"Your Music's Not Literal Enough": Story Songs vs. Poetic Songs

   The Changing Tides of Music Lyrics

                                                                         By Cynthia Brando                                                                                                                                                              with commentary by JoAnn Braheny

“The circumstances are not clear.”

“Premise is a little vague.”

“With a more engaging lyrical story, this would be a great song.”

     These are a few of my most recent criticisms from song pitches to industry professionals. I have gotten many of them, and although I receive words of encouragement to carry on writing songs, for the most part-they are negative.

     My writing style has always been on the more poetic side rather than telling a story with a clear time line. It probably has to do with the fact that my life never really navigated a straight line but instead had many twists and turns. Regardless, I always considered my writing to be very grounded and straight forward; I felt that I didn’t mask my emotions with language that was overly metaphorical or flowery, yet each song would be met with comments suggesting that they were out of reach to my audience. I started to really doubt myself as a songwriter-that I simply couldn’t produce what anyone would be interested in.

     These critiques got me interested in exploring my music more and looking at the trends of lyrics and how they have changed. At first my negative outlook about my music seemed to strengthen as I listened to the popular songs of our time, but in my exploration, I realized that the outlook did not have to be so extreme-that I didn’t have to completely abandon my unique way with words for a more conventionally popular style, but could explore different approaches to writing that retained my signature, but still kept in mind the audience. The journey started out confusing, but became a positive experience.

     My introduction to a real in depth critique was a harsh reality. I had to listen to someone pick apart my life’s work up until the point. In the end, the conclusion was that my music was “boring”, and that “no one would relate to my lyrics except me.” I remember feeling like my heart was breaking; recalling all the hard work I had put into my music for the last twenty plus years. I cried, lamenting, “no one understands me.” After recovering a couple of days, I thought about the reasons this person gave for why my music was boring. I started to look at my songs very objectively, and although I didn’t agree with every single thing that was said-I definitely began to see their point. The next day I wrote a song, keeping those points in mind. I took a couple of months; which was a huge change from my style of writing, which was more “stream of consciousness” in form. I usually finished a song in a matter of days, and never revisited it-this time I referred to it over a period of time and made changes as the words unfolded. I concentrated on more interesting chord progressions and movement, and I let ideas ruminate, gaining insights which developed more into a unique style of storytelling, rather than simply an impression.

     When I finally presented my new song to a music industry person, the critique was that it was “memorable”, and had “beautiful and RELATABLE imagery.” The speaker of the workshop I was attending asked the audience if they understood what the song was about-and everyone nodded YES. I felt very proud. My lyrics were still based in more poetic forms that what the standard music industry was currently demanding, but it felt good to try new approaches and open doors that I didn’t know I could. The truth though, was that I was not a “story” songwriter-I wrote emotional impressions about life’s experiences that didn’t necessarily have a direct time line-and based on a year of critiques, it seemed that “story songs”, songs that were very clear and easy to understand, were what people wanted and what the music industry considered “great songs.” Part of me understood how this could be true in our more fast-paced world of instant gratification. I myself was also guilty of indulging in “mindless music” as a form of entertainment-songs such as Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop,” and LMAFO’s “Sexy and I Know it” were very catchy and made me smile. I also enjoyed other artists that didn’t exactly write in the poetic style of long ago songwriters, but had more substance. I appreciated the lyrics of the writers of some Rhianna songs, like “Umbrella” and “Diamonds,” and also groups like Imagine Dragons and No Doubt for their unique style and more thoughtful lyrics. The music I wrote, on the other hand, was more in the vein of Americana and wasn’t as easily identifiable, as I often mixed genres. I also had an old fashioned vibe and wondered if there was a newer audience for music that was more poetry based.  I pored over some of my favorite songwriters from the 60’s like Joni Mitchell, Van and Jim Morrison to recall just how deep songs were…

“Fly silly seabird

No dreams can possess you

No voices can blame you

For sun on your wings

My gentle relations

Have names they must call me

For loving the freedom

Of all flying things

My dreams with seagulls fly

out of reach out of cry.”

     One of my favorite Joni Mitchell albums was her first-Song to a Seagull. I loved the imaginative poetry of the lyrics, as do troves of die-hard fans. It is hard for me to imagine people these days not responding to her music-have times really changed so much? A ten year study by Andrew Powel-Morse, suggest that lyrics HAVE actually gotten..."dumber." Read about the study HERE.

     Someone told me that artists were often not recognized for their more poetic bodies of work at first, but for their more relatable and understandable tunes. Joni Mitchell’s breakthrough album was her second, Clouds, and the tune that gained popularity was “Both Sides Now”, first recorded by Judy Collins, then Joni herself. The lyrics are indeed more easily understood, with sing-song like instrumentation, and a direct message.

“I’ve looked at life from both sides now

From win and lose

and still somehow it’s life’s illusions

I recall

I really don’t know life at all.”

The Doors big breakthrough came with “Light My Fire,” a song that Jim Morrison didn’t even write, and although Van Morrison had a successful career at a very young age with a band that had pop radio hits, he first became well known as a solo artist with “Brown Eyed Girl” before audiences got into “Astral Weeks” and it’s deep poetry.

“If I ventured in the slipstream

Between the viaducts of your dream

Where immobile steel rims crack

And the ditch in the back roads stop

Could you find me?

Would you kiss my eyes

To lay me down

In silence easy

To be born again”

     I do realize that there are popular artists today that write more poetic based lyrics, but not so many that are in the mainstream. Tori Amos and her very eccentric writing style got her elevated to a star, but her music was not played on major radio stations. Some artists come close to the older styles of poetry lyrics, wearing their hearts on their sleeves, and expressing themselves very honestly. The late Amy Winehouse, and Adel, were so popular I believe, because they had a great balance between poetry and the ability to relate to a general audience. Both Adel and Amy became very mainstream, and one of my favorite Amy Winehouse songs, “Love is a Losing Game,” reads like a beautiful love poem.  

“Though I battle blind

Love is a fate resigned

Memories mar my mind

Love is a fate resigned

Over futile odds

and laughed at by the gods

And now the final frame

Love is a losing game.”

I love song lyrics that form the dual functioning of a poem-how it looks on the paper, and how just reading it without the music gives you a different experience and relationship to the piece.

     All in all, I do believe that there is a market for poetry-based lyrics in popular music-there are break through artists that prove this, but it is indeed more difficult for these types of artists to find an audience. Trends simply change. In the 90’s when grunge music became popular with the tortured poetics of Kurt Cobain, there was also a huge movement of women in music with Lilith Fair artists Natalie Merchant, Sarah Mclachlan and Ani Difranco dominating. These women all wrote their own lyrics in a more poetic style and were considered mainstream; but you seldom hear songs like theirs by new artists on the radio-instead their style of music is reserved for “women’s music stations” or specialty shows that feature non-mainstream music. Country music has changed dramatically with many teen pop crossovers that simply don’t have the depth of experience to sing about something other than teen angst, and stories about trucks and drinking have become very popular. Occasionally, artists such as Lady Antebellum and Nickel Creek do a number that I nostalgically remember as being a part of the fabric of older country music. Other artists such as Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and other greats have roots that run even deeper, and were able to tell poetic stories based on a deeply internal impetus to embody the music with a special command in their unique voices. Now, voices start to sound the same, but there are still gems to look for-in every genre. The act of stumbling on a special discovery is what truly excites me about music-songs that I listen to over and over, until the next gem.

 These are the songs I want to create-gems; songs of deep truth, grounded in universality-like “diamonds in the sky.”

“Find light in the beautiful sea, I choose to be happy
You and I, you and I, we're like diamonds in the sky
You're a shooting star I see, a vision of ecstasy
When you hold me, I'm alive
We're like diamonds in the sky.

I knew that we'd become one right away
Oh, right away
At first sight I felt the energy of sun rays
I saw the life inside your eyes.

So shine bright tonight,
You and I
We're beautiful like diamonds in the sky
Eye to eye,
So alive
We're beautiful like diamonds in the sky

Shine bright like a diamond
Shine bright like a diamond
Shining bright like a diamond
We're beautiful like diamonds in the sky.”

JoAnn Braheny has been in the music industry for many years, and is a consultant and conducts workshops, for all sorts of creative types, which is where I had the pleasure of meeting her. She has an extensive biography in the entertainment field, which you can read more about HERE. She offered this commentary on the topic of literal vs. poetic lyrics:

"As you already know, the comments you were getting on your songs are not unique to songwriters, in general. It seems many songwriters (or lyricists) find themselves lost in the land of 'flowery imagery' and 'poetry.' Not a bad thing, on its own, but sometimes the listener is left to wonder, as you said, where the path is leading or the underlying intended meaning. 

Two helpful sources that come to mind right away... one website: Hit Songs Deconstructed, providing excellent dissections of current songs. Also my late husband's book, The Craft and Business of Songwriting (3rd edition) by John Braheny, specifically the chapter "A Poem is Not a Lyric." I'm sure there are more good resources out there...

It's hitting the nail on the head by going back and reviewing ones songs, after stepping away for a little while. That perspective is invaluable. I've heard many hit songwriters say, "Re-write, re-write, re-write."

Also, it seems, in trying to express emotion and feeling, we reach for the 'general' instead of the 'specific' and we leave too much room for people to wonder what we meant ... especially when they're hearing, not reading, the words. I know there's often a desire to let the audience 'interpret' things the way they want (like a modern painting) but then it's hard to complain when 'they don't get it' the way the songwriter intended. That's not to say that metaphors and imagery are not useful...they are, but used judiciously. 

It might help, as an exercise, to first write a clear, vivid, non-poetic description of what you want to say, using as many descriptive words as possible, to 'draw a picture.' For example, instead of "the boy walked away," one might say "the Cub Scout ran from the barbershop." (I'm exaggerating for a reason.)  Setting a clear scene helps. Then, the feelings can be 'sketched' around that. It's just an exercise... allowing one to zoom in on the intent and then back out (like a long camera shot) to a wider perspective. 

                                                                                                            bear in mind that 'expressing an emotion' and 'communicating' are two separate things. Best situation is to be able to combine them! 

Bottom line, I've always admired and respected the courage songwriters must have in honing their craft (emphasis on 'craft').  I'm reminded of that great quote from Harlan Howard, "All you need to write a great country song is three chords and the truth." 

                                                                         ---JoAnn Braheny