Thoughts on Lyrics Being "Too Abtract", "Cliche's"

Songwriting, songwriters, etc

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Thoughts on Lyrics Being "Too Abtract", "Cliche's"

Post by donwilliams » Tue May 02, 2006 5:12 am

Hi,I've been thinking a lot lately about the use of abstractions in my lyrics as well as the use of cliche's. I'd appreciate anyone's thoughts and input on this subject.I realize the tolerance level for being abstract in your lyrics varies a lot in relation to which genre you are writing in. Hard rock and heavy metal lyrics, for example, are often so abstract that I've never been able to figure out what some of my favorite songs are even talking about! LOL! At the other end of the spectrum is music like bluegrass, which tolerates almost no abstract lyrics at all. But in-between there is a big continuum filled with all sorts of genres, sub-genres, and various personal opinions about how much abstraction is too much.Bearing in mind that the result of lyrical abstraction (even if it's not the writer's actual goal) is to create in the listener an emotional/contextual/experiential "place", a "feel" which is created in combination with groove, the chord progression, the arrangement, etc., abstractions SHOULD be an extremely valuable tool for the songwriter - just as it is for novelists, painters, scultpors, film directors, poets, and every other sort of creative artist. I think the proof of this position is easily found in the top ten of almost every genre of music available. Lyrical abstraction is (almost) everywhere.I write mostly in the country genre and mostly in the country-rock, country-pop, mainstream country sub-genres. I get criticised now and then for having lyrics that are too abstract. But frankly, for the listings I'm aiming for, I don't feel that is an appropriate position for a screener to take. Here's an example of why:Tim McGraw's big hit of a year or two ago, "She's my Kind Of Rain" is literally filleed with abstractions. Here's just a few:(In every chorus): "She's my kind of rain, like lover from a drunken sky"(From the first verse): "She sits quietly there, black water in a jar. She says, "Baby why are you trembling like you are?" (Pre-chorus): "So I wait, and I try. I confess like a child"(From the second verse): "She's my lost companion. She's my dreaming tree"(Second Pre-chorus): "Summer days, Winter snow. She's all things to behold".Can you imagine what a TAXI screener would say if you or I submitted these kinds of lyrics? BTW, that song was also voted as sexiest video on CMT and as sexiest song somewhere else (can't recall the forum, maybe the magazine "Country Weekly"). I think the main reason is because it speaks to the listener on so many levels, close to the heart and down in the gut - and it's the abstract nature of the lyrics and the emotions they create and communicate that does it.But abstraction in country music is nothing new. It goes all the way back to at least the early seventies. Check out these lyrics from the first verse of Kris Kristopherson's "Lovin' Her Was Easier":"I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountains in the sky,Aching with the feeling of the freedom of an eagle when she flies,Turning on the world the way she smiled upon my soul as I lay dying,Healing as the colors of the sunlight in the shadows of her eyes,"This idea - and I don't know where (or who) it came from - that country music and even most AC music must be storyline-based and must be biased toward a literal form of communication is simply WRONG. It effectively eliminates a large percentage of songs and refuses to acknowledge a fact that has been acknowledged and put to great use by all forms of art for centuries. That fact is this: Human beings communicate on a multitude of levels. Here's another fact: Symbols convey more information than literal phrases do. This is because symbols convey a "gestalt" (a german word meaning something like "the whole" or "the totality"). Symbols speak to us on many different levels. This is why a short phrase in a song such as, for example,: "the morning burning golden on the mountains in the sky" or "the rain on the water" say so much and at the same time say so little. This is also what cliche's do. They often act as symbols for us. A cliched'd phrase such as "I'm worn-out", or "man, I'm beat" speaks volumes in just a few short words - because we all understand what the cliche' means. Those phrases say a hell of a lot more than "I'm tired" or even "I'm exhausted". Cliche's are a sort of verbal shorthand, a way of saying a lot in only a few words - which is, after all, the hallmark of a great songwriter. The trick is to not use cliche's in ways that are expected or shopworn (there's another cliche for ya, lol). Cliche's that are turned on their heads to make them mean something new is good songwriting. The perfect cliche, used in the perfect place in a song in order to convey volumes of meaning so that the song can move on to the next idea without dwelling on one incidental-yet-important idea for too long is also good songwriting. Cliche's have their place and it's an important place - because songwriting is about communication and, let's face it, we all communicate mostly in cliche's. In my opinion, many TAXI screeners search for cliche's and immediately criticise them without giving the issue the deeper thought it deserves. Not all cliche's are automatically bad. Mnay times they deserve a closer look in order to see how the writer is using them. Sorry for the digression into cliche's. Back to abstractions... Some of the greatest pop songs of past century were complete abstraction - Jimmy Webb's "MacArthur Park" for example. The majority of the songs by the great songwriter Jim Steinman from the legendary MeatLoaf album "Bat Out Of Hell" were layered with abstractions and cliche's. Here's an example from a song in which even the title is a cliche' - used to great effect:"You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth"by Jim Steinman"It was a hot summer night and the beach was burning,There was fog crawling over the sand,When I listened to your heart I heard the whole world turning,I see the shooting stars falling through your trembling hands".Notice how Steinman even moved from past-tense to present-tense in that verse? Effortlessly and in a way that "FEELS" right. Man! To me, that's sheer genius - as is the earlier verse by Kristophersson! The only problem I can see with abstractions is that often the listener doesn't know what's going on in the song. But that problem should be weighed against other factors - such as, would the song REALLY be stronger without that abstraction? - and does the abstraction serve to set up an emotional "place" or "feel" for the listener that's important to the song? Those are some of my thoughts on abstract lyrics and cliche's. I'd love to hear what you guys think about it. I'd REALLY like to hear about the subject from a TAXI screener's point of view, because when I think about the number of songs those guys must listen to on a daily basis, they have a different and probably deeper insight than I do as a songwriter on these subjects.Don

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