Backstreet Boys One in a million lyrics
I’m in my eighteenth year of teaching BMI’s Nashville Songwriters’ Workshop. In those classes I’ve listened to 40 to 50 songs at least 10 times a year. I did some math: I’ve reviewed more than 8, 000 songs—and that does not include the songs I critiqued in the master classes, song camps, and workshops I’ve taught throughout the world.
I’ve watched some of my students grow into exceptional writers, begin relationships with publishers, and end up with staff-writing deals—even number one singles. But most of the songs I heard were “good”—and “good” isn’t good enough to rise above the work being produced by the top hit makers.
Recording artists who are writing for themselves need to write exceptional songs that define and support their artistic identity, while having an emotional impact on the listeners. Those of us who are writing for artists other than ourselves, need to craft material that compels artists, producers, publishers and A&R executives to choose our songs over all the other songs being submitted for the project—including those written or co-written by the artist, the producer or someone else on the “inside.”
One of my most important jobs as a teacher is to identify and share the common denominators I observe in successful songs—and to steer my students away from the pitfalls I notice in those songs that fall short. While there are no rules in songwriting, and no right or wrong way to do it, here are some of the biggest lyric pitfalls I consistently notice:
1. Failure to Communicate
Many writers write solely as a means of introspection and catharsis. They bleed onto their paper or computer, dispersing their angst into the world on the wings of their highly personal lyrics.
Some of these writers rely on abstract poetic phrases and images, effectively shrouding the meaning of their lyrics in so much symbolism that they exclude their listeners from understanding or empathizing. They are writing for an audience of one.
The goal of effective songwriting is communication—and that requires bringing your audience into the equation. If you want your songs to affect me, don’t write about your life—write about mine. Some of the most successful writers are those who write about their lives in a manner that makes listeners wonder, “How did she get inside my heart and know exactly how I feel?”
Few artists record songs with nonlinear, nonliteral lyrics unless they are self-written. While this approach might work if you are Coldplay, Train or another recording artist writing songs for your own band or artist project—and attaching them to amazing melodies—it is a rare writer who can evoke emotion by writing in this style.
If your goal is to share your music with the world, be sure that you write in a style that speaks to your audience and communicates the message you intended.
2. Telling Instead of Showing
One of the least effective ways to evoke emotion is to write lyrics that simply state how the writer feels. Reporting how you feel—for example, “I am sad and lonely”—clearly conveys how the writer feels, but typically fails to arouse emotion in the listener.
One of the most effective ways to evoke emotion is to invite your listeners into your world by allowing them to “watch” a story unfolding. Compare the two lyrics below and note which one makes you feel something.
I’m sad and lonely without you
I never knew a heart could hold so much pain