Why do some songs persuade stadiums full of people to wave their lighters in the air and sing along to every word with tears in their eyes? And why do other songs bore you senseless, or even make you want to punch the singer in the middle of his big fat stupid face? It all comes down to the emotional connection between the lyrics, the music, and the audience. In this article I'm going to be discussing lyrics, and sharing some strategies to get yours to resonate with people.
1. Write To The Music
One of my core principles of lyric writing is write the music first. The music sets the dominant emotional tone of a song. No matter how keening and tearful your lyrical tale of rejection and unrequited love may be, if it's set to a jolly, bouncy ska tune all it's going to do is make people laugh at you.
It goes beyond the general feel of the song in its entirety. The music you create will have specific emotional moments an angry riff, an uplifting key change, a big crescendo and your lyrics will need to be written to match the emotional structure of the music. Studying music theory can be really helpful here, as it will help you identify with greater accuracy the emotional content of chord changes and intervals, helping you match the lyrics to the feeling of the song. If you write a bunch of lyrics down and then try to write music around them you're making your task much, much harder for no good reason.
That's not to say you can't break the rules, but you can only break the rules if you know them. Radiohead's "No Surprises" is a song about suicide, but musically it is a gentle lullaby in a major key not a dirge as you'd maybe expect. This adds an extra layer of meaning to the lyrics that the protagonist of the song wants to die not because he is depressed, but because he is tired. To be able to re-balance music against lyrics like that you need a very firm understanding of the emotional content of both.
2. Write To Your Audience
This isn't about pitting artistic merit against commercial success. It doesn't matter whether the aim of your songwriting is to move people's emotions, stick it to the man or shift truckloads of records you won't achieve any of those things unless you think very carefully about who you want your music to appeal to.
And it's no good saying everyone that's not possible. Lyrics that one person will love will be hated by someone else, as a result of how the themes, ideas, emotions and vocabulary expressed in the song translate through their own personalities or life experiences. Say what you like about Linkin Park, but they know exactly what will appeal to moody 14-year-old boys who sit sulking in their bedrooms all day because their parents don't understand them. So much so, that their music is loathed by pretty much everyone else who doesn't fit that description. Do Linkin Park care that so many people hate their music? Ask their butlers, they're too busy driving their Lamborghinis to answer stupid questions. As an even more extreme example, the Insane Clown Posse have an extremely narrow, cult-like fan demographic, and emphasise how much everyone else hates their music to foster a siege mentality amongst their fans.
So think about who you want to listen to your music. Are they male or female? How old are they? How well-educated are they? What things are important to them? How do they tend to feel? How would they prefer to feel? If you have answers to all these questions your lyrics will almost write themselves.
And it's not as if you can't be both emotionally authentic and commercially successful. Nobody ever said that the likes of Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley or Ian Curtis weren't writing about real issues that affected them all three are now dead as a direct result of the problems they expressed through their music.
3. Keep It Vague
I've written about this in more detail in a previous article, but a big trap that a lot of lyricists fall into is a tendency to make their songs too narrative and specific. Outside of a few folk traditions (usually involving very long songs as a consequence), music is a poor medium for telling complex stories. Music's strength, as opposed to prose or poetry, is that it can give words extra emotional heft by putting music behind them (see point 1). Leave storytelling to the novelists, you're here to make people feel.
So only include the bare minimum of narrative, description and story. This heightens the emotional impact in two ways firstly, by only feeding the audience little snippets of the story, it forces them to re-create the rest in their head, adding details and ideas that are relevant to only them in a way you could never do as a songwriter. Secondly, it avoids alienating the audience by not talking about specific subjects that they might not care about. If you write a song about how awful it is when the Dallas Cowboys or Manchester United lose a game, then anyone who doesn't follow those teams, or even those sports, will be left cold (and if they support a rival team they will want to punch your big fat stupid face). Whereas if you keep the language vague enough that it could apply to any defeat in any sport, it could become an anthem for sports fans everywhere.
To get more on the theory behind lyric writing, sign up to my newsletter and get my free guide on lyric-writing "From Subject to Song", covering this process in more detail, and also containing more on lyrical detachment, creating effective imagery, and how I managed to write a keening, mournful folk ballad about a metal detector.