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The most important part of getting a song right is getting the audience to care about what you’ve written. In most songs, the simple act of writing about something everyone has experienced before (love, breakups, family issues, peace, etc.) will do it.
But what about songs for which the lyrics are hard to hear: “Louie Louie“, written by Richard Barry and most famously recorded by the Kingsmen in 1963?
For that kind of song, the ultra-hooky song intro is enough to grab the audience. They could have been singing about a muffin recipe and I think they’d have still built an audience for the song.
These days it’s easier to deal with lyrics you can’t understand: you just Google them. But what about songs where you can hear the lyrics clearly, but it’s harder to know exactly what’s being sung about, something like Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey”:
Cover me when I run
Cover me through the fire
Something knocked me out’ the trees
Now I’m on my knees
Cover me, darling please, hey
Monkey, monkey, monkey
That lyric is hard to discern, but the song became a moderate hit for Gabriel, so the song certainly made a connection to an audience. Anyone who cares to research the song will know that it’s not about monkeys at all, but about “how jealousy can release one’s basic instincts; the monkey is not a literal monkey, but a metaphor for one’s feelings of jealousy.” (Wikipedia)
But people don’t connect to songs because their meaning can be made known to them with some online research. They connect because they hear something that touches them in some way. So why (and how) can audiences connect to songs when the meaning is hidden?
If you’re working out lyrics where you want the actual meaning to be hidden, or at least not in plain view, here are some tips:
- Give the audience something upon which they can build their own meaning. In “Shock the Monkey”, you’ll get certain words and phrases that might appear in any song: “Cover me, darling please…”, “There is one thing you must be sure of…”, “Don’t like it but I guess I’m learning…” Though it’s hard to create a storyline with those isolated phrases, it succeeds by making listeners believe there is something in there somewhere, and they start to create their own story.
- Use simple, conversational words. People connect to simple words and phrases, even if the actual meaning of everything together is hard to figure out. Once you start using words where a dictionary is necessary, then you’ve lost them.
- Let the rhythm of the music partner up with the natural rhythm of the words. Once you’ve written your song, read the lyrics using the rhythms of your lead vocal melody. They need to work at this level.
- Be sure that the actual meaning of your song is worth the time a listener puts into trying to figure it out. In other words, your lyrics may look like gibberish to someone who hasn’t figured it out yet, but be sure that there is actual meaning behind what you’ve written. Not everyone will figure it out — or even agree with anyone else about what the song’s meaning — but there needs to be a prize for the diligent listener at the end of the process.
It’s not easy to write lyrics like “Shock the Monkey”, or any other song that makes us work to understand it. There’s a fine line between great lyrics and pretentious drivel.
But if you take the time to get it right, lyrics with hidden meanings, double meanings, or other kinds of complex devices are rewarding, and those songs tend to stand the test of time.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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