Tag Archives: Stuck with songwriting

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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What Should You Write Songs About?

Bertolt Brecht. Fingernails not pictured.

It is said that the great director Bertolt Brecht used to apply dirt to the undersides of his fingernails each morning so that he could more deeply empathise with the ‘Great Unwashed’.

What a faker. Despite coming from a deeply middle-class background, he began erasing the circumstances of his birth and embracing a fictional ‘peasant of the theatre’ persona. He wanted to make theatre for the working class, and it wouldn’t do too well for his audience to think he was a posho. Essentially, he disregarded his whole identity in order to make art tailored to a certain demographic.

Luckily, he happened to be a genius, so it pretty much worked out for him. Go figure. So what works for the rest of us non-genii? I mean, we can still write about what we want, right?

Technically, you’re absolutely free to write about any subject you please. This ain’t no Stalinist regime. You’re free to write that 8-minute stream of consciousness about mackerel livers if you fancy it; go ahead and pen a rhyming version of the Magna Carta; sure, write lengthy death metal songs about unspeakable subjects (No joke, I once went on after a band called ‘Vomit Enema’. Their first song was entitled ‘Hilarious Abortion’.)

But lyrics based in truth will always beat lyrics based in fantasy. Lyrics from your own life carry a supreme authenticity, a momentous weight of personal significance: you can extract so many original ideas from your own life because you understand yourself better than anyone. You aren’t just gazing superficially at some other random subject, you’re communicating what is important to you.

This is a crucial part of finding your unique voice as an artist. I’ve heard the same old platitude thrown around for a long time – ‘You’ve got to find the thing about yourself that makes you unique’ – but I didn’t understand the wisdom of it until very recently. The things that make you unique are so ingrained in you that you take them for granted.

It’s like seeing your sibling every day and not noticing them grow taller. You come back ten years later and say ‘Woah, this is you?’ Finding your unique voice is a process of rediscovery: writing authentically, then working out what shape you’ve grown into over the years. It’s a long process, but it’s utterly, utterly worth it. Having someone really connect with a song that came bubbling up from your soulwell, that’s what it’s all about, right?

Thing is, if the audience see dirt under the fingernails of your songs, they’ll sniff it right out. But if you give them your hands as they are – your guilty, dirty, ragged old hands – they’ll fall at your feet.

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Filed under Lyrics, Structure