Taking the Cheese out of Love Songs

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.

Flipping Clichés

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”

“You’re beautiful”

“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:

Main Words From the Cliché

Related Words

Down

Floor, Ground

Knees

Bones, Body


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.

Here’s one of my favorite cliche flips by Liz Longley. In her song 3 Crow, instead of saying, “you crossed the line”, she adds another dimension to it:

Chorus

I was sober

That night we got pulled over

But I had tears in my eyes

Cause I couldn’t see the lines anymore

Bridge

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:

Cliche 

Flipped Cliche

Life is Short

You said to follow the shore line, that life has a short spine

I miss you

I can't touch you but you're still touching me 

I took him/her back 

I kept the ring 

Watching the seasons change/fall fell

Fall came in layers like a knit sweater 

Green with envy 

My bones ache with envy for your smile  

I wish I could take away your pain 

I wish I could give you some sunshine in a jar 

to light things up when life gets hard 

Time is passing so fast 

December walked out quickly 

A cigarette and a coat 

The sun’s going down 

The sun’s sinking fast as a stone 

Hold me through the night, make me feel loved

On my back, name little moles as moons and tell the stories of stones

I’m tired of being used 




I am not your cabin 

You can’t just come through

When it’s raining on you 

You are so kind

House of open doors

Dad passed down hard work 

Dad passed down the calluses 


Cliché Rhymes

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:

Love/Above

Heart/Apart

Street/Meet

Remember/September

Baby/Maybe

My/Sky/High/Fly

Blue/Do/You

Fire/Desire

Dance/Romance

Tonight/Alright

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

Margaret Atwood, in her Masterclass on creative writing, recommends writers read The Grimm’s Fairy Tales for ideas and inspiration. This is the opening line of the story The Frog King:

“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.

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