This week, with the passing of legendary singer-songwriter Glen Campbell, we’ve been hearing a lot about some of the songs that made him famous as a solo artist: “Rhinestone Cowboy”, “Galveston”, “Gentle On My Mind”, and “Wichita Lineman”, among many, many others.
“Wichita Lineman” was written by Jimmy Webb, and it’s the song I’ve been hearing most about this week by those who loved Glen’s music. Many describe this song as the unlikeliest of hits: how on earth do you make a hit song about a guy who fixes power lines in Wichita?
The fact that he’s a lineman is actually part of the success of the song. The image of the lineman represents the common man to us, doing a mundane job, immersed in thoughts about his love. From that opening line, “I am a lineman for the county..” we immediately identify with the character type.
But I think the success of the song — the part that really connects — is how masterfully Webb is able to move the subject from the lineman to the unnamed love of his life. The lyric constantly mentions “I”, but it’s in the second half of each verse where “you” finally gets a mention, and that’s where we get pulled in:
It’s wonderful, the simplicity of how this works. Webb starts by creating a character we can identify with. It could have been an office worker, a plumber, a carpenter… but somehow, the image of a lineman “searching’ in the sun” was the perfect metaphor.
Within three lines, we identify. Then the real power of the lyric happens when he switches from being simply autobiographical (“I am a lineman”), allowing us to peer inside his emotional soul: “I hear you singing’ in the wires..”
It’s that switch, from singing about himself, to singing about his love, where we’re smitten. Think about it: by the 4th line of the song, we’re feeling the strong emotions of a lonely man missing his love, in a very powerful way. Talk about efficiency!
That pattern — switching from “me” to “you”, happens again in the second verse. I do believe, as I mentioned in a Twitter post a few days ago, that the final lines of the song are amongst the best lyrics in 50 years of pop music:
And I need you more than want you,
And I want you for all time.
Toggling back and forth between writing about yourself and then writing about someone else is a powerful way to make a connection to your audience.
And here’s something else: we feel the enormous emotional connection the singer has for this unnamed love, but he gives us no information about that other person at all. Nothing. So why are we feeling the emotions? It’s because once we identify with the singer, we’ll feel anything he’s feeling.
So the switch from the singer to the singer’s love only really works if you been successful in drawing listeners in to who the singer is. If you’re writing about yourself, you’ve got to find imagery that listeners can identify with.
It doesn’t matter if you can do it in three lines, as Webb was able to do, or if it takes you longer. But moving from narrative-style lyrics to emotional ones will only work if the audience connects somehow to the character you initially set up.
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