Song Lyrics: the Beauty of "Light-Duty" Metaphors

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Frank Sinatra: Fly Me To The MoonThere are very few song lyrics out there right now that tell a story in a literal way. We know that verse lyrics need to describe situations and lay out a story line, but if you look at lyrics from most successful songs, you’ll see that good lyrics “piece a story together ” rather than clearly chronicling a step-by-step “here’s what’s happening.” No matter what genre you write in, metaphor plays an important role. In particular, it’s the use of “light-duty” metaphors that are most prevalent.

A metaphor is a lyrical device that describes one thing by referring to another. For example, “My life is a roller coaster” is a metaphorical way of saying, “My life always feels frantic and out-of-control.”

Metaphors are not new in music, and their use allows the lyricist to be more precise with lyrical meaning without being too literal or pedantic.

The lyrics for that great song, “Fly Me To The Moon” (1954), written by Bart Howard,  and made most famous by Frank Sinatra, are a great example. He offers a clear metaphor, then (in what’s somewhat unusual) uses the lyric to explain the metaphor:

Fly me to the moon
Let me play among the stars
Let me see what spring is like
On Jupiter and Mars
In other words, hold my hand
In other words, baby , kiss me

© HAMPSHIRE HOUSE PUBLISHNG CORP

It’s such a gorgeous way of describing the giddiness we associate with love. He could have simply said something like, “When you hold my hand, I feel so wonderful…”, but the metaphor of flying through outer space says it all.

It’s an example of what we might call a “light-duty” metaphor. A light-duty metaphor is one that happens once, purely as a means of deepening the lyrical meaning. And the meaning of the metaphor, if it’s not clear right away why you’re using it, becomes clear within the same verse or chorus.

A heavy-duty metaphor, by comparison, is one analogy, or a series of analogies, that lasts for most, if not all, of a song, the meaning of which may never be entirely clear.

The Eagles’ “Hotel California” is a great example of a heavy-duty metaphor, where the meaning of song is never clearly disclosed.

Light-duty metaphors work well because they allow the writer to simply enhance lyrical meaning without needing to hide the actual intent of the song. So when Bruno Mars in his song “Grenade” describes his feelings by saying, “Gave you all I had and you tossed it in the trash…”, he’s adding important attitude to the situation. He could have said, “Gave you all I had and you rejected me…” but “tossed it in the trash” adds attitude to the lyrical meaning.

When the Black Keys sing, “Tighten up on your reigns/ You’re running wild…” (from “Tighten Up”), lyrical meaning is enhanced by establishing the picture of a wild animal out of control.

So it’s worth the time to check your lyrics to make sure that you’re not being too literal. Being too factual and clear with your lyrical meaning can cause lyrics to read a bit more like a police report than a song sheet.

In those moments when everything seems to be coming out a bit too accurately, you can improve your lyrics with a few well-placed metaphors.

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