Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
Anything that elicits an emotional response can be the source of a good lyric. We usually like to draw on positive, upbeat emotions, so you’ll find more songs describing love than any other. But there are other great song topics: social activism, the climate, religion, family, beautiful locations, and so on. To create a unique lyric, try combining.
For example, you may have had your fill of writing about “the lover who got away.” And you may have tried your hand at warning the world about the perils of climate change, and what we can do to solve it. But have you ever thought of combining the two into a distinctive lyric? Your song could be comparing the problems that the earth is facing, but use the same terminology that you might use to describe a love-relationship that’s going sour. The great thing about a lyric like that is that at first glance, people think you’re talking about the person in your life (“without you, I’ve got nothing…”), but a few key phrases might open their eyes, and lead them to think that there’s something deeper in your meaning (“Things are warming up, and that’s not good…”).
Love can easily be combined with religion. If you believe in a supreme being, and want to tell the world about that relationship, it’s very easy to describe the emotions in such a way that people aren’t sure, until they hear a few obvious phrases, that it’s your faith that you’re describing, not your latest beau/belle.
Now your imagination should be kicking in, as you think about other ways to combine topics into something unique. Keep in mind that the task here is to create a lyric that appears to be one thing to the typical listener at the outset, but morphs into something else as they consider the words over time.
So here are some ideas for you to play with:
- Combine various kinds of love (not as weird as you might think!) You could write a song telling the world about a significant person in your life. If you do it carefully, you can have listeners believe you’re talking about your significant other, when in fact you’re describing how important your son/daughter is to you. (Don’t get creepy with this. Be careful of the kinds of metaphors you use; it is your daughter, after all!)
- Describe how you’ve wronged a person in your life and ignored them when they needed you, and reveal later on in the song that “that person” is actually the environment.
- Imagine the emotions you’d feel by finally getting the man/woman of your dreams to say “yes!” But use the metaphor of climbing the world’s highest mountain. Use words like “heights,” “holding on,” “trust you,” “never thought it would happen.”
The point here is that you want people to believe, at least at first, that your song is about one thing, when all along it was about something else. You don’t want to reveal the real topic in an obvious way. In fact, the best kind of lyric in this regard will cause debate amongst listeners as they try to defend their view of your lyric.
And in many ways, there is no one right answer. If your song was always about the environment, but only half of your audience knows that, that’s OK. You can choose to never reveal the real topic, or you can wait for years. It can be fun. “Hotel California”, on its surface, is a song about a hotel where “you can never leave.” You soon discover that there’s more to it than that, and the song is actually about the seedier, darker side of the excesses of life in America. But the song wouldn’t have succeeded to the degree that it has if the topic was revealed head-on. It’s all part of being creative.