A cliché is an overused expression. We use them most frequently in casual conversation, and it’s why they might appear too often in your songs: the best lyrics tend to be the ones that sound like casual conversation.
In songwriting, a cliché sounds lazy. It sounds as though you might have come up with something more creative, but you opted for the easy line. (“I’m down on my knees and begging you please”).
Clichés have a way of turning listeners off because before you get the whole cliché out we all know how that line will end.
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Having said that, there are circumstances in which a well-placed cliché can be just what a lyric might need. A bit of humour might come from the use of a cliché statement: “Love me till the cows come home…” from “Skin Tight” (James Pankow, from “Chicago X”.)
Song titles are definitely more forgiving of the use of clichés. “About Damn Time” (Lizzo), “Rock and a Hard Place” (Bailey Zimmerman), “Take My Breath Away” (Berlin). Cliche’s can work as titles because a song’s chorus or refrain (from where most titles are pulled) tend to use words that are high in emotional content, and often a quick cliché is accepted more readily.
In any case, here are five common but dangerous lyrical clichés you should try to avoid in your lyric writing:
- Forced lyrics. A forced lyric sounds as though you jammed words and phrases together simply as a way of completing a line. The best way to identify forced lyrics is to say your lyric without the notes or rhythm of your song, simply as prose. The lines should sound easy and natural.
- Overused phrases. These are the kinds of phrases that might innocently and suddenly pop into your lyric, like “Got t’have you by my side”, “I saw her walkin’ down the street..”, “I’m down on my knees and beggin’ you please” , and “Can’t you see..”. The solution is to make a list of other phrases that say the same thing, and that fit into the general mood of the rest of your lyric.
- Forced rhymes. A forced rhyme means that you chose words whose main function was to rhyme with the line before it, and you can tell it’s forced by the unnatural feel and meaningless contribution of the line when you read it as a line in a poem. “Hope you give your heart to me/ Hope you do, hee hee hee.”)
- Over-the-top analogies. Probably the best example of this is Starship’s “We built this city on rock and roll..” In a way, an over-the-top analogy comes under the category heading of the forced lyric.
- Bad grammar, when it’s used to make a line fit. Bad grammar can be fine if it’s the way we’d typically say something in a given context, like the line “I Got Rhythm..”. But bad grammar simply to get a line to work can be dangerously detrimental. I often use the first line of “Honey” by Bobby Russell, recorded by Bobby Goldsboro back in the late 60s, as a good example: “See the tree how big it’s grown/ But friend it hasn’t been too long/ It wasn’t big..” (“Honey”, by Bobby Russell, made famous by Bobby Goldsboro)).
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
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