So you want to write a love song? Valentine's Day is coming up fast! Here’s how to take the cheesiness out of your song, flip your clichés, and say something that hasn’t already been said 10,000 times.
First, let's define the word cliché: a cliché is a line or a phrase that is overused and often unoriginal. In songwriting, we can learn to flip clichés by giving the same message in a different way.
Here are some examples of cliche lines:
“Down on my knees”
“Cuts like a knife”
“It’s not what it seems”
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”
All of these lines, and many more, are common song lyrics. So let’s try to flip one of these clichés.
One strategy is to write down what you want to say (this will often be a cliché). Let's pretend we want to say: “I’m down on my knees"
Extract the main words from the cliché: down and knees.
Search for alternative words that have a similar meanings:
My first instinct is to say, “I lay down my bones,” which is immediately less cliche than “I’m down on my knees.” This is more intense and might imply death, but it is a more creative way of showing desperation. Searching for related words can be a useful tool, but don’t feel like you need to restrict yourself to this method.
I was sober
That night we got pulled over
But I had tears in my eyes
Cause I couldn’t see the lines anymore
But I know you crossed it
Like the x’s on my hands
How you reeled me in
Took to me to see my favorite band - Liz Longley
In the chorus, she’s referring to lines on the highway. But the bridge recolors it: he crossed the line. AND she’s adding a third dimension by mentioning the X’s on her hand (referring to the X’s that music venues give to underage concert-goers); she’s young and impressionable.
Had Liz simply written, “you crossed the line,” it would not be nearly as effective. She took the cliché and turned it into something original. Figure out what it is you want to say and find a new way to communicate that message.
Examples of Clichés I have flipped:
Clichés aren’t restricted to lines. There are a handful of basic rhymes that have been greatly overused to the point of becoming cliché. Here’s are some examples of overused rhymes that are probably best to avoid:
Spend some time with a rhyming dictionary; search for creative rhymes that your audience won’t be expecting. You can purchase a physical rhyming dictionary or use a website or app like Rhymezone or B-Rhymes.
Read and Get Creative Ideas From Great Writers
“In old times when wishing still helped one, there lived a king whose daughters were all beautiful, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun itself, which has seen so much, was astonished whenever it shone in her face.” - The Grimm’s Brothers
The Grimm’s Brothers could have simply written, “she was beautiful.” Or even. “she was the most beautiful girl under the sun.” But they didn’t: they flipped the cliché! They used personification to bring the sun to life and make the sun an admirer of this beautiful girl. They brought in a new perspective.
Use A New Perspective
I have a deep admiration for Ingrid Andress. She’s one of few popular artists who has songwriting skills that live up to her level of fame. Not surprisingly, Ingrid is a fellow graduate of Berklee College of Music. In her song “More Hearts Than Mine,” Ingrid flips the traditional love song narrative of “I’ll be sad if we break up”; she creates this big picture story of what the entire family would go through. She uses the same story that has been told a thousand times, but she makes it fascinating with her new approach.
Dolly Parton's “Jolene” uses a similar strategy. Instead of writing another cheating song (cheating songs usually called out the guy who was cheating or angrily addressed the woman who stole her man), Dolly chose to use a new approach. Dolly strategically addressed her song to “the other woman” in a vulnerable, compassionate manner, “I’m begging you, please don’t take my man!” This is likely one of the reasons this song was received so well: because other artists at the time hadn't thought to write from this perspective.
A Few Points To Remember:
- Identify song clichés and try to flip them
- Look at examples of what other artists are doing well, how they are getting those results, and how you can learn from them
- Look at examples where songwriters are failing to meet a song's full potential, figure out what they could have done better
- Read and learn from great writers
- Try to come up with a new perspective
Anyone can take the cheese out of a love song. It just takes some practice to rework things in a new way that has not been done before. Chances are, WHAT you are saying has already been said. Figure out HOW you are going to say it in a way that’s different, creative, and maybe even original.