If you look at the description of Lennon & McCartney’s “I Saw Her Standing There” in the Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list, you’ll read this:
This song had been written by McCartney two years earlier. After penning the first line – “She was just 17” – McCartney wanted to avoid completing the rhyme with “beauty queen.” He and Lennon had “started to realize that we had to stop at these bad lines or we were only going to write bad songs,” he said. “So we went through the alphabet: between, clean, lean, mean.” With “you know what I mean,” he was on his way.
McCartney makes a great point, and it doesn’t just apply to lyrics. It applies to any part of your song that starts to move you in a bad direction. A bad bit of melody, a corny bit of chord progression, or even getting down into the basic meaning of your song: one move in a bad direction can be irretrievable, and make your entire song bad.
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How McCartney knew he was in danger of moving in the wrong direction was that “beauty queen” seemed to be the logical, predictable rhyme for “seventeen.” And because he was so wanting to keep their songs fresh and interesting, he realized that giving audiences what they expected at that moment was going to be a sell-out.
It takes keen musical awareness to know those moments where you’re in danger of moving in a wrong direction — of selling out. Most of those early Beatles tunes were patterned heavily after their musical heroes: The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Little Richard. They made conscious decisions to copy the sound and style of those trend-setting musicians, but knew when not to.
That’s your job, too. As a songwriter, you know that a lot of what puts you on the cutting edge has to do with production, and not so much songwriting. On the other hand, every component of your song is either going to give the audience the same old thing, or it’s going to move things along in a new direction.
And so for you, the job is knowing how to be innovative without alienating your audience, while at the same time sticking to what your audience expects — just enough to have them trust you. It’s a very tricky tightrope.
Moving Lyrics in the Right Direction
When it comes to your lyric, here’s what you can do to help avoid selling out and missing a great opportunity to be fresh and innovative:
- Look through your lyric, and pay particular attention to rhyming lines. These are lines that you’ve created which have the added responsibility of rhyming with whatever has come before.
- Look closely at the meaning of what those rhyming words. Are they giving your listeners exactly what they expected? What alternative lines/words can you come up with that avoid the mundane predictability of what listeners expect?
- Has your choice of rhyming words stunted the creativity of your song lyric? There is a fine line between giving an audience what they expect, versus giving a song what it needs.
In every element of your song — chords, melody, even instrumentation and other production issues– there are opportunities to be innovative and imaginative. If you feel that your song sounds dull, unimaginative or simply boring, listen to a demo recording of it, and try to identify exact moments when you start to feel that way.
By pinpointing those moments, you can start to solve the problem of songs that move in a bad direction, and you can create something that’s far more stimulating, entertaining, and creative.