I’m a fan of Genesis, but enjoyed the older incarnation of that group more than the one in the mid-80s. That’s not a criticism at all because I think Genesis wrote brilliant pop music. I just happen to like their older prog rock style.
Genesis wrote and recorded “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” for their 1986 “Invisible Touch” album, and that song has stuck in my head ever since as an example of what I’ve thought of as the risky use of clichés in a lyric. And more specifically, what happens when a bunch of them get thrown together, all competing for attention.
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Clichés often form the basis of a good lyrical hook. As you hopefully know, clichés should be avoided, but can often work well as the basis of a chorus lyric — a lyrical hook.
Like a melodic hook, a lyrical hook tends to be short, intended to grab attention. Most lyrical hooks get repeated because they’re usually connected to chorus hooks. Michael Jackson’s “Bad”, Van Halen’s “Jump”, Calvin Harris’ “We Found Love” are all good examples of lyrical hooks.
And like a chorus hook, a lyrical hook is usually easy/fun to perform, and helps define the song.
If you look at the first few lines of “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight”, you’ll get a sense, I think, of what I mean by a jumble of clichés all competing for attention:
You can usually identify the existence of a cliché by asking, “Could I write a song called “[insert cliché word or phrase here]”. And most of those phrases in that Genesis lyric have appeared over the years as song titles, or parts of titles.
Clichés and lyrical hooks rise and fall in prominence over the years. The Bee Gees settled on ‘Stayin’ Alive'” as the title for one of their biggest disco hits even though the title “Saturday Night” had been suggested to them. For some reason, though, the phrase “Saturday night” was appearing in more 70s songs than one could count, and so they opted for “Stayin’ alive.”
Clichés have to be used carefully because a phrase rises to the status of cliché by being over-used. So using a cliché is an acknowledgment that you’re using a bit of lyric that’s been written into a previous song’s lyric, or in casual conversation, many times over.
Having said that, a cliché´has a way of summing up a state of mind or a circumstance very concisely, and as long as your usage of it (hopefully in a chorus) is, at least on some level, unique, a cliché can form the foundation of a good lyrical hook, and do so successfully.
So the advice for songwriters is this:
- The occasional (infrequent) use of a cliché in your verse should be OK, as long as you feel that it best sums up what you’re trying to convey.
- Clichés in a chorus, particularly as part of a lyrical hook, are less troublesome than clichés in a verse, but work best when the rest of the lyric is powerful, imaginative and/or clever.
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