Mac DeMarco’s “Salad Days” uses a cliché theme in a fresh way. (Photo by Coley Brown)
How do we define cheesy? What separates a lyrical motif from a cringe-worthy cliché? And is there any way that these songwriting taboos can actually work in your favor?
The answer to the latter question is simpler than defining the errors. If you’re aware of the tropes you’re tripping over, the work can be understood as satire, irony, or camp. Another option: pair familiar lyrical lines with an otherwise unconventional song. None of those suggestions are foolproof, and it’s not a guarantee that your use of cheesy or cliché wording will make your music unlistenable. Figuring out what works in any particular situation, as always, is ultimately up to you.
Here are some of the most commonly relied-upon songwriting clichés, and why they’re mistakes – plus instances in which they were successful.
There is a false assumption about songwriting that some magical moment of inspiration will suddenly strike a person sitting in a room with a guitar, causing them to give birth to a small piece of artistic brilliance and until that happens, it’s not worth picking up a pen and a piece of paper.
It’s true that inspiration can come from a variety of places, but the hard reality is that just like playing an instrument, great songwriters become great by practicing. It’s especially important to remember that early results are almost never that promising. It’s okay to write a crappy song. The key is figuring out what about the song wasn’t so great and what needs to be done to improve it.
In the meantime, there are exercises you can do on a daily and weekly basis that will strengthen your writing muscle and make you a better songwriter. Some of these are tried and true techniques, some are a little bit outside of the box. Some of them may work wonders for you, some may not. Every writer learns to find what processes work best for them.
Learn, Play, and Diagram Your Favorite Songs
Influences are a big part of every songwriter’s individual sound. The hard part is figuring out how to absorb your favorite writers and let their influence seep into your own creative process without copying them outright. Learning to play and perform a song that someone else wrote is one way to learn from the inside out what it feels like to sing from that writer’s perspective. The reality is, you will never be able to perform it the same way they do, so take liberty in interpreting their song with your own voice. Memorize the lyrics, practice and learn it as if you were preparing to perform it. Really let it sink in.
Freestyle Write and Record It
Freestyle, stream of consciousness writing is deceptively simple. Training your mind to spit out new ideas without stopping is a discipline in and of itself. Whether your playing guitar, DJing in Ableton, singing and playing piano or whatever medium you prefer to write in, freestyle writing can not only be a discovery tool for new ideas, but can also reveal crutches and patterns that you lean on too often. Make sure and record yourself and listen back, you might be surprised as to what you hear.
Write With Someone Else
It’s always a good idea to try out writing with another writer, whether or not they are more or less experienced that you are. There are always methods you could pick up, but more than anything writing with someone else forces you to put ideas to paper. Writing alone can often include distractions, but when you have a set aside time in front of someone else there is more of a sense of urgency to create something. Don’t expect every co-writing session to be fruitful, remember that a lot of these are exercises to make you better . You might not end up with a great song at the end, but the process can teach you a lot.
A complicated song with multiple sections and a fully developed theme can often be a daunting task to jump right into. An award winning prolific writer told me about this exercise. Write a series of verse/chorus combinations and think about each of them like a point/counterpoint. Identify one idea and flesh it out. Follow it up with a second idea that counterpoints that idea – melodically, lyrically, rhythmically, however you see fit. Once you’re done and this two part creation is complete, start over and do it again. Some of these ideas might even turn into actual songs, but you can’t expect them all to be great ideas. Again, it’s all about the exercise.