4 Kinds of Lyrics That (Almost) Always Ruin the Song
There is no shortage of ways to make a song really bad, and that's probably why there are lots of terrible songs out there. Some have trite lyrics, others boring chord progressions, while still others have both terrible lyrics and awful music, particularly if they're written by the band "Fun."
"Hey, pick on Nickleback!"
Yet there are certain things songwriters do that seem almost guaranteed to produce a bad song, but they keep doing it. Possibly because for every 100 terrible songs produced via a hacky songwriting convention, a gem still manages to emerge -- the exception that proves the rule. So here are four terrible songwriter conventions, along with the exceptions that somehow managed to work anyway.
Before we start: I'm aware that much of this article is subjective, and therefore you might disagree with some of my conclusions. That's OK! But if that disagreement fills you with an unspeakable anger, I urge you to send your grievance to your local congressperson. He or she might be working on legislation to address the spate of police-driven homicides, but make yourself heard on this issue that matters.
Rhyming a Word With Itself
This is a personal pet peeve of mine. Songs don't have to rhyme, but when they do, two different words should rhyme. Why? Because rhyming a word with itself is cheating! And it sounds awful. Your whole body prepares for satisfaction, and none comes.
Worst Offenses: "I Gotta Feeling," and "My First Kiss," and countless other songs where lyricists thought no one would notice.
I first pointed out how much I hated this practice in the only viral video of my life: the Hate by Numbers on The Black Eyed Peas. Tune in to the 1:30 mark of this awful monster hit:
Yes, will.i.am rhymes "live it up" with "spend it up." He sets up a rhyme no one asks him to, and then fails to deliver. That's like Santa Claus handing you two presents, one shaped like a bow and the other shaped like an arrow, and learning that they're both arrows, but one's in a bow-shaped box. OK fine, that's not a very good explanation, but why do you need a good explanation? It's just lazy.
Notable Exception: "Walk on the Wild Side"
Enter Lou Reed. Not literally. That's impossible because he died last year, unfortunately. And I'm still really bummed out about it, so no stupid jokes, OK?! Anyway, in "Walk on the Wild Side," Lou certainly engages in some clunky same-word-rhyme wordplay when utters the immortal "but she never lost her head, even when she was giving head." Why is this an exception that works? Maybe because it's dirty, so it's distracting. Maybe because the song is so sexually visceral throughout that there is no time for finer things like normal rhymes, or maybe because it's Lou Reed and shut up because he says so.
Most songs tell a story, but I'm talking about the kind of songwriting most prevalent in the '70s, when singer/songwriters felt obligated to shove whole movie plots into five minutes.
Worst Offenses: "Blind Man in the Bleachers," "Run Joey Run," "Ode to Billie Jo," and countless other terrible, melodramatic movies crammed into a pop song.
I know most of you have never heard these songs. You should. They are some of the most over-the-top absurd songs ever written. There is no doubt that they're terrible, but they are also audacious, that a part of me kind of enjoys them. Especially the truly awful "Blind Man in the Bleachers."
Where to begin? If you didn't click the link, and oh man, you totally should, this song tells the story of a high school scrub football player whose blind father comes to the games and listens for his son's name. Anyway, one day his dad's not there. After halftime, they send the scrub player into the game and he plays super well. Why? Well, at halftime he found out that his dad is dead. Yeah, no longer just blind. That's not sad enough. Now he's dead. But the good news? He's in Heaven now, so this was the first time he actually saw his son play.
Notable Exception: "The Devil Went Down To Georgia"
So sure, this country song tells the famous blues story of the devil at the crossroads and countrifies and fiddlefies it. My spell check is telling me that countrifies and fiddlefies are not actual English words, but that just shows that my spell check has never heard this song, because this song jams out so hard in the hoe-downiest way that it makes its own words (interestingly, my spell check does recognize "hoe-downiest," so go figure). But I guess the lesson learned is that if you're gonna be melodramatic and cram a movie into a song, you might as well go full throttle and make it an epic battle of good and evil.
Related: Oh No, Bono Made A Coronavirus Song
Noun Is Metaphor. I Want to Metaphor-Related-Verb. X is Y. I Want to Z
I'm mystified as to why anyone uses this construction, because it never works. It's hard to explain. If that title confused you, the "Worst Offenses" section should clear it up ...
Worst Offenses: "Life is a Highway," "Love is Blindness," and other songs with metaphors written by children.
Obviously, there is nothing wrong with metaphors. Metaphors are the backbone of poetry, lyrics, and creative prose. The job of a metaphor is to illuminate, to teach you something you didn't realize before by virtue of the comparison. William Shakespeare wrote that "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances." The comparison conveys the life is finite. It invites consideration of whether life is more than just hitting your marks and doing what you're supposed to until death comes. It's not merely descriptive.
But the lyrics of these songs tell you what you already know. Nothing is learned. They are no more poetic than saying that love is a sandwich. We're happy when it's not rotten. So yeah, "life is a highway, I want to ride it all night long." Yeah, that's what you do on a highway all right. You want to be alive. OK. Thanks for incorporating a highway into that sentiment.
Notable Exception: "Love Is a Battlefield"
I gotta be honest with you. I'm not sure that there are any exceptions. This is just a trite construction, born to fail, but the closest I could come was Pat Benatar's "Love Is a Battlefield" which sort of uses it.
The acceptable lyrics in questions are: "Love is a battlefield, We are strong, No one can tell us we're wrong." While not a perfect example, these lyrics are better than the atrocious ones above because they don't simply describe the noun with an obvious verb. If the lyrics were "love is a battlefield, we fight and fight," then yes, they would suck every bit as much as the other examples. Instead, they go with the less obvious observation that people fight when they are too convinced they can't be wrong, and yes, I guess that is true in love and war. It's not winning a Pulitzer, but sucks far less than this construction typically does.
Songs About Aliens
Yes, there are a lot of examples. A surprisingly large number of examples. People like to sing about aliens, and it's just about always stupid.
I've written about "Come Sail Away" before. But I have to go there again, because it is one of the most laughably awful songs ever written. I could write about its false profundity or clumsy word choices ("On board I'm the captain, so climb aboard") but our topic here is aliens. And this song perfectly represents what's wrong with so many alien songs: their point is usually, "hey cool, aliens!!!" Like just talking about aliens is enough.
For example, "Come Sail Away" is about a reflective seaman thinking about his life until he sees some angels. But guess what? They're not angels, they're aliens! And then the song ends, as if that's of significance because, y'know, aliens!
Notable Exception: "Starman"
Sure, you knew I'd cut Bowie some slack, since he's my hero and his 1972 album Ziggy Stardust is all about the rise and fall of an alien rock n' roll messiah. But while the titular character of Ziggy Stardust is an alien, that's not the whole point. The fact that Ziggy is from Mars is almost incidental to the fact that he is meant to be a rock god. So a song like "Starman," which could just be some inane bit of lyrical foolery about how cool it would be to totally see a space dude, is more about the excitement that teenagers feel about anything new and different, whether it's aliens or rock stars.
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For more from Gladstone, check out 5 Artists Who Faced Death With a Song. And then check out The 21 Most Horrifying Interpretations of Famous Song Lyrics.
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