The Problem With Modern Songwriters, or Ears of Tin and Clunky Cliches

The Problem With Modern Songwriters, or Ears of Tin and Clunky Cliches May 10, 2011

This is an experience that’s all too familiar for me: I’m listening along to a song, maybe I like it, maybe I don’t, but all of a sudden, there’s a word or phrase that just falls with a gigantic *THUD*. Instinctively, my ears cringe, and my face contorts, because it’s just too painful. In general, it makes me lose my appetite for the rest of the song, but occasionally I can overlook it and still enjoy the piece as a whole.
We’ve got a problem here, and the problem is that many contemporary songwriters don’t seem to understand something very basic: There are certain words and phrases that just shouldn’t be used in a song. Period. No, in case you were wondering, I don’t demand that every song be a Shakespearean sonnet. But every song is a form of poetry. Yet it seems like some people view a song lyric as more of a blog post or chatty e-mail than a form of poetry. If you’re deliberately writing something light/tongue-in-cheek/goofy, that’s one thing. But writers can be known to litter a song with howlers and take every word of it absolutely seriously.

Here are some examples of words that I have actually heard used in a song, in many cases multiple times. I won’t share names of the writers involved or names of any specific songs. These are just some cliches that I have “collected” so far (and I fear that I may collect more in the future):
cliche (Yes, using the word “cliche” is a cliche!)
point of view
comfort zone (Words cannot express my loathing for this particular neologism.)
Maybe my readers can furnish a few more such specimens of the English language that have found their way where they have no business being. To be quite honest, I’d rather go back to the days when writers used (oh horror of horrors) words like thee and thou in their songs, but they actually knew how to write poetry. What a concept!
Look, in all seriousness, I’m not saying you have to write like Isaac Watts to write a great song. There are lots of modern songs that I love. I’m just saying that writers need to get an instinctive sense of when something just sounds modern and artificial. A lot of them simply have a tin ear. These sorts of expressions don’t strike them as wrong because they just can’t hear what the problem is. Of course, this may not necessarily be their personal fault. It’s a problem that can be traced back to the breakdown of our educational system and the resultant cheapening of the English language that has left people impoverished.
However, this does not mean all hope is lost for the songwriter who wishes to improve. The first thing I would unhesitatingly recommend is that every songwriter who aspires to beautiful, precise language in his work should obtain a King James Bible. Other translations can be useful to help untangle unclear sections in the King James, but for sheer beauty of language, it is unrivaled. Read the Psalms out loud. Memorize them. Let the rhythm of the language get into your bones and your blood.
Second, he should steep himself in great poetry and literature in general. Pore over the work of the great hymn-writers. Soak in the mastery of Shakespeare and John Donne. Take Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and read entire passages out loud, letting the language roll around and off your tongue.
Finally, he should ask himself, “WWRMD?” Or, “What would Rich Mullins do?” Every good songwriter understands greatness in other writers when he sees it. Mullins was arguably the most gifted poet Christian music has ever seen, although Andrew Peterson is carrying the torch with considerable grace today.
At the end of the day, will our songwriter emerge as great as all of the above? Of course not. But, he will emerge with the ability to avoid ugly modern neologisms and clunky language without really giving it a second thought. And that’s a valuable skill all by itself.

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  • JJ

    I have great respect for the writing of Rich Mullins. However, your statement that “Mullins was arguably the most gifted poet Christian music has ever seen” may be a little strong when considering the novelty songs he sometimes wrote. I appreciate the clever (and meaningful) choices he made in crafting the lyric, but timeless language is not really what comes to mind.
    Screen Door
    It’s about as useless as
    A screen door on a submarine
    Faith without works baby
    It just ain’t happenin’
    One is your left hand
    One is your right
    It’ll take two strong arms
    To hold on tight
    Some folks cut off their nose
    Just to spite their face
    I think you need some works to show
    For your alleged faith
    Well there’s a difference you know
    B’tween having faith and playing make believe
    One will make you grow
    The other one just make you sleep
    Talk about it
    But I really think you oughtta
    Take a leap off of the ship
    Before you claim to walk on water
    Faith without works is like a song you can’t sing
    It’s about as useless as a screen door on a submarine
    Faith comes from God
    And every word that He breathes
    He lets you take it to your heart
    So you can give it hands and feet
    It’s gotta be active if it’s gonna be alive
    You gotta put it into practice
    It’s about as useless as a screen door
    On a submarine
    Faith without works, baby
    It just ain’t happenin’
    One is your right hand, one is your left
    It’s your light, your guide
    Your life and your breath
    Faith without works is like a song you can’t sing
    It’s about as useless as a screen door
    On a submarine

  • Well of course he lightened up sometimes. But so have many poets of the past. When he sat down to write a weighty lyric with depth of meaning, he could really bring it. The fact that he occasionally got playful doesn’t mean anything. I’m discussing the fact that writers are losing the ability to write well-crafted serious poetry anymore.
    Besides, didn’t you know that “Screen Door” is pretty much the only Rich Mullins song that Daniel Mount likes? 😛

  • For example, contrast something deliberately tongue-in-cheek like “Screen Door” with this:
    And the moon is a sliver of silver
    Like a shaving that fell on the floor of a Carpenter’s shop
    And every house must have its builder
    And I awoke in the house of God
    Where the windows are mornings and evenings
    Stretched from the sun
    Across the sky north to south
    And on my way to early meeting
    I heard the rocks crying out
    I heard the rocks crying out
    Be praised for all Your tenderness by these works of Your hands
    Suns that rise and rains that fall to bless and bring to life Your land
    Look down upon this winter wheat and be glad that You have made
    Blue for the sky and the color green, that fills these fields with praise
    And the wrens have returned and they’re nesting
    In the hollow of that oak where his heart once had been
    And he lifts up his arms in a blessing for being born again
    And the streams are all swollen with winter
    Winter unfrozen and free to run away now
    And I’m amazed and I remember
    Who it was that built this house
    And with the rocks I cry out
    Be praised for all Your tenderness by these works of Your hands
    Suns that rise and rains that fall to bless and bring to life Your land
    Look down upon this winter wheat and be glad that You have made
    Blue for the sky, and the color green…

  • JJ

    I’ll be glad to state that “Creed” should have won song of the year for Mullins. Again, he was a great writer. However:
    1. He did have a freedom to write for himself, and to make his melodies serve the lengthy lyrics. That was a luxury, and not all his songs were as singable.
    2. Your hope was that a songwriter “avoid ugly modern neologisms and clunky language.” However, Rich Mullins was willing to go there — and he used words you might criticize if present in someone else’s lyric. I’m just suggesting that WWRMD is such a strong statement that it nearly deifies him. I agree that Andrew Peterson is incredibly gifted, but so are many other writers, both past and present.

  • I didn’t say that he wrote the most singable songs. I would certainly agree that his melodies could have been better. I just said he had a certain touch for a lyric that’s hard to describe and rather rare when you look around at other contemporary writers.
    I don’t claim that all his songs were created equal, and I’m sure he had his moments. However, I could never in a million years imagine him putting the phrase “comfort zone” in a song. I just can’t do it. And ditto for Peterson, since I’m comparing the two.
    My intention is not to deify either writer or claim that they are infallible. I’m just holding them up as really good examples of people who understand how to wield the English language effectively. That’s it. 🙂

  • In my “opinion”, that is, from my “point of view”, I would have to say that the way you “criticize” the “relationships” among modern songwriters, modern education, and the more elevated use of the language from the past without resorting to “cliches” is a most refreshing “experience”, for it is indeed a pressing “problem” and a “concept” not easily accepted by the “prejudice” of the modern mind (of which I am free) and so generally falls within my “comfort zone”. Even though I’ve never heard of Rich Mullins.

  • 😀
    We should remedy that.

  • I’m not completely sure where I stand on this topic. On one hand, sure it makes sense. But on the other hand, you don’t want your lyrics to be too over the top making it hard for the listeners to understand your message. Sometimes, simplicity is better.

  • I actually don’t think it has anything to do with simplicity. Some of the most elegantly beautiful songs I have ever heard contain very simple lyrics. “How Beautiful” by Twila Paris is a perfect example.
    We’re discussing a different phenomenon here. It’s not a matter of uncomplicated versus complex. It’s a matter of precise and graceful versus clunky and cliched.

  • Jackie

    I think you’re missing the point here. Whatever style a songwriter uses, if a song touches the heart and blesses the soul, it has accomplished a significant goal. Most listeners don’t worry about whether the writer is “weilding the English language” properly.

  • On the contrary, I think I’m making a pertinent point. Let me ask you a question: Why do you think the Bible tells us to give our very best to the Lord? As long as somebody, somewhere gets blessed by what we do, it shouldn’t matter, right? Wrong. We should always strive to improve our skills, whatever they are. Suppose my great-uncle paints something and gives it to his brother’s family, who thinks it’s incredible and are blessed by it. My great-uncle then decides to become really serious about improving his craft and realizes that he’s no Rembrandt. What does he do at that point? Does he say, “Well gee, people like what I do, and I’ll never be Rembrandt anyway, so I might as well keep doing bad paintings”? No, not if he cares about beauty, excellence, and giving his best to the Lord. He’ll study, practice, and strive to become the best he can be.
    I could take that scenario and apply it to any worthy area of endeavor, including songwriting.

  • He can still strive to be the best he can be, but that shouldn’t diminish the fact that the first song “touches the heart and blesses the soul,” as Jackie said.

  • I suppose that if somebody has a nice experience because of a piece of bad art, that’s an example of the Lord moving in mysterious ways. 😉
    But in all seriousness, all I’m trying to say is that we shouldn’t feel guilty for pointing out areas for improvement, even in the realm of Christian art. There’s nothing misguided about saying, “You know what, these people are better writers than those people, and there’s something to be learned here.”

  • By the way, I love the art analogy.

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