#1September 20th, 2010 · 11:22 AM
102 threads / 59 songs
204 posts
Lesson 20: Lyrics and Ideas
It's been a while but I finally got on my ass and typed this out.

So last time we discussed storytelling in lyrics, this time we'll focus on lyrics that present ideas. There's a lot of overlap between these two kinds of lyrics because lyrics that present ideas tend to also tell stories and stories usually have a message or moral attached. The big difference here is that these lyrics need a much more clearly defined thesis. This should be obvious. If you want to express a specific idea you should have a clear sense of what that idea is. This brings us to a golden rule in lyricism: Be specific!

A lot of songwriters succumb to writing about subjects that are too broad. It's okay to write a song about "love" or "war" but you can usually write much better lyrics by exploring a narrower theme (i.e. a particular "love" or "war" or particular parties or feelings involved) and then extending it to the greater theme. So the first thing to consider is "what is my lyric about?", "who/what is the subject?", "what is the final idea I want to present or prove?"

So your lyric should have the following:

A subject - a person or thing that you are discussing (i.e. Your neighbour Steven, The Civil War, Bees, etc.)

An idea and/or thesis - the idea you are presenting and/or trying to prove (Theses: i.e. Superman is better than Spiderman, Only butterflies are ever in love, All dogs speak Esperanto)

Lyrics very often have more than one subject however tackling more than one thesis can be difficult and is best done by creating subtheses that support a main idea. It's surprisingly hard to find lyrics that don't really tell stories but just ideas but I did manage to dig up two.

Senorita with a Necklace of Tears - Paul Simon (you can search for it on grooveshark.com)

I have a wisdom tooth
Inside my crowded face
I have a friend who is a born-again
Found his saviorís grace
I was born before my father
And my children before me
We are born and born again
Like the waves of the sea
Thatís the way itís always been
And thatís how I want it to be

Nothing but good news
There is a frog in south america
Whose venom is a cure
For all the suffering that mankind
Must endure
More powerful than morphine
And soothing as the rain
A frog in south america
Has the antidote for pain
Thatís the way itís always been
And thatís the way I like it

Some people never say no
Some people never complain
Some folks have no idea
And others will never explain
Thatís the way itís always been
Thatís the way I like it
And thatís how I want it to be
Thatís the way itís always been
Thatís the way I like it
And thatís how I want it to be

If I could play all the memories
In the neck of my guitar
Iíd write a song called
ďSenorita with a necklace of tearsĒ
and every tear a sin Iíd committed
oh these many years
Thatís who I was
Thatís the way itís always been

Some people always want more
Some people are what they lack
Some folks open a door
Walk away and never look back
I donít want to be a judge
And I donít want to be a jury
I know who I am
Lord knows who I will be
Thatís the way itís always been
Thatís the way I like it
And thatís how I want it to be
Thatís the way itís always been
Thatís the way I like it
And thatís how I want it to be

This is a tough lyric because it's just saturated with metaphor. So while I was looking online for some insight for this thread I came across this:

"SeŮorita With A Necklace Of Tears explores a theme that has run through Simon's work for many years; a world that is constantly evolving but somehow remains the same in the end.† I think he has a deep belief in the common experiences that we all share despite our apparent differences.† In SeŮorita , the idea of reincarnation is neatly wrapped around some striking vignettes: a† born again Christian,† the willing, the unwilling, salvation and, of course, our SeŮorita wearing the eponymous necklace of our innumerable sins and thus granting us absolution.† The song expresses our longing for a better world and, also, our acceptance of life as it is. There's also a transcendent bit about a frog." (http://everything2.com/title/Senorita+with+a+Necklace+of+Tears)

This song has multiple subjects - the author himself, a frog, and the Senorita. The thesis is a bit murky but it deals with the idea that despite our longing and reaching for a better world it tends to stay the same. Each person is who he is and while we can crave absolution for our sins they are still a part of us. We can't achieve complete salvation, it would deny our identity.

I'll leave you with a simpler example but nonetheless a beautiful song. The song is "Job's Sad Song (Man is the Sire of Sorrow)". It's a pretty charged song by Joni Mitchell recounting the last few chapters of the book of Job. For those unfamiliar, the book of Job is the story of a wealthy, righteous man (Job) from whom god takes his wealth and family to prove to the devil that despite these things Job will still be faithful to the lord. Despite his circumstances, Job never ends up cursing god (and he gets rewarded for it) but there's an interesting dialogue at the end of the book between Job and his 3 friends and later Job and god. This song presents a different spin on Job's final speech.

You can listen to this song on grooveshark.com. I really like the version off of Travelogue. It has an orchestral arrangement which I love and really pairs very dramatically with the lyrics.

Job's Sad Song - Joni Mitchell

Let me speak, let me spit out my bitterness--
Born of grief and nights without sleep and festering flesh
Do you have eyes?
Can you see like mankind sees?
Why have you soured and curdled me?
Oh you tireless watcher! What have I done to you?
That you make everything I dread and everything I fear come true?

Once I was blessed; I was awaited like the rain
Like eyes for the blind, like feet for the lame
Kings heard my words, and they sought out my company
But now the janitors of Shadowland flick their brooms at me
Oh you tireless watcher! What have I done to you?
that you make everything I dread and everything I fear come true?

(Antagonists: Man is the sire of sorrow)
I've lost all taste for life
I'm all complaints
Tell me why do you starve the faithful?
Why do you crucify the saints?
And you let the wicked prosper
You let their children frisk like deer
And my loves are dead or dying, or they don't come near
(Antagonists: We don't despise your chastening
God is correcting you)

Oh and look who comes to counsel my deep distress
Oh, these pompous physicians
What carelessness!
(Antagonists: Oh all this ranting all this wind
Filling our ears with trash)
Breathtaking ignorance adding insult to injury!
They come blaming and shaming
(Antagonists: Evil doer)
And shattering me
(Antagonists: This vain man wishes to seem wise
A man born of asses)
Oh you tireless watcher! What have I done to you?
That you make everything I dread and everything I fear come true?

(Antagonists: We don't despise your chastening)
Already on a bed of sighs and screams,
And still you torture me with visions
You give me terrifying dreams!
Better I was carried from the womb straight to the grave.
I see the diggers waiting, they're leaning on their spades.

(Antagonists: Man is the sire of sorrow
Sure as the sparks ascend)
Where is hope while you're wondering what went wrong?
Why give me light and then this dark without a dawn?
(Antagonists: Evil is sweet in your mouth
Hiding under your tongue)
Show your face!
(Antagonists: What a long fall from grace)
Help me understand!
What is the reason for your heavy hand?
(Antagonists: You're stumbling in shadows
You have no name now)
Was it the sins of my youth?
What have I done to you?
That you make everything I dread and everything I fear come true?
(Antagonists: Oh your guilt must weigh so greatly)
Everything I dread and everything I fear come true
(Antagonists: Man is the sire of sorrow)
Oh you make everything I dread and everything I fear come true

The subject in this song is obviously Job. There isn't exactly a thesis because nothing is really being proven but a statement is being made about the tyranny of god. The lyric follows Job's feelings throughout his plight as he is trying to come to terms with why he had to go through this at all. All of this is juxtaposed against the replies of the "Antagonists" who don't seem to be listening at all but just present unsympathetic remarks about Job deserving his suffering. So while there doesn't seem to be a transparent thesis, the song presents Job at a pitiable character and exposes the inhumanity of god.

That's all for now. Next time we'll start discussing lyrical forms.
#2September 20th, 2010 · 02:59 PM
371 threads / 187 songs
3,394 posts
United Kingdom
Superb work
Keep it up!!
Once you are done with all your chapters, publish it, I'm sure there are free ones out there just like I found a free music distributor 
#3September 20th, 2010 · 04:55 PM
341 threads / 59 songs
4,361 posts
Cymru (Wales)
Excellent read, thanks so much for sharing your wonderful wisdom.
I get the idea that the "Antagonists" whom I take are the common men around Job are Jobs 'evil god', they say "your so righteous, you deserve these evil things that happen to you", while through some quirk of x-factor evil things do happen to him. And through Jobs 'looking beyond' the negative men around him he is ultimately keeping his faith. Which was the original story. 
The first piece is also a very good choice, it says something without being a story,
yet any lyric becomes 'a story' the moment it is written down and takes form even if your writing nonsense, which is in it's self a formidable concept. The idea that through "scrambling the signal" the 'creator' changes how the 'audient' thinks.....which is I would think at the hart of any creative art.
#4September 24th, 2010 · 10:43 AM
102 threads / 59 songs
204 posts
Thanks for the comments. I have to disagree about the nature of a story though Kings. I would argue that the defining feature of a story is action which both of these songs lack. Neither of these lyrics contain any action, either in the past or present, and for that reason they are not stories.
#5September 24th, 2010 · 05:50 PM
341 threads / 59 songs
4,361 posts
Cymru (Wales)
Define: Action ..... in the lyrical sense, that makes them none-stories !
I dont get it, There's loads going on in both of them!
#6September 24th, 2010 · 06:22 PM
341 threads / 59 songs
4,361 posts
Cymru (Wales)
OK ! You mean there's no "I did this, then I did that and then something else happened" ? They are all simply verses making statements or questioning the now.

The Frog? I think it's something he heard on the radio or some news story on tv he caught and it tickled him. Because the rest are memories, some clever word play and a bit of African wisdom.
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