A song where the meaning of the lyric isn’t immediately clear excites us. We’re usually intrigued by the fact that the words are so simple, the phrases and sentences so seemingly unambiguous, and yet… what does it all mean?
We can usually tell when a songwriter is pouring out their soul to us, even if they don’t want it to be blazingly clear what they’re singing about. Perhaps we feel respect that the writer has chosen to keep a bit of themselves in reserve. So they don’t reveal everything.
Lyrics lose their power when the melody and chords aren’t supporting them properly. But how is that done? Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” lays it all out clearly, showing you how lyrics and melodies must collaborate to be powerful. Get it as part of the 10-eBook Bundle.
But it’s actually not that they don’t reveal everything. It’s more that they reserve the magic key that unlocks everything. Without that key, you only get a smattering of moods and feelings. Those moods usually give us enough that we enjoy the song, and we’re OK with not knowing everything.
Once we’re given that magic key — the “meaning” — it all makes complete (or almost complete) sense.
Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green” (see the complete lyric here) is a perfect example of a song where the writer has reserved the magic key so that we only get the feelings, and only snippets and ideas of what/who the song’s really about:
Born with the moon in Cancer
Choose her a name she will answer to
Call her green and the winters cannot fade her
Call her green for the children who’ve made her
Little green, be a gypsy dancer
He went to California
Hearing that everything’s warmer there
So you write him a letter and say “Her eyes are blue”
He sends you a poem and she’s lost to you
Little green he’s a non-conformer…
-Joni Mitchell, “Little Green” – © 1967 Siquomb Music (BMI)
We know now, because of more recent revelations, that “Little Green” is the daughter that Joni gave up for adoption in the mid-60s. With that knowledge, we listen again to the song, and suddenly the scene is more clearly illuminated: we understand. We felt the story before, and now we know.
What’s wonderful is that though we’ve loved and been patient with not knowing everything, we love it all the more now that we know more. We still feel the love, pain, joy and sorrow of each line.
These kinds of songs are hard to write in committee. You can’t imagine seven people in a room coming up with this. These are the kinds of songs that need one writer, and possibly two if you’ve got a songwriting collaborator that truly understands you.
To write songs like “Little Green”, where the meaning is hidden or at least partially obscured, you can’t follow a list of rules. You can, however, try the following, once you know what you want your song to be about:
- At the top of a page, write, “Tell me more about __________.” Fill in that blank. Then underneath that heading, write words, phrases and sentences that begin to relate your song’s story or issue.
- As your lyric fills in, and you feel that each verse points in a new direction, write a new heading that says, “Tell me more about________.” Each verse can have it’s own autonomy in this way.
- Remember that disembodied emotions that have no story are hard for audiences to relate to. So you’ll need to give enough in your lyric that people get an inkling about your song’s subject.
- Keep something in reserve for yourself. Don’t feel that you must divulge everything to your audience.
- Each line of lyric needs to logically follow. Completely disconnected thoughts can sound purposely confusing. The point of hidden meaning is not to confuse people, but simply to offer the freedom — the permission, you might say — to listeners to understand the song in their own way. Read each line in “Little Green”, and you’ll see that it works when you say, “Because she said this, she then said that.”)
The purpose of hidden or obscured meaning, therefore, is not to arrogantly taunt the listener, but rather to offer an opportunity for individual listeners to fill in the pieces with bits from their own past, to have a truly unique musical experience.
Done well, hidden meaning makes audiences savour your words, and want to taste them again and again. They stimulate the innermost reaches of their minds, and that’s always a good thing.
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base“, is available at “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” Online Store. Get it separately, or as part of 10-eBook Bundle, along with a FREE chord progression eBook.