If you look at a lyric from a typical pop song, you’re not usually looking at something that’s deep or complex. Usually that’s by design: the purpose of most pop songs is to create emotions within the listener, and it’s hard to create emotions when the words and their contextual meanings are intricate or convoluted. Words that often appear in casual conversation are the most common ones to use in song lyrics.
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But there are exceptions. There are songs that have been chart toppers where the meaning of the lyric is elusive. Sometimes it’s a case that the lyrics, line by line, are making perfect sense, but what’s actually being talked about is less obvious when you put it all together, as in the lyric to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” (1971):
There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is goldAnd she’s buying a stairway to HeavenWhen she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closedWith a word she can get what she came forOoh, ooh, and she’s buying a stairway to Heaven
Or Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” (1977):
To keep in silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
So I went from day to day
Though my life was in a rut
‘Til I thought of what I’ll say
Which connection I should cut
Sometimes, as in the case of several John Lennon songs, the lyric might be purposely abstract, simply to throw a wrench into the brains of listeners prone to over-analysis, as in “Come Together”:
He wear no shoe shineHe got toe jam football He got monkey finger He shoot Coca-Cola He say I know you, you know me One thing I can tell you is you got to be free
In a weird sort of way, the songs where the meaning is not immediately apparent can often still work, and can even, in combination with the melodies, chords and performance style, create an emotional reaction in the minds of the listeners.
How can a complex lyric do that, if the overall meaning isn’t obvious?
The Power of a Single Line
If you take a song that seems lyrically dense, but then simply go line by line, your brain becomes more likely to create significance to the lines that, on their own, seem quite clear. So in “Come Together”, when Lennon sings “One thing I can tell you is you got to be free“, we find ourselves nodding vigorously and agreeing.
And not only agreeing, but valuing the meaning of that line all the more, simply because we understand it: it’s a moment of powerful clarity in an otherwise jumbled up collection of words and lines.
I love complex lyrics — the ones where I can tell there’s something there that I’m not seeing right away, but I know it’s there. It makes me want to go back and listen again, and hopefully to eventually come up with a theory of what the songwriter had in mind.
And I may be wrong when I finally decide the meaning, but for me, the fact that I could be wrong doesn’t necessarily diminish my interest in the song. And most good songwriters accept that different people will derive different meaning from lyrics, and they’re usually fine with that.
So this is not a plea from me to encourage you to write complex lyrics that, taken together, form nothing more than garbage, with a few lines that make sense. I’m suggesting though that if you like writing lyrics that are complex, realize that your audience will start to focus on single lines if the entire lyric is beyond them.
Once you’ve written a lyric where you realize that the fuller more comprehensive meaning may be elusive, read back through your lyric and see what you think listeners might choose to focus on as single lines. Do those lines have the potential to create emotions in your listeners. I find myself wondering if “Come Together”, without those moments of clarity (even just that simple line, “Come together”) would have succeeded?
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