This is an experience that’s all too familiar for me: I’m listening along to a song, maybe I like it, maybe I don’t, but all of a sudden, there’s a word or phrase that just falls with a gigantic *THUD*. Instinctively, my ears cringe, and my face contorts, because it’s just too painful. In general, it makes me lose my appetite for the rest of the song, but occasionally I can overlook it and still enjoy the piece as a whole.
We’ve got a problem here, and the problem is that many contemporary songwriters don’t seem to understand something very basic: There are certain words and phrases that just shouldn’t be used in a song. Period. No, in case you were wondering, I don’t demand that every song be a Shakespearean sonnet. But every song is a form of poetry. Yet it seems like some people view a song lyric as more of a blog post or chatty e-mail than a form of poetry. If you’re deliberately writing something light/tongue-in-cheek/goofy, that’s one thing. But writers can be known to litter a song with howlers and take every word of it absolutely seriously.
Here are some examples of words that I have actually heard used in a song, in many cases multiple times. I won’t share names of the writers involved or names of any specific songs. These are just some cliches that I have “collected” so far (and I fear that I may collect more in the future):
cliche (Yes, using the word “cliche” is a cliche!)
point of view
comfort zone (Words cannot express my loathing for this particular neologism.)
Maybe my readers can furnish a few more such specimens of the English language that have found their way where they have no business being. To be quite honest, I’d rather go back to the days when writers used (oh horror of horrors) words like thee and thou in their songs, but they actually knew how to write poetry. What a concept!
Look, in all seriousness, I’m not saying you have to write like Isaac Watts to write a great song. There are lots of modern songs that I love. I’m just saying that writers need to get an instinctive sense of when something just sounds modern and artificial. A lot of them simply have a tin ear. These sorts of expressions don’t strike them as wrong because they just can’t hear what the problem is. Of course, this may not necessarily be their personal fault. It’s a problem that can be traced back to the breakdown of our educational system and the resultant cheapening of the English language that has left people impoverished.
However, this does not mean all hope is lost for the songwriter who wishes to improve. The first thing I would unhesitatingly recommend is that every songwriter who aspires to beautiful, precise language in his work should obtain a King James Bible. Other translations can be useful to help untangle unclear sections in the King James, but for sheer beauty of language, it is unrivaled. Read the Psalms out loud. Memorize them. Let the rhythm of the language get into your bones and your blood.
Second, he should steep himself in great poetry and literature in general. Pore over the work of the great hymn-writers. Soak in the mastery of Shakespeare and John Donne. Take Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and read entire passages out loud, letting the language roll around and off your tongue.
Finally, he should ask himself, “WWRMD?” Or, “What would Rich Mullins do?” Every good songwriter understands greatness in other writers when he sees it. Mullins was arguably the most gifted poet Christian music has ever seen, although Andrew Peterson is carrying the torch with considerable grace today.
At the end of the day, will our songwriter emerge as great as all of the above? Of course not. But, he will emerge with the ability to avoid ugly modern neologisms and clunky language without really giving it a second thought. And that’s a valuable skill all by itself.