Don McLean - American Pie

Helping Your Audience Connect to a Complicated Story Song

When you write lyrics, you obviously want your audience to connect to those lyrics and feel something. That would seem to imply that the meaning of your lyric has to be at least clear enough that your listeners understand what’s being sung about.

But that’s not necessarily the case. There are plenty of good examples out there of successful songs where the words being sung are clear enough, but the actual story is a bit unclear.

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A good example of what I’m talking about is Don McLean’s “American Pie.” The meaning of the song has been debated for decades now. Some things are clear — that “the day the music died” referred to the 1959 plane crash that took the lives of three of that era’s biggest stars: Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper.

But everything else is deliciously ambiguous, and over the years has become the subject of wild and entertaining speculation, as you can see on this page, “Meaning Of ‘American Pie’ Song Lyrics (Full Explanation).”

But what’s most interesting is the fact that even though we’re not quite sure what many of the individual lines actually mean, we’re not particularly bothered by that. And our lack of knowing hasn’t prevented McLean from making that all-important emotional connection to his listeners.

In other words, we feel a deep connection to individual lines of lyric. If we knew nothing about “American Pie”, and didn’t know what he was talking about when he used the phrase “the day the music died”, we’d still feel a twinge of surprise, nostalgia and emotion at the sound of those words.

And keep in mind that no one initially knew who he was referring to when he mentioned “the jester” (probably Bob Dylan), the “quartet” (probably the Beatles), “a girl who sang the blues” (probably Janis Joplin), and yet the song soared to number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 while the meaning of the song was confusing to most of its fans.

People Connect to Lines of Lyric

The lesson you can take from this as a lyricist is that most of your fans will connect to individual lines of lyric and the way those lines are sung, even if they’re unclear what it all means when you pull it all together.

There are many examples of songs that are a bit unclear when it comes to what exactly is being referenced. But they become successful because individual stand-alone lines carry the potential of great meaning.

And once a listener pulls all of those different lines together, they have the ability to create their own meaning, one that works on a personal level.

Most of your listeners will be just fine listening to your lyric even if it does more to pose questions than offer answers. We’re all okay with questions and ambiguity, as long as on a micro-level there is meaning and emotional potential in the individual lines.

Do you have favourite songs where the meaning of the lyric is ambiguous or complex? Please feel free to let me know in the comments below.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter. Hooks & Riffs“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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