Way back in January last year, i wrote a blog called Lyrics – A prime. Said blog was suppose to lead to a larger blog or perhaps multiple blogs later with more in-depth discussion and exploration of lyrics. This kinda fell to the wayside due to me putting it off, why?
Primarily because I was very insecure at the time about my actual skills as a lyricist. However in the 1 and 3 quarters of a year it has taken me to follow up this primer, i have gain some confident, and while i certainly don’t claim to be on level with Freddie Mercury or KRS-one, i feel that i can talk with some authority on the topic.
Secondly, lyrics is a big topic to try to cover, there is content, rhyme, rhythm, melody (although that argueably should be consider part of the vocals, not lyrics them self) , context in terms of the accompanying instrumental, context in terms of the next and previous song on the album ect. (okay i admit, few people probably care about that one, but nothing is more jarring then going from remorseful lost love song, to a pumped up party anthem in the space between two tracks on a CD). Add to that the many diffferent schools of thouht as to lyrics significance and meaning in terms of the overall song and then ongoing debate of fun vs. serious or fun and serious, message or delivery as prime focus and all the other discussion that are about just about every aspect of culture, entainment and media. A book report on every book ever all of a sudden seems a lot more achieve-able then a comprehensive deep and thought provoking blog on the subject of lyrics.
As such i have been in no particular hurry to try to write a follow-up to my primer, because at the end of day, i like to at least try to be thought provoking when i write these blogs. However i recently complied a list of things i need to stop putting on the back-burn and just do already and this blog is on it. I am at time of writing not sure whether or not i’ll do this all in one blog or split it up into bits, but it will be done, because i said i would do it and i need to stop procrastinating.
However i’m not a superhuman so before i get really into it, here’s a bit of a disclaimer: This is NOT a complete guide to lyrics or writing lyrics, this is a complete a blog about lyrics that i’m capable of writing in a somewhat limited time-span, with the intend of raising certain points of discussing on the topic of lyrics. It’s less a guide then say my blog on groove and more an attempt to say something somewhat intelligent about lyrics and the process of writing them, that maybe can help you write lyrics in the future.
Also as a final note before we get really into this, most of my examples will be coming from various forms of hiphop, this is not because i consider this a hiphop-specific topic or because i don’t think there is valid examples outside of this genre. It’s simple a case of hiphop being the genre i’m most familiar with, and since i already got a giant task ahead of me, i’m gonna save some time in return by using examples that i can find on the back of my hand more or less.
Okay that out of the way, let’s get started.
For this first part, we are gonna focus on things that i personally think is way to often overlooked, narrative and the narrative tropes. I’ll argue for why i think these matters and how you can use them.
Narrative, the describing of events, is more or less the core of lyrics as well as most vocal mediums, at least in terms of content. For the purpose of this blog i like to divide the term into explicit and implicit narratives.
An explicit narrative is more or less a direct retelling of an event, like the theme of the Fresh prince of bel air. Where as an implicit narrative is the implied events leading up to an situation, that is not completely explained.
This one get’s a bit trickier then the explicit narrative, because it’s hard to pin-point the exact difference, in most cases even songs that are mostly implicit in their narrative will have some explicit narration in them. One of the best examples of this, has got to be Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but that further complicates the matter, by arguably being more then just one narrative and story. Basically an implicit narrative is to present a emotional state or more-or-less single moment in time, without retelling the events that lead to the state or moment.
Implicit narrative is generally not something you hear a lot, this, i think, is largely due to the fact that we generally doesn’t talk alot about narrative in terms of music, but that it’s most commonly used in other mediums, ie. books, movies and games, mostly. One of the fundamental differences between movies, games etc. and music, is that music is severely limited in terms of it’s run time. Most songs is somewhere between two and half to five minutes in lenghts, yes there is some exceptions, including my example above of Bohemian Rhapsody, but even some of the longest songs aren’t even near the length of even short movies, books or game.
Therefore a lot of songs generally don’t have the time to tell you all about their characters, back stories or subplot. Therefore a lot of what generally considered part of a narrative is nonexistent in most lyrics, since you generally can’t get people to listen to a song with the run time of a movie, and actually i thinks it’s good. It have set music free of certain narrative traditions a bit and allowed it to form it’s own way to tell the stories it tells, including leaving a large part of the story behind and focusing on the important bit.
Using implicit narratives when writing lyrics is probably something we all have done, it’s a natural solutions to problems that, i’m willing to bet most of songwriters have had, that they wanted to focus on certain emotions or a certain event, without having to spend most the song leading up to where and why.
By the same token, explicit narrative is the age old solution to telling a story. By and large both methods are most likely something you have used dozens of times before. One could therefore be forgiven for think that you don’t really need to consider what narrative to use when and where, an argument i have heard before (especially in terms of rhyming more on that later), and while i’m willing to agree with the notion that sometimes things just comes naturally, i never believe the idea that it was somehow better not to think about something, just because it seems natural. Think about it, you don’t have to write a thesis on the narrative nature of every song, but sitting back (usually during the editing phase) and think about it for a few seconds, and it can help you out a lot.
Tropes are generally not used a lot in music. Sure you here tropes thrown around a lot, usually in genre cliches, like the pop love song, the rock anthem or the electronic party track. Some times these cliches even evolve into sub-genre, like G-funk in hiphop. The other ways that tropes are often used in relation to (but always not strictly in) music is tropes of the people in it, like the video chick in almost every god damn rap video (seriously, it’s getting way overboard, if i wanna check some girl in almost none or no clothes out, i got other places to go), or the gangsta rapper, the rock god on the guitar or even the age old stereotype of stupid drummer or in lyrical tropes concerning wordplays, rhyming schemes and speech patterns. However for reasons unknown to me, narrative and character tropes really appear in the discussion.
For those that might not be familiar with the word trope, here is the definition from tvtropes.org, a wiki on various tropes and a database on works that use them:
“Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means “stereotyped and trite.” In other words, dull and uninteresting.”
I mostly agree with this definition, although i would add that stereotypes and other cliches certain are in some tropes, it just not all tropes, that is stereotypes and cliches.
Also i like to add that most of, if not all, the tropes that i’m gonna be talking about here, have their background in media with a visual medium, like movies or game. As such their definition might be a bit different to the sense i use them and include other elements, that is irrelevant to a songwriter. I still recommend looking up, especially since i’m not going to go into huge detail describing them, but just know that this is more my interpretation of their definition, fitted for suiting the medium of music, rather then their craved in stone actual definition.
Generally we don’t tend to think about tropes in lyrics, and this is really a shame. Listen to a song like Ja Rule’s and Charlie Baltimore’s “Down Ass Bitch”, more specifically, listen to Chalie’s parts. Here we find a pretty classic example of the Action Girl trope, just as strong as the guys and willing to go through all of the stuff that they endure and not relying on her sexuality to get boys to do the dirt for her. More so this define the relationship of her and Ja Rule in the song as being on of equals and likes, they are equal because, with the exception of physical factors, their are pretty much the same kind of person; Gangsters if you will. Now imagine rewritting her parts of a song into a more Femme Fatale role. Perhaps instead of not snitching on her man, she tricks people into think some other guy did it, using her sexuality. Instead of using the insult “Those gats to your backs for my boy/ What part of the game is that, huh?” She would use charm and flirting to clear “her boy” of whatever suspicions there might be.
All of a sudden she is no longer an Action Girl, but a Femme Fatale, a woman using her femininity as weapon, instead of dismissing it. More over the relationship in the song between her and Ja Rule change from something more a kind to a friendship with benefits, to one of actual romance. And their implied Bonnie and Clyde business of crime all of sudden move from being uninteresting, since the women might as well have been a man or vice versa for that matter, to a lot more interesting affair of man and women using their combined skills to get ahead in this world. Finally and perhaps most importantly, it would fit Ja Rule’s parts much more. When he is rapping, the lyrics are very much directed at a traditional female, that is lacking the masculine qualities of the mans strenght (and arguably willpower), but makes up for it in smarts (and emotional investment), and while this can work with many female tropes, it doesn’t flow well with the Action Girl tropes. This is perhaps the most important thing to learn about tropes them self, what does and doesn’t work, and it require a working understanding of which tropes means what and which ones of them go together.
Once again the fact is, you are most likely using tropes already, like narrative techniques, it’s something that has been with us for a long time and it’s build into our everyday life through all sorts of media. That said, unlike narrative technique, not paying attention to the tropes you are using are not only missing an chance for improvement, it can actually make your work worse.
Chances are, Charlie and Ja both knew what they where writting, she knew all the elements that she was writing into her verse and he knew his. Trouble most likely was, they didn’t know that what she was writing was basically a textbook case of an Action Girl and even though she never puts anything into her lyrics that in and of it self goes against what he is writing (especially in his second verse), the fact that she write a Action Girl does goes against what he is writing. Why?
Because the fact that tropes are so ingrained into our mind makes it so easy for us to make up the rest of her personality, from relating what she actually says with the trope of an Action Girl, even if we don’t acknowledge it as the work of a trope ourself.
Other reasons not to ignore tropes is subversion, lampshading and aversion.
To subvert a trope is to make it seem like you are playing up to the conventions of a trope, right up to the point where you are not. The trick here is making a set-up that doesn’t clash with the reveal, that the trope the audience think is at work, really isn’t. This is best don’t by keeping the set-up as limited as possible.
For example, if i where to subvert the action girl trope in the example above, i would have kept some of the parts of Charlie’s lyrics, but instead of dedicating the entire verse to depicting her is this light i would dedicate a few lines to highlight her feelings for Ja, as implied by his lyrics. While the set-up and reveal don’t clash direct with each other, the set-up still hints at an archetypical Action Girl, but the reveal breaks this connect, since the archetypical Action Girl doesn’t harbor deep feelings for anybody. In a case like this example, such a subversion would work well.
Another interesting trick is lampshading, this is where a trope is played straight, but you explicitly express that you understand that you are playing to a trope, usually down for comedic effect and usually when dealing with very stereotypical tropes. A very good example of how one can use lampshading in music is Nas and Busta Rhymes song “Fried Chicken” from the album “Untitled”, here they play to the trope that African-American men loves fried chicken, but they never try to make it any more then a funny play at a stereotype and you can almost hear that the song was recorded with a grin on their faces. A lot of comedy songs and parodies (there will be more on writing a parody song later) uses lampshading, but i don’t think lampshading is exclusive to comedy song. In my opinion it’s a great tool for those times where you want to write a song about something, but you feel the topic has been done to death. Remember humour does not exclude you from having a serious point, in fact i would dare say it can add to it in many cases.
Aversion is the final way of using tropes i will talk about here, there is more, but i have to stop at some point and i think that i have covered the most important tools of tropes. If you want to know about other ways to use tropes, like downplaying and inverting, you can read more here. To avert a trope is trickier then to subvert it, in aversion all the parts required to play a trope is present, but the trope it self is never so much as hinted at. One example would be a action film with the hero walking calmly away from the explosion. Aversion is very tricky to do with anything but stereotypical tropes, because it relies solely on the audience expecting the trope to be played, without anything in the actually work hinting at it. I haven’t found any real good examples of this in music, but one could argue that a rap song without swearing would be one. Most people would expect swearing if they listen to rap, it’s so common that a song without swearing would unavoidably stand out.
A very important note is that tropes are tools, even the stereotypical ones. You should use them as they fit, in the way that they fit, sometimes they should be played straight, sometimes they should be subverted, sometimes averted etc. In short, you should always be aware of tropes, chances are you are using them in some way, and spend just a couple of minutes thinking about how and why you are using these tropes can make a great difference in the quality of your lyric.
This is where i’ll end it this time, next time i’m going to talk about conceptualization and context.