When we use the word “clever” in songwriting, we’re usually talking about lyrics. In that context, a clever lyric means any one of the following:
- There’s a double meaning going on that might not be immediately obvious. (i.e., the song isn’t about what it appears to be about)
- There are common words being used in an uncommon or unexpected way. (i.e., “I’m high but I’m grounded…” (Alanis Morissette, “Hand In My Pocket”)
- The lyric makes copious use of metaphors, alliteration, similes and other poetic devices.
Could we ever consider a melody to be clever? How about a chord progression? Would you ever hear a rhythm in the backing instruments and think, “That sounds clever?”
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We might be tempted to equate the word clever with “complex” or “intricate,” but I think that would be a mistake. Being clever has a bit of surprise attached to its meaning: you used a word, a phrase, or perhaps an entire lyric, in a way that was unexpected.
Cleverness is hard to incorporate into pop songs, because one of the most important features of pop music is the immediacy of appeal. The most successful hit songs are ones that people tend to “get” — to understand — pretty much right away.
True, there may be new aspects of the lyric that are revealed as we hear them many times. There might be phrases that we never truly understand. But those don’t typically keep us from enjoying the song right away.
If you’re ready to bump your lyric-writing abilities up to the level of being clever, then, you need to keep a few things in mind:
- Pop songs generally need to be immediately appealing, no matter how clever the lyric might be. We often think of songs for which we have an instant liking to be “dumbed down” for commercial appeal, but that’s not necessarily true. A song’s groove and feel can give it an immediate appeal, and buys you some time if you’ve opted to write a lyric that’s clever, deeper, or more intricate in some way.
- Clever lyrics can move dangerously close to being pretentious. A pretentious lyric means that you’re using complex words or phrasing for no good reason, simply to sound intellectually superior, and it’s artistically dishonest. Read though any lyric that you consider to be clever, and you’ll find that the best ones use common, everyday words, but assembled sometimes in unexpected ways.
- Remember your genre, and remember your audience. Some song lyrics just don’t need to be overly shrewd. I’ve always loved the line from “Boys ‘Round Here” (Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson, Craig Wiseman) that goes, “The boys ’round here don’t listen to the Beatles…” It’s a fun line, quite an unexpected way to start a song, and almost argumentative in a “twinkle-in-the-eye” kind of way. To me, it’s clever, and I might add, clever enough.
- Partnership between song elements is more important than cleverness. When it comes right down to it, a song in which all the elements — the lyrics, melodies, chords, instrumentation, etc. — work well together will outperform any other song that’s simply clever. Clever is an attribute of a song element, not an element itself.
I believe that cleverness in music comes over time. It’s not something we can consciously do, any more than we can be consciously “smarter”, “cooler”, or “funnier.” If you want to bump your lyric-writing to a new level, you need to read lots of good lyrics, and spend a lot of time writing and rewriting your lyrical attempts.
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