by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
It 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.
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;
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Over-the-top analogies. (“We built this city on rock and roll..” (Starship))
- 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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