or idea or something). The trouble is that it’s in the third verse or the bridge.

 

People won’t listen that long. It’s like a joke that needs over a minute to explain before it can be told. The listener turns off.

 

You have maybe 30 seconds to grab some sort of attention – give a surprising line or an idea that draws attention. It needs to be in the first fifteen seconds of singing.

 

You then have another short space of time before you need another – and it’s not long.

 

6. You forgot to write the first verse

The listener doesn’t know who these people are. You do. So you wrote the meat of the song assuming they did too. You started with the second verse. We often write the second verse first. It needs a first verse to set up things and invite the listener in. It’s your introduction, if you like.

 

And see point 5.

 

7. You are preaching (or venting or whining) - and you aren’t being funny about it

I don’t want to be preached at, whined at, or vented at – unless you make me laugh. I bet you don't want that either, do you? No!

 

So don’t write songs that whine, preach or vent. Simple. Unless they make us laugh.

 

I mentioned something in the part about using the wrong pronoun about using 1st person. A lot of songs written in the first person can be whiny, venting or preachy if we aren’t careful.

 

So are a lot of songs about “them”, “They did this, they did that ... they are bad”.

 

It’s a delicate line to tread. A confessional song can work but it has to show the singer as insightful and sensitive – not as a bad person, or a whiner.

 

A song has to make the singer look good. See point 11, below. So, be careful.

 

8. You included details – but you included the wrong details

So, you know you need details (it said so in a book) and so you put them into your song.

 

What colour is the sun? What about the grass? Let’s say “golden” and “emerald” because “yellow” and “green” sounds boring, right?

 

Wrong. The colour is boring, period. It adds nothing to how I feel about what’s happening. In fact, adjectives should be used sparingly. Just find better words, damn you. English has so many of them - for a reason. Mind you, only use words when you know what they mean. Dictionaries help.

 

Details are what bring a picture to life or, better still, an emotion to life. They aren’t what’s in the picture. They are the parts that show how we feel about the picture.

 

They are metaphors for feelings – or they are nothing. They can be sounds, smells or objects or textures. Or they can be one of those that prompt others.

 

“Car wheels on a gravel road”. I can hear them. Now, what do they make me feel?

 

9. You use too many words

What it says above. Trim them. ‘Nuff said.

 

10. Your rhymes lack reason

You paint yourself into a corner with a rhyme scheme and now you have to find a rhyme for “Drove me in his truck”. You don’t want to use the obvious rhyme so you decide to rhyme with “luck” instead. And you contort things a bit and get a line that kind of half-works and then you convince yourself that it’s fine.

 

There is always that one line you aren’t satisfied with in a song, isn’t there? Maybe more than one?

 

Why not just change the word "truck"? Or the whole verse? Or the whole song? You made the corner you are painted into. You can un-paint it.

 

And never (never!) start turning sentences around into "yoda-speak" to get a rhyme. It's just crap.

 

11. You don’t write for women

All songs are written for women. Even songs that are written for male singers are written for women. They are written so that the singer can look good to women. Don’t believe me? Fair enough. But don’t say I never told you.

 

The only exception is that small demographic of teenagers (of all ages) who wear black T-shirts and listen to doom-laden heavy metal genres in their bedrooms at full volume. Guess what? You can’t write songs for them anyway. They are either writing their own or they can’t hear you over the screaming of Megablood Death Spasm (or whoever they are listening too). If they do show any interest it is only because they want you to give some attention to their own written-down angst stuff (i.e. lyrics, but not as we know them, Jim).

 

So, leaving them aside (it’s for the best, trust me) – all songs are written for women.

 

So write songs for women.

 

If you don’t know how to do that, ask one (preferably not your mother). If you are one, ask yourself what you want to hear when you are stressed out. If you don't know any women, buy a black T-shirt.

 

I hate rules. Are these rules? Not at all. Songs can work perfectly well without them – but they are less likely to do so outside of a particular setting.

 

That setting might be a late evening after a few drinks. It might be in front of a group of friends or family. Whatever the setting, it will be in a situation where the song fits the environment or suits the mood the listener is in – but only at that moment, in that place. Only there.

 

But ... but ... don’t the songs you love have the power to change the environment? Don’t they change your mood when you hear them?

 

Yes, they do. But they don’t do that by accident, and most listeners aren’t too forgiving. Give them an excuse not to listen and they will take it. A flighty, fickle fiend is what an average listener is. Including us.

 

This list could also be headed “10 excuses a listener can use to stop listening”. Except there are 11 of them!

 

Sue me.

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Great article & useful tips! 

 

Quote

I’m guilty of all of them (sometimes in the same lyric! I'm that talented).

Absolutely! ;)

And, as I imagine most writers do, I have a tendency to relate suggestions to my own creations.

Taking things a step further, I thought it might be interesting to choose a specific work.

So I did..something I entered in last month's contest ("The Usual Suspects").

 

In one screen I opened a copy of the lyric...in a 2nd your article.

I went straight down your article point-by-point, examining the lyric according to each criteria.

Best I can see, the "The Usual Suspect" scores 11 out of 11...possessing no blatant examples of the characteristics you cautioned against.

Grant it, being completely objective about one's own work is a tall order, but I did the best I could. :blush:

Sometimes violation can be a matter of degree, but I couldn't find anything I considered flagrant.

 

Thing is, the same lyric scored 5.6 out of a possible 10 in our Muse contest. :blink:

*For anyone wondering...I'm not whining about the contest placement. I simply thought this would make a good case-in-point.

Obviously, as you stated in your article introduction, there are additional factors to be considered in creating an effective lyric.

I can only assume that my lyric missed a few of them.

But there's also a possibility of incurring unintended consequences...specifically relating to point #11.

"The Usual Suspects" was written with the feminine gender in mind.

It's meant to be an introspective examination of the typical causes-of & circumstances leading up to the break-up of a relationship.

Doesn't exactly sound like a "guy thing" does it? :rolleyes: Nah...way to touchy-feely for most guys!

Here's where that unintended consequences thing can jump up & bite ya' in the ass.

Guess who the contest entrants were?

Yep, that's right....100% GUYS. 

Based on that, I'll hazard a guess that the vast majority of voters (scorers) were guys.

 

So, was gender differential enough to account for the difference in scoring?

While we can't for certain, I'm guessing it didn't help.

Reactions to that song tend to be more polarized than most. Over the years, people have either loved it, or it's gone right by them & had no impact at all.

More than 1 person has gone out of their way to tell me it's their absolute favorite out of everything I've ever written.

Care to guess whether they were male or female? :D

 

So what's the overall point of this long-ass response? LOL

I guess it's to suggest that intended application matters. In other words, your specific reason for writing the song (lyric).

Does it wider commercial applications, or is it being created for a much narrower audience?

Sadly enough, what helps you with one, may end up hurting you with the other.

 

Again. good write, enjoyed it!

 

Tom

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Of course, there isn't a much narrower audience than the Lyrics Contest!!! :D

 

Just kidding ...

 

i wonder though - is a polarised reaction preferable to a "that was OK" reaction? Probably (imho) :) 

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Hi Alistair

from you i never expect a ( dho)

All the best

Mike

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Quote

i wonder though - is a polarised reaction preferable to a "that was OK" reaction? Probably (imho)

Definitely..I prefer really polarised scores for my songs in the song comps than a bunch of 6s n 7s.............8s n 9s n 2s n 3s much better !

Found someone had "rated" my On The Way Up album n gave it 3 stars..Was really depressed about it..Would've much preferred a 1 star if i'm honest

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Enjoyed this and is so true .. Guilty 😕 

 

take care

Theresa 

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So does this list not apply to me? 😀 I was the black t-shirt wearing teenager in my bedroom listening to heavy metal. Not megablood but definitely a lot of Megadeth. Now I’m a black t-shirt wearing adult. And I actually listened to some Megadeth today. 😀 Alistair, do me a favor. Check out the song “Holy Wars” by Megadeth and get back to me with a reaction. I know this doesn’t have much to do with your post. But I’d love to hear what your thoughts are. It’s pretty amazing. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Even though it’s something you would probably never listen to. I’m guessing tip #11 isn’t used in this one. Maybe? PM me if you don’t want to leave a reaction here. Thanks!

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1 hour ago, Onewholovesrock said:

So does this list not apply to me? 😀 I was the black t-shirt wearing teenager in my bedroom listening to heavy metal. Not megablood but definitely a lot of Megadeth. Now I’m a black t-shirt wearing adult. And I actually listened to some Megadeth today. 😀 Alistair, do me a favor. Check out the song “Holy Wars” by Megadeth and get back to me with a reaction. I know this doesn’t have much to do with your post. But I’d love to hear what your thoughts are. It’s pretty amazing. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Even though it’s something you would probably never listen to. I’m guessing tip #11 isn’t used in this one. Maybe? PM me if you don’t want to leave a reaction here. Thanks!

That reminds me of this video that a childhood friend sent me some time back. Long after I stopped listening to metal, Holy Wars was still a really fun song to play. Somewhere, somewhere is a video of me and a drummer/singer friend doing a crazy, drunken, impromptu unplugged session, and Holy Wars (acoustic, baby) got in there. Fun times. 

 

 

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5 hours ago, Onewholovesrock said:

So does this list not apply to me? 😀 I was the black t-shirt wearing teenager in my bedroom listening to heavy metal. Not megablood but definitely a lot of Megadeth. Now I’m a black t-shirt wearing adult. And I actually listened to some Megadeth today. 😀 Alistair, do me a favor. Check out the song “Holy Wars” by Megadeth and get back to me with a reaction. I know this doesn’t have much to do with your post. But I’d love to hear what your thoughts are. It’s pretty amazing. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Even though it’s something you would probably never listen to. I’m guessing tip #11 isn’t used in this one. Maybe? PM me if you don’t want to leave a reaction here. Thanks!

OK - I tried. Unfortunately, I think I'm either allergic or wearing the wrong colour T-shirt :(.

 

1:30 as an intro! Jeez! 

 

While I recognise the musicianship, I'm afraid I find it un-listenable. But that's just my taste speaking. The lyrics are fine (if I read them, because I don't hear them). 

 

I'm guessing the setting for this one IS a bedroom, on full blast - or a car maybe. Get off my lawn!

 

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4 hours ago, Alistair S said:

OK - I tried. Unfortunately, I think I'm either allergic or wearing the wrong colour T-shirt :(.

 

1:30 as an intro! Jeez! 

 

While I recognise the musicianship, I'm afraid I find it un-listenable. But that's just my taste speaking. The lyrics are fine (if I read them, because I don't hear them). 

 

I'm guessing the setting for this one IS a bedroom, on full blast - or a car maybe. Get off my lawn!

 

 😀. Yes it sounds the best at high volume while wearing a black t-shirt. I seriously didn’t think anyone could listen to this song without thinking, “holy shit that was amazing” regardless of genre. Thanks for checking it out. Unlistenable! Ouch! I tried. 😀

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11 hours ago, Alistair S said:

I'm guessing the setting for this one IS a bedroom, on full blast - or a car maybe. Get off my lawn!

When I was in my early 20s we played lots of shows and had lots of parties, and the musical content was not so far from this. Maybe a bit more hip-hop grunge, but still guitars and metal. Not that many black shirts, honestly. :P 

 

Anyway the album this song is on was released in 1990, and went platinum. The main guy who wrote the album has a net worth of $20mil (according to "Celebrity Net Worth"). But anyway, we're talking about lyrics, right? Much of the album is on Cold War and similar topics, quite appropriate to the times. (Although I feel like we're looping back to that.) 

 

We can write it off as niche material, but it certainly was a big niche. Weren't there even metal radio stations back then? Not sure. 90s metal had a huge following, but I have no idea what that scene is like now. I can't listen to that stuff anymore, hahaha. 

That being said, I'm pretty sure Alistair's write up is an opinion piece targeting more "middle of the road" material -- whether or not that was his real intention. A lot of it is quite flexible in interpretation, to boot. 

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I think you have to remember I am as old as dirt, so that is probably part of it :) 

 

Also, I wonder whether the metal "niche" may have been different over here. It was popular with some people, certainly, but maybe a different group than elsewhere. I don't know.

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13 hours ago, Alistair S said:

I think you have to remember I am as old as dirt, so that is probably part of it :) 

 

Also, I wonder whether the metal "niche" may have been different over here. It was popular with some people, certainly, but maybe a different group than elsewhere. I don't know.

Yes, dirt is very old 😀. I think people who don’t listen to or follow metal often think it’s a “niche”. When in fact metal is huge and has been for a very long time. It’s hidden out of the mainstream. (That’s where we like it) Megadeth still puts out records every couple/few years. They tour the world on a regular basis. They actually won a Grammy recently. Sorry Alistair, I didn’t mean to hijack your post. 

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Not at all! I understand you "metal heads" are sensitive souls :)

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