Tangled Up In Metaphor: How to Structure a Theme into Songwriting

Dylan circa 1975, sporting a Leo Sayer barnet.

“She was married when we first met, soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess, but I used a little too much force
We drove that car as far as we could, abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night, both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at me as I was walkin’ away
I heard her say over my shoulder, ‘We’ll meet again someday on the avenue’
Tangled up in blue”

Tangled Up In Blue – Bob Dylan

Yes, oh yes, we’re on Bob Dylan again. Broken record, anyone? Yes, I know.

But what a writer. In his epic love story Tangled Up In Blue, which he said took ‘2 years to write and 10 years to live’, the main character travels all across America with the memory of a girl he once knew holed up in his heart. You could write a dissertation on Dylan’s use of pronouns, on the song’s intentionally ambiguous imagery, on Blood On The Tracks’ complete and utter awesomeness; but I want to focus on Dylan’s use of emblem, and why it is useful in songwriting.

At the end of each verse, Dylan refers back to his central image: “Tangled Up In Blue”. On first listening, it’s not quite apparent what he means (Who is this “Blue”? How can one be “Tangled Up” in her?), but as each verse unfolds, the phrase magically acquires new meaning through repetition.

The initially ambiguous phrase “Tangled Up In Blue” now embodies the main character’s longing for his estranged lover. It becomes the emblem of the song, both as a summary of the song’s feeling and as a handy way to refer back to the title.

This idea of emblem is particularly interesting when we consider how Dylan might have written the song. What came first, the emblem or the verses? My (utterly unworthy) guess is that Dylan heard the phrase ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ and thought (imagine the voice) ‘Yeah, man, uh… I could use that, man…’ and began to create a song around this central metaphor.

This becomes a highly effective way to structure new songs. Not only is it useful in folk songwriting, but it is absolutely central to pop songwriting. If you can combine a hooky melody with a poetic emblem, then you are half-way towards a hit. Consider Lady Gaga’s (incredible, by the way) singles catalogue. Alejandro, Bad Romance, Just Dance, Telephone: all built around this combination.

Songs built around emblems are far more tightly focused and simply better. The scattergun approach works sometimes: Dylan’s (yes, him again) Subterranean Homesick Blues, for instance. But for those who need a tighter focus in their songwriting, this’ll work wonders for you.

But don’t take my word for it! Have a go! Next time a little phrase comes into your head that gives you a creative jolt, jot it down and build a song around it, and post the lyrics on the comments section. It’ll be fun. 🙂



Filed under Lyrics, Structure

3 responses to “Tangled Up In Metaphor: How to Structure a Theme into Songwriting

  1. Great post – one song I wrote was centered around the line, “That girl’s a Masterpiece”. I built around this concept, comparing her to different situations, events, symbols, even people that we often think of when hearing the word, “masterpiece”. Some of the lyrics:

    2nd Verse
    Call her a modern-day Helen of Troy
    Obsessed by every man every boy
    Right out a painting from Monet or Dali
    She’s dressed in the finest silks, Roberto Cavali

    A goddess with an air that’s so statuesque
    Most try to buy her things but she’s not impressed
    Imitated by so many but matched by none
    I look at her canvas and I know she’s the one

    That girl’s a masterpiece
    A work of art
    Beauty defined
    I’ll paint her heart
    So she can be mine

    O that girl’s a masterpiece
    She is admired by all
    Spring summer, winter and fall
    She’s like the eight wonder of all of the world
    And I gotta make her my, gotta make her my girl

    You can hear the song and see the lyrics in their entirety, here: http://cameronforbes.bandcamp.com/track/masterpiece

  2. Hey Cameron,

    I listened to ‘Masterpiece’, you’ve got quite a voice on you! Can hear a Marvin Gaye influence all over that song, and it works a treat with the dance backing.

    I loved that metaphor you touched on in the second verse: ‘I look at her canvas and I know she’s the one’. Brilliant line. Nicely poetic, links in with the ‘Masterpiece’ title and it sings like a dream. It would have been great to hear more linkage to that central metaphor in the verses; that kind of thing often leads to a really nice lyrical payoff at the end of the song – e.g. the slow clarification in ‘Tangled Up In Blue’.

    Also, startlingly good chorus melody. The layering of vocals is an idea I might have to steal: it’s consistently superb throughout the song.

    Thanks for a great listen! I’ll definitely be having that EP 🙂

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