5 Lyrical Clichés That Will Kill Your Song

by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.

starshipIt makes for fun reading to go online and find a site devoted to the worst songs ever written. The writers of these songs can at least console themselves with the knowledge that to be renowned for being bad requires the song (often) to have been a hit at some point. Nonetheless, you want to be sure that your song doesn’t someday make it to that list.

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Everyone has an opinion as to what makes a song bad. But if you look at those lists, what you’re really looking at for the most part is a list of songs that have the worst lyrics ever written. More often than not, what makes a song bad is… those lyrics! (Michael Jackson: “…The doggone girl is mine”.. <*cringe*>)

There are musical clichés that you must be careful of as well, elements that might sound fine used once, but quickly become quirky and trite:

  • an overabundance of Sus4 chords;
  • semitone modulation upward as the bridge moves to the chorus;
  • overuse of the I-vi-ii-V-I progression (which is a great progression, but if it’s in every one of your songs, it’s time to branch out.)
  • adding rap to a song that doesn’t call for it, or (especially) by a singer who doesn’t usually rap;
  • handclaps;

Some songs become lousy simply because of production issues:

  • Overuse of vocal and drum reverb; (the “stadium sound”)
  • Overuse of autotune as a vocal effect; (don’t get me started)
  • MIDI orchestrations that sound fake and distracting;

But many of these clichés will be accepted by the listener longer than cliché lyrics. There’s something about a corny lyric that makes you feel that Aunt Betty just knit you a plaid sweater vest.

So what do you do to make sure that your lyrics will stand the test of time?

Avoid these five standard lyrical bloopers:

  1. Forced lyrics. As you work on the lyric, say the words to yourself, and be sure they come off as being the normal, ordinary way you would say it.
  2. Overused phrases, the kind that can easily crop up in songs. Phrases like “Got t’have you by my side”, “I saw her walkin’ down the street..”, “I’m down on my knees and beggin’ you please” , and “Can’t you see..”would be examples of seemingly harmless phrasings that will sound corny and meaningless over time.
  3. Forced rhymes. Rhyming for the sake of rhyming is dangerous. (When the Shuffle Demons recorded the culty “Spadina Bus”, they had their tongues firmly in their cheeks, no doubt, when they came up with: “Dug deep down in my pockets/ To try and find some coin/ But much to my chagrin/ All I found was my groin..” At least, I hope that was an intentional attempt at corn.
  4. Over-the-top analogies. (“We built this city on rock and roll..” (Starship))
  5. Bad grammar, when it’s used to make a line fit. Bad grammar is everywhere, and if it is slang, used because it’s the way we’d usually say something in a given context (“I Got Rhythm..”) then it’s probably OK. But using bad grammar to sound hip, or to make a line fit, will draw enormously negative attention to it. (“See the tree how big it’s grown/ But friend it hasn’t been too long/ It wasn’t big..” (“Honey”, by Bobby Russell, made famous by Bobby Goldsboro)).

So now you’re worried, aren’t you? How do you really know if your lyric is breaking one of these guidelines? Probably the most important of the five of them is the first one. If you say what you’re saying with natural ease, with the terminology you’d normally use, you’ll be just fine.

And now… tell me which songs out there today are, in your opinion, headed for the garbage bin of music history? What’s the worst song released in the past 5 years? Post your comments below.

________________________

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27 Comments

  1. If you want to make music alone without being critiqued ,go ahead. These blogs are for the people who want to continuously improve at their art.Self expression is just one factor of making music. The audience is another. If music didn’t have any rules at all, everyone would be a great music artist.

  2. Bleh, horrible topic! Songs all repeat given enough time, lots of songs use formula that are what is popular at the time, and some things stay and some go away. Lyrics are cliche or plain, or innovative. In my experience playing and listening to music, its all subjective anyway, so who cares? And asking for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ songs is ridiculous. Stop arguing about music, and just make it. The only thing that offends me in music is a person that can play an instrument at all, even poorly, but won’t do it. And if your even a little good, then play with and in front of others! No excuse for keeping music in the closet, the best music is when your singing or playing it! Even singing along in the car, outta key and off time… just do it.

  3. lol cliche lyrics crack me up…. like guess what would come next
    “you take my hand, to let me know you _________.” or “you’re breaking up my heart, you’re______ ___ ______” yeah… you probably guessed them. (understand and tearing me apart)

  4. How about almost every song that has “girl” in it where it doesn’t need to be. Saying “girl” so “girl’s” sake is lame.

  5. the worst song of this year has to be the one that has the refrain “oh, this is just the start, lighting strikes the heart, it goes off like a gun” makes me wish lighting would strike my heart and end the pain!!

  6. great post!

    The number one thing that makes me clench my jaw is “Forever and ever and ever”… “Again and again and again” … “Over and over again”

    This is a brilliant literary move – if you’re in first grade.

  7. This kind of talk is about enough for me to stop reading these blogs. What makes a song good is if it sounds good. Period. Most of the songs chosen above were/are considered great in their time. No one who considers these songs great gives much weight to grammar, cliche’ lyrics, or “over-the-top analogies”. Songs are good because they stir up emotion and find a strong connection with the listener; either through lyrics, hook, melody, or just an amazing performance. I think I would rather get advice about writing good songs from those who have actually written some. I believe there is a certain amount of imagination and poetic license allowed in lyric writing which overlooks grammar and, sometimes, cliche’.

  8. Two word “crutches” that have killed me forever are overuse of the words “and” and “again”. They seem to be put in at the beginnings and ends (respectively) of song phrases (for example: “and it’s been a while since I saw the way the candles light your face…”) without purpose sometimes. I assume “again” is meant to highlight or add gravity to the repetition of an incident the singer is recounting, but it does not make the subject of the song more poignant. “And” just seems to be a way to ease into a phrase, rather than making a declarative statement that must stand on its own merits – I suppose it could be a form of “in medias res”. Either road, the two words are used too often to have any value left, and both could be edited out of almost any song I’ve ever heard them in, resulting in a cleaner and bolder lyric (and also, a lyric I don’t feel like an idiot quoting).

  9. Any lyric that starts with the words “Here I am” or “Here we are”. Boring. And also lyrics that use the word “just”, a meaningless word, as a syllable filler.

  10. one thing for me thats annoying is the overuse of words ending with-TION. that rhyme of toghether, forever and never, and finaly do and you

  11. Quite possible some of the most cliched lyric rhymes to slaughter any song: theres a high chance these will be found in any modern pop + rnb songs
    Fire – desire
    heart – part – start
    love – club – up
    same – game – again
    forever – never – together
    knees – please
    meet – street
    eyes – thighs
    party – body
    alright – tonight
    do it – move it
    boogie – booty
    down – round – sound
    bass – place
    way – day – stay – play
    strong – belong – one – on
    baby – lately
    deep – keep
    you – through – do – to – prove
    bye – smile – lie – why – inside
    night – try – side – might

    there are loads more i just cant think off the top of my head

  12. I would love to know how the duo 303 is getting so much video play on vh1 and mtvs hitlist , song lyrics are very predictable (in every song) and who the hell told them thats music?-just asking.

  13. I almost gag at any song that rhymes seen and been- I know it looks right on paper but to sing it is a stretch. I roll my eyes at any song that references how playing with fire will result in getting burned. I’m entirely sick of musicians asking me if I’m ready. Maybe I don’t want to get the party started and I don’t think you should either.

  14. gary !! great insight overall but the lyrics clichés i am not sure about ( bad grammar ) part because you can always make a bad grammar cliché work so lets not block creativity over that

    • Yes, we shouldn’t allow adherence to good grammar block creativity, but I was talking more about *mangling* grammar just to make it fit. Bad grammar happens a lot in good songs, but the problems occur when it’s forced.

  15. Most hiphop and R&B songs are garbage now and days. Some of the lyrics are in direct conflict with the videos that are later released. Two examples of such is: Beyonce’s “Put a ring on it” This video glorify’s a woman being pretty much naked, and even shows her pulsing her scantily clad crotch towards the camera. What does that have to do with being wholesome enough to get married. It’s like a stripper telling her client we have to walk down the aisle first. Jasmine Sullivan’s “Bust Your Windows” this video was a let down. No windows were hurt upon the making of this vid.

  16. I’ve been listening to “Shake Me Like a Monkey” by DMB a lot recently.. This song is really great, and of course the band is killer. But it got me thinking that performance *style* is so much a part of what makes songs work. For 99% of the bands out there, trying to use the phrase “shake me like a monkey”, would result in disaster. But Dave Matthews gives it a certain kind of “something” in the performance style that just makes the whole song really work, *really* well. So lyrics can sound corny, but it’s all tied together with the other song elements, especially performance style.

  17. Oh my, worst song lyrically, ever?

    Hm.
    Spice Girls–whatever that song is that they say zigazigah! haha. It’s terrible.

  18. Lots of christian worship music has too many sus 4th chords…enough to bore Jesus.

    As far as worst songs in the past 5 years, in pop music there is a lot of competition for those slots. It might help to look towards “unstoppable” by Kat Deluna, but the list can also include anything with the “fire…desire” rhyme, as well as some songs I’ve written!

  19. I don’t know about the last five years, but the first verse of Daughtry’s “Home” makes me cringe. Also, the song “Who I am hates who I’ve been” by Relient K has some very unnatural lyrics.

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