When clever is a dumb idea

Clever isn’t so clever if nobody gets itsongwriting lyrics

I wrote a great poem once. It goes like this:

Earth and sky unite
To soothe the runner’s ache
The darkness brings sweetness
But then decay

It’s such a brilliant poem. I am so impressed with myself for how clever it is. Don’t you love it? What? You think it doesn’t make sense? Well, you’re wrong. It makes perfect sense. You see, it’s a poem about a banana.

Bananas are loaded with potassium. Runners get muscle cramps. Plenty of potassium in your diet can help alleviate muscle cramps. Bananas grow by photosynthesis which utilizes the nutrients in the soil and light from the sun. So, it makes perfect sense to say, “Earth and sky unite to soothe the runners ache.”

As bananas ripen their peels start getting little brown spots and they get sweeter and sweeter. But by the time they turn black, they are all mushy and you have to throw them away. That is what I so perfectly described with, “The darkness brings sweetness but then decay.”

The problem with my clever poem is that, unless you already know what it is about, those words won’t make any sense to you. When I am giving feedback to developing writers and I tell them I don’t understand a line, quite often they will, with great enthusiasm, explain it to me. Once I get their explanation, I can see that their words do indeed say what they meant, and I can see the clever thought that went into them. But no one will ever get the point without already knowing what it is.

Hit Country songs are not abstract poems or puzzles to solve. They are conversations that clearly communicate ideas and emotions to the listeners. If you are in a rock band or you play coffee houses and house concerts your listeners probably enjoy lyrics they have to dig to find meaning in, but then your success as a writer is completely tied to your success as an artist. If you want cuts in Nashville it’s a good idea to look at your lyrics and ask, “If I had no idea what this song was about, what would these words tell me.”

Sometimes songwriters get very attached to their own cleverness and can be resistant to changing lines they worked so hard on.  But as they say in creative writing, “sometimes you have to kill your darlings.”