The Anatomy of Lyrics

I never really cared for poetry.

When I was a junior in high school, my teacher had us put together a poetry portfolio. This portfolio was to include analyses of famous poetic works as well as original poems that we were to write. Given that a) I didn’t like poetry very much and b) I’m something of a smartass, I decided to be very meta by writing poems about how I didn’t like poetry. To wit, a haiku:

Poetry is bad
This is not a good poem
Eat cherry blossoms

In her comments, my teacher indicated that she liked my poems but expressed some disappointment that I didn’t like poetry much, considering how good I was at writing them (yeah, that had me confused as well).

The Hollywood version of this story should end with me finding my life’s calling in the auspice of the written verse.

A piece of honesty: I write lyrics only when forced to.

Many songwriters I know write their lyrics first and then mold the song around those words. I’ve tried this approach once and it drove me completely mad. Since I come from the school of thought that says that melody is the most important part of a song, having the words already laid out in front of me means that I’m artificially limiting myself by having the number of possible notes for a line locked in.

Thus, lyrics are usually the last parts of a song that I write.

I wish I could say that I had a philosophy or an approach or writing lyrics but the truth is that I don’t. I don’t attempt to paint pictures of places like Bono does or try to bring awareness to social causes like Dustin Kensrue does. I just speak what’s on my mind and give in to the demands of the song. I really only have one rule: I should never directly name that which I’m discussing.

Writing the lyrics last means that my words are constrained by the number of notes in the melody. Typically, this isn’t a problem but there have been challenges. For example, one song that I wrote was a nostalgic look back to childhood. In this song, each line of the chorus is only two notes – thus, two syllables. This meant that I had to present a complete thoughts in one or two words. I likened it to that Gilmore Girls exercise where they attempted to talk without using the letter ‘e’.

So why don’t I just expand the melody to include more syllables? This goes back to my point where melody is king. The melody of a song is sacred. It should never cater to the whims of the lyrics. Be it far from me to tell others how to do their business but I’d like to hypothesize that the reason why 9 out of 10 songs on any given album tend to suck is because the melodies sound contrived… and from my own personal experience, contrived melodies are often a result of attempting to fit the melody around the lyrics.

I wish I could say that my lyrics came about because of a series of life-changing epiphanies but in reality, I’m just walking the line between trying to say something without really saying it.

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