Good songs tend to say big things. Like compact power punches, good songs birth the juicy mess of life in neat four-minute bundles.
Pulling off a good song is hard as hell. Of course it is! Big topics are hard to broach, let alone wax poetic within the confines of one page of lyrics.
In my personal and spiritual life, I’m currently working with one such big topic: vulnerability. It’s my habit to work through big topics in my creative life as a songwriter.
As happens with these big topics, it’s hard to write about vulnerability without getting hokey:
What have you done to me?
Don’t give me no bull
Just be vulner-a- BLE!
Or just too obvious:
When he says he loves me, I want to climb a tree.
He’s tapping into my vulnerabili-TY!
With my newest song, as yet untitled, I attempt this big topic through vignettes, a few little stories that point to the underlying theme of vulnerability. Each verse is a window into a person’s life, which exposes the universal fear: showing who we really are.
Sounds like a useful strategy right? Recall, a verse is usually about four lines, sometimes a few more. That’s not a lot of words to paint a picture of a complex human being: name, place, situation, and how s/he is experiencing vulnerability – all packed into a handful of words.
Remember, words matter. “Make every word count and make ‘em count more.” I keep my eyes peeled in order to whittle out any stray “and” or “then” that isn’t essential to the story. Like a child hunting shells at the beach, I only keep the shiniest words.
On top of that, the words must flow with the chord progression, melody, and rhythmic cadence. It’s a tricky little art, and makes for a messy hook book.
(Yes, that’s my actual hook book in the picture above!)
Here’s an example:
Momma called me this morning to tell me her plans
All about the new house she’s buying with her new man
She asked me when I’m comin’ out to stay
Even if I could pick up the phone, what would I say?
Here’s a first attempt at an edit:
Mother left me a message to tell me her plans
She’s signing today, a new house with her latest man
It’s been too long, and when can you come down to stay
Even if I could pick up that phone, what would I say?
There are two main characters in this verse. There is the singer, the “I” person, who is the daughter (or son, but since I’m singing the song…) And there’s the mom. Somehow, I have to relay why the daughter feels vulnerable in her relationship with her mom.
Let’s take it line by line.
The first edit was changing the familiar “Momma” to the more formal “Mother,” which suggests distance, maybe coldness. The daughter doesn’t feel open enough to use the more sensitive title of “Momma.”
Then I changed “called me this morning” to “left me a message.” Feel the difference there? This girl doesn’t pick up when her mom calls.
In the next line, the original lyric wastes a lot of words. “The new house she’s buying” is redundant. Also, calling it “the” new house, implies the daughter already knew about it.
I squeezed that into “she’s signing today, a new house.” The edit expresses urgency, and suggests that the mom and daughter don’t talk about these big life changes. In a close relationship, loved ones share such things while they’re happening, and the day of closing on a new house would come as no surprise.
The second edit in that line says a helluva lot. There is a huge difference between her “new man” and her “latest man.” Now we’re starting to see why this relationship is tenuous.
In the third line, I switched into the voice of the mother, as though we are listening to the voicemail. The listener gets to hear the message as the daughter is hearing it, bringing it into the present. Plus, I got to include that they hadn’t seen each other in a while. Can you sense the typical guilt trip many of us feel when we hear those words from our mothers?
More subtly, I changed “coming out to stay” to “coming down to stay.” Coming down implies going south. In our culture, leaving your hometown is a sign of sophistication, perhaps even rejection, especially if you left the south for place up north. Up is just plain better than down. Clearly, this is not actually true, but the symbol exists, so I’m using it.
In the fourth line, I only changed one word. Picking up “the” phone versus picking up “that” phone. It’s a tiny adjustment, but doing so gives the impression that there is a phone sitting right there. You can picture the daughter staring at it. If she could just get past her damn issues, she’d call her mom and work it out.
Can you see how much fun I have? There’s so much more punch to the edited version, don’t you think?
Like I said, it’s a tricky little art, shaping these big topics into songs. If it was easy to write a good song, everybody’d be doing it. As I have shared before, we have to write a lot of bad songs to make good art.
Can you think of a good song you love that talks about a huge topic and boils it down to a tidy, sweet little piece? What are some of your favorites?
Share in the comments below.