Lorde - Liability

The Laser Focus of Good Song Lyrics

Good lyrics have a strong sense of focus — of purpose and direction. It might help to make that statement the opposite way: bad lyrics wander about without being overly clear about what’s even being said.

To say that a song lyric has focus means that it points toward a specific topic and doesn’t stray needlessly. It means that as you read through your lyric, every line supports the direction that’s been provided by the previous line.

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As you move from section to section, you should still notice not just that strong sense of purpose and meaning in the lyric – you’ll notice the vital sense of continuity. True, there may be lines that you don’t understand. There might be lines where the true meaning isn’t revealed yet, but you don’t get the feeling that it’s been thrown in randomly or needlessly.

Finding the Direction In Your Lyrics

Here’s a great to tell if your lyrics have the kind of focus necessary to keep listeners pulled in:

  1. Point to any line of lyric in your song and read it aloud.
  2. Say to yourself, “Because I said this, I followed it up with…” – Now read the next line of lyric.

Those two steps should reveal any glitches in the flow of your lyric. Keep in mind that any time adjacent lines of lyric leave you feeling confused as to direction or purpose, you’ll have audiences who will be confused.

It will be helpful to take a good song lyric and test those two steps. Here are the opening lines of Lorde’s song “Liability” (Ella Yelich-O’Connor, Jack Antonoff):

Baby really hurt me
Crying in the taxi
He don’t wanna know me
Says he made the big mistake of dancing in my storm
Says it was poison
So I guess I’ll go home

You pick up a sense of direction right away. Within a line or two you know what’s being sung about: someone who’s been hurt by someone she loves. Now read each line, and notice that the “because I said this, I followed it up with…” really makes sense. The lyric is strong and relentless as all good lyrics should be. There is a laser focus.

Another way to check the focus of your lyric is to read a line, then ask yourself, “What’s that line doing there?” Then read the line before it. There should be a strong sense of continuity.

This becomes really important in songs where the meaning isn’t so clear. You might be using more complex metaphors and analogies, masking the true meaning of your lyric. The sense of direction and focus still needs to be there.

So it’s time to put the magnifying glass on your lyrics and clean up the lines. Don’t allow listeners to get pulled about aimlessly by bad, directionless lyrics.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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