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.
1. Over-the-top sentimentality
Examples: Vowing to die for someone, professing never-ending love, declaring life unlivable without the other person
Why it’s a mistake: Because it’s the sonic equivalent of these engagement photos.
When it’s worked: Who can forget Bryan Adams’ eternal hit, “(Everything I Do) I Do it for You”? A few things to consider, though. That was released in 1991, and it was very closely associated with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which starred Kevin Costner, and he was basically the Ryan Gosling of that decade. And Bryan Adams was pretty beloved on his own at that point, too.
2. Trying too hard
Examples: Likening yourself to something ultra-cool-hip-trendy, using buzzwords with abandon, using slang incorrectly
Why it’s a mistake: Everybody knows you can’t try to be cool. Indifference and a blasé attitude are paramount (the guise of them, at least).
When it’s worked: Weird Al comes to mind, and of course his songs are parodies dripping with wit and satire.
3. Nostalgic scenarios
Examples: Returning to your childhood home, youthful heyday, a faded photograph
Why it’s a mistake: Nickelback, for one. The issue of sentimentality is at the root of this one.
When it’s worked: Unfortunately, if we’re talking money, Nickelback.
Regarding the nostalgia for youth, though, it worked for Mac DeMarco (who coincidentally is not old by any stretch). The titular track from last year’s Salad Days is presumably about his teenage years – but he never once says youth or teenage. Instead he calls that time his salad days, an idiom that’s rarely heard in popular culture anymore and makes reference to somebody he calls Hippie John. Plus, the tune is hazy and lethargic, not sad and wistful or – the opposite cliché – an energetic, amped-up attempt to relive those back-in-the-day memories.
4. Cliché phrases
Examples: Down on my knees, now or never, cold as ice, love is blind, and just about any other phrase found on this website
Why it’s a mistake: Because many of those lines have already been sung a million times, and it’s highly improbable you’ll outshine their most famous uses.
When it’s worked: Idioms and cliché phrases are maybe the trickiest part of this list. They’re overlooked in some cases, like the beloved hits the aforementioned examples recall (e.g., Alicia Keys and Eve (feat. Faith Evans) both have songs titled “Love is Blind,” Foreigner’s “Cold as Ice”). A safe bet is to not include too many in one song, and if a single line immediately reminds you of another very popular song, consider rewording.
5. Too heavy a reliance on “not words”
Examples: Words like honey, sweetheart, and baby, or oohs and aahs
Why it’s a mistake: If your song is basically one word or sound repeated, did you really even write lyrics?
When it’s worked: Justin Bieber and a slew of others regularly base entire songs on a recurring pet name. While that may take them to giant sales heights, those artists aren’t typically regarded as exceptional songwriters.
As for the sounds in lieu of lyrics, there is doo-wop to consider – but those oohs and aahs serve a purpose. They’re backing vocals; they’re not the centerpiece of the song, and they aren’t used to cover up a lacking message. Gibberish and nonsense talk is another fallback that is sometimes actually the backbone – like with Sigur Rós, who constructed their own language. And, generally, that’s gone over pretty well. But, again, there’s purpose in what they do.
By Jhoni Jackson Jun 23, 2015
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