Peter Gabriel - Don't Give up

Where a Lyrical Cliché Might Work In a Song

One of the worst things you might do as a songwriter is to use clichés in your lyrics, but I’d like to make a small defence of this faux-pas, at least in certain situations. You’d think that a cliché is going to get your song sent immediately to the naughty chair called “Worst Songs Ever”, but that’s not always the case.

A cliché, you would think, should be avoided for an obvious reason: its very definition is that it’s an overused word or phrase, or lacking in original thought, both of which should usually be intensely disliked by any self-respecting songwriter.

But if there is any possibility of redemption for the lowly cliché word or statement, it’s in the song title itself.

And just glance through lists of top hit songs from any year, and you’ll find that a good number of song titles are (or include) a cliché:

  • “Stay With me” (Sam Smith, 2014)
  • “Let Her Go” (Passenger, 2014)
  • “Love Will Keep Us Together” (Captain & Tennille, 1975)
  • “Don’t Give Up” (Peter Gabriel, 1986)
  • “Genie In a Bottle” (Christina Aguilera, 1999)
  • “Don’t Stop the Music” (Rihanna, 2008)

And for the most part, we’re fine with clichés used in this way, as a song title. Why is that? Why is that if we read a cliché as part of a first or second line of a verse lyric, our gag reflex kicks in, but if the cliché is part of the title, we’re okay with it?

It probably has to do with the emotional level of a song’s title. Songwriters usually title their song after the lyric of the hook. When Lennon & McCartney wrote, “She Loves You”, there was no expectation that that title on its own was going to convey much of anything beyond the emotional content of it.

In other words, we’re often okay with a song title that gets based on a cliché, as long as everything else in the song’s lyric is original. A cliché for a title makes it immediately clear what the song is about, and there can be considerable value in that.

Let’s say that you want to write a song about helping a friend move on from a bad relationship. You’re not likely going to dig out that old adage, “There’s other fish in the sea”… except perhaps in the song’s title. And as long as it’s followed up by something more original.

We like the emotional sparkle that comes from a well-place cliché, as long as it’s rare within the song’s lyric. So my advice as always is to avoid lyrical clichés, but don’t worry so much about them if they appear as the song’s title.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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