You may have noticed that songwriters under 30 don’t typically do a great job of writing lyrics. Have you ever wondered why that is? Is it a generational thing? Do people just not care anymore? Some of the current crop of popular songs may lead someone to believe so, but the fact of the matter is much more deep. There are many roadblocks (as well as a monumental amount of bad examples) out there for young lyric writers as they perfect their craft. Sometimes time and experience is the only thing removing those roadblocks.
Great lyrics will propel a song to the next level and allow you to create a connection with the listener, so it’s not something to be taken lightly. With a lot of music these days lyrics are seen as an afterthought. This should not be the template and certainly isn’t a recipe for long term success.
Now this post isn’t meant to slam young lyric writers, only an attempt to call attention to roadblocks and symptoms so we can all recognize them. As with anything there are exceptions to every rule and I’m sure people can quote many instances where young lyric writers knocked it out of the park. I can assure you that for every instance where this is the case there are thousands and thousands of misses.
The modern music business seems to be about hit it and forget it. They don’t care if a song has staying power. They want a hit and then move on to the next song and certainly aren’t in the business of creating careers anymore. Not a position in the best interest of an artist’s long term future, so now more than ever it’s important for the artist to take the wheel on the lyrical front.
I’ve certainly been guilty of these at times myself so I’m not by any means sitting in a glass house throwing stones. As I call attention to some of my own mistakes I think it’s fruitful to share the observations I’ve come across in part to make us all better.
So Why 30?
So where did I get the age of 30? Well, I didn’t use any scientific method. It’s just around the age where you’ve had an opportunity to live life for a while and start accumulating life experiences. You’ve probably spent a fair amount of time away from home and any shelter that has been provided. It’s also an age where you’ve started to confirm and correct any bad information you may have been operating off of in your younger days. By the age of 30 many people have started to settle in to their own personal identity and be more comfortable with themselves.
First thing to understand is this has nothing to do with musical skill. Lyrics and melody are two totally different things. Lyrics are what you are saying and melody is how you say it. You can have a great song with sub-par lyrics, but it just won’t connect with people on a primal level. It won’t speak to them. Lyrics can take a great song and make it timeless. If you are writing music would you rather have someone like a song the first 3 times they listen then forget about it or would you rather have someone listen to the song again and again for years to come? I think that answer to that is fairly obvious.
As I mentioned previously, with anything there are exceptions to every rule. Some people pick up on things rather quickly and others will never pick up on it. Some people have lived a rougher, harder life than others and may be able to connect with people quicker. YMMV.
So why don’t people under 30 write good lyrics, let’s have a look.
Lack of Language Comprehension
This is something I see quite a bit. Lack of understanding of words, their meanings, as well as common sayings. Words mean something, even when using them in a metaphorical context they need to make sense. I see younger lyricists substituting words that sound similar but mean something different. This is a monumental mistake that leads to a huge disconnection with the listener and well, makes them look kinda stupid.
Saying something like let’s be on the “save” side, instead of “safe” side or hearing someone say “Let’s get the fuck out of the dodge” instead of “Let’s get the fuck out of Dodge”. These type of mistakes don’t make for compelling listening and it’s a big turnoff. So always make sure your statements are accurate.
This isn’t something that 12 years of school will fix either, this is something that only real world interactions and conversations can fix. This is especially true when slang gets thrown in the mix. Sayings and slang often have a way of dating themselves as well. Before using slang that has a tendency to change and date your material ask yourself if it’s worth doing.
Being Too Literal
Music is art and some of the most inspiring pieces of art aren’t literal. Wouldn’t it be much better as an artist to let people interpret their own meaning from your music? One of the best parts of being an artist is letting people interpret your music. In this case it’s best to be suggestive rather than explanatory. Think about old school songs like “Afternoon Delight” and “Puff the Magic Dragon”. The first being sexually suggestive and the second being suggestive of smoking. Those songs have endured because of their suggestive nature and not because they were literal, regardless of their actual subject or intent.
Some genres of music are much more tolerant than others to this than others. Religious artists are quite often some of the biggest offenders in this area. You can write religious music without mentioning God or Jesus over and over in a song, or better yet, at all. Quite often this is a turnoff, even to religious people. Keep it suggestive and your songs will appeal to a much larger audience and mean something much more personal to the listener.
Being Too Wordy
This is fairly self-explanatory. Being too wordy is typically a substitute for a false perception of being “deep”. Being too wordy can be distracting and hard to follow. If you have something to say, choose your words wisely and make each word count. Sticking with less words also makes your music flow better and ups the singalong factor.
Lack of Focus
A song is not a novel. Pick a subject and stick with it. Here once again I think sometimes people go all over the place because they feel it makes the song more deep. It really doesn’t and with a lack of focus the best song will lose a listener quickly.
Lack of Attention To Detail
When it comes to lyrics the devil is in the detail. Sometimes when listening to music even the most dull-headed of listener picks up on things. Even if they aren’t quite sure and can’t articulate why something is off, they subconsciously know and it affects the feeling of the song.
As an example of this, I have a song lyric where I say:
“I’m in the middle of an ocean, and I dive and I dive and I dive”
Think about how different this would be if I would have said:
“I’m in the middle of the ocean”
Saying “an ocean” better signifies a metaphor so it could be an ocean of anything. Ocean of trouble, problems, or anything else that could be imagined. Saying “the ocean” implies something much more literal. Like the actual ocean, so if you are using it as a metaphor it doesn’t make as much sense unless you are diving deeper in to an actual ocean of course.
Lack of World Experience (Good and Bad)
There are some things that just take time. It takes time to travel and experience the world. You have to meet people and learn and even learn lessons. It also takes time to collect these personal experiences. In the world of today people want to just watch a YouTube video and get better at something overnight. Experience doesn’t happen that way, you have to grind it out and work through things yourself. Travel and interacting with people broadens the mind and broadens your pallet of lyrical content. It helps you connect dots that you may have have otherwise overlooked.
Lack of Identity
We spend our younger years thinking that we have a very strong sense of identity. Quite often though we are really just conforming to fit in to groups around us. It’s not until we get older and start caring less about what other people think that we begin to settle in our sense of identity, especially as a creative individual.
Writing great lyrics can take a lot of soul searching and situational awareness. This means that you have to understand yourself on a really intimate level. Let me tell you, it’s not always pleasant either. Turning a microscope on yourself and sharing really personal things can take some time to be comfortable with.
Lack of Empathy
We live in a very “me” society. Younger people have never been more detached from real connections with other humans. Social networks, forums, and video sharing sites all allow non-personal communication that actually detaches feeling from the communication. Ever meet someone who is a dick online yet in person they act like a normal human being?
Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and thinking situationally can be difficult and can get better with time. You have to have empathy in order to write great lyrics. You have to form a connection with people and get them on board with what you are saying. Writing about yourself and your feelings is great, but after a couple of albums that will get old quick. Quite often a listener likes to take a song and try and make it about them. It’s how they connect. Think about that while you are writing your music.
Not Accepting Challenge
Younger songwriters seem to be very averse to challenge. They see challenges as someone being negative or unhelpful. Challenge is what makes you better. If I would have surrounded myself with just people who agreed with me or thought everything I did was great I never would have progressed. Nobody would.
Social networks for all of their benefits have quite a few drawbacks. It’s never been easier with social networks and forums to surround yourself with people who agree with you and think like you do. This is severely damaging to the growth of an artist. Probably one of the most important things that makes you grow as an artist is challenge. If you write off everyone who criticizes your work, then you are missing the point. Sure some people are just haters, but even with haters look for legitimate points they might make. After all it’s about you expanding and growing no matter what age you are.
Out of all the points I’ve made this one is the most disturbing. It seems there has never been less of an emphasis on lyrics. I think because a lot of music out there nowadays does not have good lyrics then it’s not seen as important.
Writing Better Lyrics
I did everything the hard way, but I did try and make the most out of my experiences. I’ve learned quite a bit about writing lyrics throughout my life. So how does someone get better? If they are 19 do they just sit around and wait till they are 30? No, absolutely not. There are things that people can do to become better at writing lyrics almost immediately. Awareness is critical and the ability to challenge yourself. If you have those two traits, you are well on your way to writing better lyrics.
That’s right, say something. Have a point to the song that makes sense and connects with people. Enough said.
Collaborate and Listen
Listening to other great songs as well as listening to people talk can be a great way to pick things up. Nothing will get you where you want to be faster than collaboration. Getting the feedback of others as well as being able to bounce ideas off of someone else is invaluable. You get the collective benefit and experience of everyone involved. This happens all of the time in the studio and with a good collaborator can take your song to the next level and spur ideas that you never would have came up with on your own.
Write, A Lot
Nothing makes you better at something than doing it over and over again. The more you write the better you get at it, so make sure you write as much as you can. Even if you end up not using any of the music and material, the act of writing makes you better.
This doesn’t mean just writing music. You can jot down ideas and notes in a notebook and put them together. This doesn’t need to be released anywhere and could be your own personal book of thoughts. Who knows, some of these written works could turn in to a great song.
Travel (if possible)
When pouring your heart out writing lyrics it’s important to ensure that every word you are using means what you think it means. Even if you think you know what a word means, check it. You are creating something you are putting
Google searches are free so don’t think you understand everything. Research and make sure you have it right, who knows it might even make for a better song.
Work with a producer
Work with a producer or at least someone who can give you some perspective on the lyrical content. Just like collaboration being able to bounce ideas off of someone with more experience can be invaluable.
Don’t shy away from people who have opposing viewpoints. This allows you to expand your creativity and challenge yourself when you are collaborating with them. They will provide a perspective that you may not have thought about.
Keep it Simple and Focused
Avoid using too many words and being difficult to sing along with. Quite often more simple and direct the better. Keep the idea focused. Don’t keep interjecting subject and plot changes in your music.
In the end
So write songs, connect with people and above all reflect on your work and always improve. Good luck.
For some additional insight take a look at these:
How Popular Music’s Lyrics Perpetuate American Idiocy