Tag Archives: Do Lyrics Matter

What Makes A Great Song Lyric?

Bubbles from The Wire.

The Wire is the greatest TV show ever to have been aired. It’s brilliantly dark, socially conscious crime fiction that’s truer to life than most journalism. But what I love most about it is not the incredible characters, the plotlines, or its moral compass: it’s the dialogue.

It fizzles and crackles with electric wit, full of bizarre and charming colloquialisms, intrigue and awareness flowing out of every syllable. Comparisons with other TV shows fall flat: I’d put it alongside Shakespeare.

Like many great playwrights, the writers hang their dialogue onto themes and messages which run throughout the show. Sometimes it can be accidental: one character, while talking about something completely different, sums up the entire premise of the final series in its very first scene: “The bigger the lie, the more they believe.” – Bunk Moreland.

More often it is carefully measured, but equally apt: after spending a day with a detective in mid-town suburbia, a homeless man called Bubbles sums up the divide between rich and poor America in one line: “Thin line ‘tween heaven and here.” – Bubbles. Beautiful.

But how does this apply to your songwriting? The Wire’s dialogue maintains one crucial rule which all songwriters would do well to pay attention to: never does poetry compromise the reality of the show. At no point does Bunk Moreland speak in Iambic Pentameter. At no point does Bubbles wander lonely as a cloud. Every character speaks as they normally would, and the metaphors appear either through deliberately placed accidents or through the perfectly timed use of their colloquialisms.

The most common problem with amateur songwriters is that they feel they have to be a Romantic poet in order to reach a deeper truth. Unfortunately, they aren’t. You need an incredible grasp of the English language, a sensibility which allows you to see the exquisite beauty in daffodils, plenty of patience and plenty more opiates.

But you already have an incredible vault of words and wisdom to dig in to: your language, the way you explain the world, the accrued phrases that help you make sense of life. The Wire is successful because the lines stay true to its characters: if your lyrics stay true to your character, you won’t need the opiates.

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Do Lyrics Matter In A Song?: Chuck Berry Vs B.B. King

The First Great Rock Lyricist: Dont Chuck Berry.

“The thrill is gone
The thrill is gone away
The thrill is gone baby
The thrill is gone away
You know you done me wrong baby
And you’ll be sorry someday”

The Thrill Is Gone – B.B. King

Reading B.B. King’s lyrics without accompaniment is a bit like peeing in a fridge: cold, unsatisfying, and not really what it’s meant for. Slapping his lyrics up on here does the great man a real disservice, but let’s take them as they are for a moment. They’re fairly pedestrian, without much depth or particular interest.

“Way down in Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
He never ever learned to read and write so well
But he could play a guitar just like ringing a bell

Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry

Compare his with Mr Berry’s. Chuck’s lyrics absolutely leap off the page. They’re so rich: full of character, energy, imagery, and humour. Mr Berry’s lyrics were so good they defined a whole genre. Not only that, but they lasted: I’ve heard that Johnny B. Goode has been appeared on more albums than any other song in history.

Before the King-ites come howling out of their Blues Dens, I’m not saying that Chuck beats B.B. I’m saying they’re equally good: Blues lyrics are more a vehicle for the music. They highlight the emotions in broad strokes, which is fine, but they struggle with detail.

What Chuck does differently is specificity. He narrows his focus, bringing in literary elements such as character, plot, and setting. He can tackle any subject – from political to romantic – and take it any way he wants – from humorous to sentimental.

The contrast between the two is huge: It’s the difference between seeing the world out of focus and seeing it in 20:20. Being able to accurately portray the world is the greatest and most important facility of the artist, and sometimes broad strokes is not enough.

So yes, lyrics do matter in a song. Unless, of course, you’re King of the Blues.

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