One day, when I was taking Songwriting with Andrea Stolpe in my second year as a songwriting major at USC, I brought in a song called, “A Tale of the Cautious and the Reckless.”
When I finished the song, Andrea asked me about a particular section of the song that she didn’t understand:
“But he steps like a doe /
So the leaves don’t crinkle so /
And then I bulldoze right past him, and he shakes his head in shock.”
Andrea asked me, “What does that mean, ‘he steps like a doe, so the leaves don’t crinkle so’?”
“It means he’s cautious, careful…and maybe also a little shy.”
“Then why didn’t you just say that?”
I bristled instantly with the righteous indignation of a songwriter yet unused to taking critique (I was still 19, mind you). Many of you can empathize with how upsetting it is to write a lyric that you think is irreverent and arresting and incredibly clever, only to hear someone tell you they have no idea what you’re saying.
However, that is the great struggle of a lyricist, and most particularly the struggle of a musical theatre lyricist. At least when you’re a pop lyricist, you’re an ‘artist’ and can get away with a choice as long as it sells. Art needn’t pay fealty to logic and reason.
In musical theatre, on the other hand, characters- even the entire plot!- could collapse in rubble if your lyric isn’t crystal clear.
Although Andrea’s feedback made me immediately fly to the defense of poeticism and artistic license, I later went on to write a song that she assigned me as a challenge, a song devoid of metaphors, similes, wordplay, or complexity, as simple as I could possibly make it.
It is one of my best lyrics to date.
Poeticism (the lushness of language for the sake of language) versus Clarity (Let’s-get-to-the beautiful-point-of-this-song,-for-the-point-must-be-beautiful-enough-to-justify-the-nakedness-of-clarity) are two aspects of lyricism respectively prioritized by Musical Theatre writers and Popular Music writers.
In looking at the two, it’s important to note that poeticism does something clarity cannot; it delivers the tone and temperament of the lyric, the color and texture that run in the undercurrent of the lyric, and also the unique personality of the lyricist.
No lyricist’s personal poeticism sounds like any other lyricist’s poeticism.
When musical theatre writers write stand-alone songs, songs in which there is less pressure to be perfectly clear than in a full-length musical, they often still choose to use naked language for the sake of the plot of the song. However, stand-alone songs seem to me to be the perfect opportunity to let your own voice as a lyricist shine through.
I believe we could all benefit from dipping our toes into the other world more often and finding the golden balance between poeticism and clarity that is so hard to achieve.
And with that, I present 4 of my favorite lyrics, in no particular order:
You may have heard this song when it was covered by Lennon & Maisy and then a horde of other girls banging on cups on youtube, but really they were all covering the Swedish trio Erato’s original “cup” cover a year earlier. Erato in turn was covering Robyn’s original song released in Finland in 2011.
It’s funny how an upbeat pop song can be so deceptive in its context, especially when listening to pre-teen girls sing it while slapping kitchenware. If you heard the song without listening to the lyrics, you would never know that it is one of the most brutal, uncomfortable lyrics ever written.
“Tell her not to get upset, second-guessing everything you’ve said and done,
And then when she gets upset, tell her how you never meant to hurt no one.
Then you tell her that the only way her heart will mend is when she learns to love again
And it won’t make sense right now but you’re still her friend“
If I imagine being broken up with, these lyrics are the best-case scenario. Gentle, humble, and caring, they warn and protect against all the worst thoughts that will occur to you as you reel from rejection. I myself couldn’t think of better lines to use when breaking up with someone you truly care about without wanting to hurt them.
Except that the person actually feeding Him these lines in the song is the lover he’s leaving you for. Every heart-felt apology that comforts you came from her mouth, not his.
Of course, only we listeners know this. The girl being broken up with will likely never find out, but that’s part of the brilliance of the lyric: the dramatic irony of us knowing a horrible detail that She does not.
Because the situation is so loaded and complex, this lyric is a good example of Clarity over Poeticism. There is no room for the “undercurrent” of poeticism, because we are already quaking on the surface of the lyric.
Frank Ocean is a songwriter who often straddles the balance between Clarity and Poeticism. More often than not, I find myself tumbling into his poeticism and losing the meaning of the lines. But the times when I do get it, I’m astonished.
My favorite aspect of “Bad Religion” (aside from the gorgeous harmony and the way Frank navigates his own register) is that you can read it as a criticism of religion, or you can read it as a metaphor about unrequited love, or as Frank’s own struggle between his sexual orientation and religion’s rejection of it.
Either way, the different meanings coexist seamlessly. Writing a song with dual meaning is impressive. Writing a song with three meanings is brilliant. Especially in the line, “I could never make him love me,” all three meanings are present. 1. My God will not love me for my sexual identity. 2. My lover will not love me. 3. It is futile to worship a God who will never love his worshipper.
Frank’s lyrical Poeticism underlines his distress and makes his appeal all the more personal for us. He’s somehow both very conversational and very ethereal, with lines like “cyanide in my styrofoam cup” or “I’ve got three lives/Balanced on my head like steak knives.
As in Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend”, the scenario is also delightful I love picturing a distraught young man in the back of a cab, pouring his heart out to a fervently praying taxi driver.
David is an extremely crafty songwriter. We once got into a heated discussion about whether a certain lyric should be “You remember WHY you wanted me/ after a drink or two” or “You remember HOW you wanted me/ after a drink or two.“
It is a small difference, but as I realized during the argument, an infuriatingly difficult call to make. David insisted it was “how”. I insisted it was “why”. I still don’t really know what the right answer is… (You can form your own opinion on the matter by listening to it here.)
You can recognize that same attention to craftiness and detail in David’s “Remember“. Lines like “clever as a crime” and “warmer than a gun” belong so thoroughly to him as a writer, you’d recognize him in any lyric after hearing them.
All you need to do is hear a line like
“Some women wear cotton, it gets the job done /
and you recognize his silhouette.
He’s a phraseologist. He writers entire lyrics as a collection of scrumptious phrases.
In “Remember,” the notable phrase (and also hook) goes “Remember she was beautiful” and is always completed by a loaded companion line that either flows with the first or pushes against it. The song hinges on this recurring couplet of phrases, which appears in a few incarnations:
“Remember she was beautiful/ And try to forget.”
“Remember she was beautiful/ If nothing more.”
“Remember she was beautiful/ And leave it at that.“
It’s almost as if the first phrase is the woman David is talking about, and the second phrase which keeps changing with or in opposition to her represents her various lovers that she leaves broken by the wayside.
David’s lyrics are both very poetic and very clear, a unique quality in a lyricist. He is a pop writer who treats his lyrics with the severity of a musical theatre writer; every word is precious and has the power to fatally mislead its listener.
Like Frank Ocean, Kimbra straddles the line between poeticism and clarity, sometimes delivering a clear point, sometimes leaving us with a colorful spectrum of language in which clarity has taken a backseat. Her language pops with common slang and intellectual poeticism in equal measure (check out her song “Posse” for a bolder taste of that clash).
(I have to admit that I am hopelessly biased in studying her lyrics because she is my favorite artist/musician/songwriter/lyricist ever.)
“Waltz Me to the Grave” is a celebration of death. It is both jubilant and serene as she passes from this world into the next, and that sense of celebration comes to us primarily through the poeticism of the lyric. The simplicity of the content is what allows the lyric to flourish with such phrases as “violet parasols“, “stones for irises“, “lakes of evergreen“, “love and disarray“, etc.
Because the point of this lyric is one simple concept (celebrating death and passing from this world joyfully), it allows the language to flourish and tip the ratio between the two a little.
Perhaps that is ultimately the answer to this question of poeticism vs. clarity: if one aspect is strikingly more powerful than the other, you have to shrink the presence of the second to make space for the first. They have to merely accommodate each other, and if you manage this, they can coexist.
I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the dense poeticism of “Waltz Me” and then also receive a mind-boggling scenario like we did in Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend,” and vice versa. Using poetic or complex language to describe an elaborate scenario is a confusing and overwhelming experience for the ear.
In rare instances, as with the stand-alone songwriting of David Poe, both can be achieved in equal measure. There is a way to capture a character and a situation that are compelling on their own, and yet simple enough to then clothe them in memorable lyrical phrases that express the undercurrent and personality of the lyricist.
This won’t work for every theatrical situation or lyric, but it makes for a pretty outstanding stand-alone song.
I completely acknowledge, though, that this issue of poeticism is especially risky for musical theatre writers. How can you imbue your lyric with personal flavor when you’re supposed to be expressing a character‘s consciousness, not your own?
I really don’t know the answer to that one.
What do you think?
The ContemporaryMusicalTheatre.com Intern