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

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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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Re: Thoughts on Lyrics Being "Too Abtract", "Clich

Post by edteja » Tue May 02, 2006 9:11 am

Don,My first observation is that phrases such as "She's my lost companion. She's my dreaming tree" are not abstractions but metaphors. I've never heard of anyone faulting a lyric for using metaphors, unless that was ALL it contained (I suppose).The critiques that I am aware of that fail songs (mine, for instance) for being abstract, are taking issue with the lack of a clear story line and concrete imagry. Maybe your critiques are focuses on something different, but when I've gotten those, I see what the reviewer means.And novelists get hit with the same issue. A story requires a great deal of specificity to carry the day. There is defiinitely a balance required. As for cliches--they are all right for titles, I am given to understand, especially in country. And they have their place in lyric. It is what you do with the cliche that matters, not that you used one. Ultimately, though, as you know, it is all about what works. And even then, stars can get away with things that nearly work, whereas you and I have to have exceptional stuff. It's the lay off the land, I guess.Ed
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Re: Thoughts on Lyrics Being "Too Abtract", "Clich

Post by ernstinen » Tue May 02, 2006 1:17 pm

Quote:stars can get away with things that nearly work, whereas you and I have to have exceptional stuff. It's the lay off the land, I guess.That's for sure! Check out this classic lyric:If there’s a bustle in your hedgerowDon’t be alarmed nowIt’s just a spring clean for the may queenLed Zeppelin --- Stairway To HeavenErn

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Re: Thoughts on Lyrics Being "Too Abtract", "Clich

Post by nomiyah » Tue May 02, 2006 5:39 pm

hedgrow? may queen? those old songwriters got off easy

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Re: Thoughts on Lyrics Being "Too Abtract", "Clich

Post by 53mph » Wed May 03, 2006 12:05 am

Don Williams,Are you feeling a bit peeved at Taxi's screeners for not understanding some of your lyrics?In between the highly interesting article you wrote that's what seemed to come out.Personally I've had to reduce my expectations of what Taxi expect of my music.I grew up listening to Stephen Malkmus of Pavement whose style of song writing is almost as abstract as William Boroughs style of writing. I'll give you an example:Well you greet the tokens and stampsBeneath the fake-oil burnin' lampsIn the city we forgot to nameThe concourse is four-wheeled shameAnd the courthouse's double-breastI'd like to check out your public protestsWhy you're complaining ta!orOut beyond the call of dutyHold your instincts hostage and stick near meLet's drink a toastIt's the most I can stand to cryAbout the mental energyYou wasted on this wedding invitationLet's thank the hostYou've been such a great hostThe roast was just so perfectly preparedPersonally these songs speak volumes to me. They manage to traverse huge concept in word play and juxtaposition of words such as "courthouse's double-breast" or capture the boredom of being a guest at someone elses marriage; but I know that if I submitted a song with any of these lyrics to Taxi it wouldn't get accepted 99% of the time. I personally think it's because the majority of Taxi listings are looking for songs that can be easily identifiable in already existing genres of popular music, so they look for accepted styles, lyric structures etc because it's not in their interests to take risks. Taking risks is what the record labels are meant to do when they discover new talent but Taxi is all about meeting client briefs not telling clients that they should take a risk on someone because they think so. I'm not criticising Taxi in the slightest for this as I think this way they are meeting client expectations and getting many deals for musicians who want to place their music in films/TV/Libraries and not become the new "poet" for a generation. If you want to do that then there are other more perilous roads to take than Taxi submissions.I sometimes get miffed that when listings ask for singer/songwriters in the style of Elliot Smith or Sufjan Stevens that my songs meet rejection for having too abstract lyrics with lyrics lines like "in his eyes there was a storm upon its way". Sometimes I wonder if clients ask for songs in the style of Elliot Smith or Sufjan Stevens without ever having listened to their lyrics.People can be trained to recognise existing genres, patterns and styles but how do you train someone to spot the next big thing that breaks the mold?For me that's the biggest problem with the majority of the Singer/songwriter listings, I feel they're looking for a cosmetic style over substance.In response to you're question about metaphor and abstract lyrics. Lyrics should flow like a conversation and it's for this reason people often feel metaphor or idioms should be left out.I'm an English language teacher by trade and I do whole lessons on metaphors, idioms and expressions in the English language. I can tell you that English speaking people use metaphor and idioms on a daily basis in ordinary conversation much more than they realise (my mum's deaf as a post, I haven't the foggiest what you're talking about) and it is a normal part of everyday conversation, so why shouldn't it be included in lyrics more? However this is not the general belief and I'm not about to change the worlds mind on this subject.Imagine each Taxi submission as a personal brief. Are you meeting the clients expectations with you're song or are you trying to be more adventurous than they wish?I think when a lyricist decides to alter a metaphor or cliche they need to do a seriously good job otherwise it will stand out like a sore thumb (metaphor) in the flow of the song.But when done well it can be powerful such as "unbreak my heart".Sorry for the random flow of these thoughts I'm trying to write some lyrics today so my minds elsewhere and I don't have time to structure this rant very well.

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Thoughts on Lyrics Being "Too Abstract", Cliche

Post by Casey H » Wed May 03, 2006 1:02 am

Great subject.My first reaction to Don's post was the same as Ed's. There is a vast difference between abstraction and use of similes, metaphors, etc. In the 60's, so much was OK. I still can't figure out what Neil Diamond is talking about in the mega-hit, "Sweet Caroline". The rules are a little tighter in today's world and MUCH tighter for unknown folks trying to break in. As mentioned, an established artist can break the rules a lot more.Aside: MacArthur's park is not a good example. It was purposely written as a spoof. Jimmy Webb wanted so prove that any crap could become a radio hit. The lyrics mean nothing. The same goes for Procol Harum's, "Whiter Shade of Pale". The lyrics also have no meaning.Some good examples, IMHO:One of the all time best, Joni Mitchell..."She removes him like a ring to wash her hands"How about Madonna's, "Like a Virgin", using the metaphor for feeling like it's the first time each time?One of mine that reviewers told me did not work:In the year that you left meI never criedI never triedKeeping quiet to myselfMom said, "lesson learned on love's behalfYou'll be older and look back and laugh"And I can't manage for a smileLeft with Susie in my eyesI loved the "Susie in my Eyes" thing. It just rolled off my tongue. But reviewers said "in my eyes" didn't cut it. I disagreed for a long time but not sure anymore. What do you think?I've had quite a few duds... LOLHowever, one of my lyrics that I've been told is "songwriter heaven" is in "Marry Me". The woman is telling the man she's had enough of being lover and not wife...I don't want to be your lover no moreYour Sunday morning sugar with your socks in my drawerSome of those Tim McGraw lines you quoted were perfect like:"So I wait, and I try. I confess like a child"Who doesn't get the comparison?Cliches, when not overused are OK. And I've noticed that a killer melody and chorus or singer's expression often makes up for cliche lines. Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" comes to mind.Anyway, I ramble on only one cup of coffee. I need:"A thousand cups of coffee injected in my veins" Casey

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Re: Thoughts on Lyrics Being "Too Abtract", "Clich

Post by edteja » Wed May 03, 2006 2:33 am

Hey Casey,"I'm on my second cup of coffee and I still can't face the day." Gordon Lightfoot said that. So trite, if apt works too.Taxi screeners, in my opinion, fulfill a very specific function--they screen our submissions to ensure that the client companies get something like what they asked for, of a commercial quality. The two problems with that model (problems, in that it prevents Taxi from being a songwriter's panacea) are:1. It's a judgment call and unfortunately I don't get to select the taxi screeners and therefore some will fail me because they are human (note the underscore here, which is heavy with irony) and not understand that the clients will ADORE my songs if only they would forward them all.2. They are not in a position to view things from a grand perspective (unless the screener IS the client), and can only go by what the client asks for. So even though I absolutely KNOW that Tim McGraw would be all over himself to record my Goo Goo Dolls knock-off song, the screener can't know that.Seriously, these folks have shown me through their critiques that they can get to the nub of things, but only whether or not a song fits the listing. There are some great songs that I know wouldn't make it although they hit you where you live. One of the books I read pointed out the difference between great songs and great records--and focused on the kind of tunes that Casey mentioned. The artist took abstract lyrics (or trite, or hackneyed even) put it to great music and came up with something that was a wonderful listening experience. Ride Captain Ride, fer instance grooved into your being, as did Whiter Shade of Pale (although Limehouse Blues -- the flip side of the 45 -- was a definite B side.) But I don't think (maybe?) a screener would, in good conscience, be able to forward those.But who knows?End of my rant.
"In the future, when we finally get over racism, bigotry, and everyone is purple, red, and brown ... then we'll have to hate people for who they truly are."--George Carlin

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Re: Thoughts on Lyrics Being "Too Abtract", "Clich

Post by 53mph » Wed May 03, 2006 3:26 am

Ed you've got a great way of wording things in a short post that I just can't seem to do, even in a way too long post.

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Re: ...Lyrics Being "Too Abstract", "Clich

Post by bc » Wed May 03, 2006 4:21 am

Here's a verse lyric that might have been too abstract for an unknown to get forwarded.He said I was in my early forties (who is "he")with a lot of life before me when a moment came that stopped me on a dime (what happened, what was the moment?)and I spent most of the next days (who spent of the next days - first or second person?)looking at the x-rays Talking bout the options and talking bout sweet time (awkward juxtaposition between first and second person)I asked him when it sank in that this might really be the real end how's it hit you when you get that kinda news man what'd you do What's going on in the above scenario? The "common" wisdom is: if you have to explain, or can't answer the red ink, then the song doesn't have the legs to clear the high bar. Right from the first line, this lyric enters from left field. Abstract? Maybe, maybe not - it depends on the musical attraction of the delivery/melody. Obviously millions of people were able to "get it." But...luckily, a song is more than the sum of it's parts. When it is interpreted/sung to music, something magic can and often does happen. It's then we all get to go...sky diving, rocky mountain climbing...

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Re: Thoughts on Lyrics Being "Too Abtract", "Clich

Post by Casey H » Wed May 03, 2006 6:30 am

Quote:Here's a verse lyric that might have been too abstract for an unknown to get forwarded.He said I was in my early forties (who is "he")with a lot of life before me when a moment came that stopped me on a dime (what happened, what was the moment?)and I spent most of the next days (who spent of the next days - first or second person?)looking at the x-rays Talking bout the options and talking bout sweet time (awkward juxtaposition between first and second person)I asked him when it sank in that this might really be the real end how's it hit you when you get that kinda news man what'd you do What's going on in the above scenario? The "common" wisdom is: if you have to explain, or can't answer the red ink, then the song doesn't have the legs to clear the high bar. Right from the first line, this lyric enters from left field. Abstract? Maybe, maybe not - it depends on the musical attraction of the delivery/melody. Obviously millions of people were able to "get it." But...luckily, a song is more than the sum of it's parts. When it is interpreted/sung to music, something magic can and often does happen. It's then we all get to go...sky diving, rocky mountain climbing... BCI dont find those lyrics too abstract at all. They paint a picture of someone getting bad news from the doc. Maybe a minor pronoun or tense fix needed, but not too abstract. Casey

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