Write Better Lyrics: Does Your Subject Matter Matter?

You've slaved over your lyric for hours, days, weeks, months, years. ("Years" is not uncommon, by the way. Rome wasn't written in a day.) But you have that nagging feeling that something isn't quite right. Unless you are an excessively-tortured-artist-who-is-never-satisfied (rather than the more normative periodically-tortured-artist-who-is-seldom-satisfied), your instinct is probably right: Your lyric needs more work.

But where to begin?

Over a couple of decades of banging my head against the songwriting wall, I've found myself asking the same 15 or so questions to try to get to the bottom of lyric problems. In the hopes of saving your forehead at least a little bruising, I'm going to share these questions with you.

So -- here is Lyric Question No. 1:


The other questions we'll go through are much more applied and specific, but before you start analyzing the trees of your song, take a giant step back and look at the forest. Is this song justifying its space on the planet? That seems like a harsh question, I know, but some songs just plain don't work conceptually.

That doesn't mean the song has been a waste of energy. ALL time spent writing builds creative muscle. Plus, if a song turns out to be a write-off, you can strip it for parts (take the best lines and write something else.) For each song on my first album, I can show you ten others I needed to write in order to work my way to a keeper. The process is always valuable.

Still, lovely (and true) sentiments about the value of the journey aside, most writers prefer to arrive at satisfactory destinations. So, at each stage of the song's creation, ask yourself, DOES MY SUBJECT MATTER MATTER? In other words, is the idea I'm working on big enough or clever enough or funny enough or universal enough or moving enough or striking enough or original enough to support a whole, entire song?

The first time I ever had a co-writing session it was with a seasoned Nashville vet named Niles Borop. I was twenty-one and newly signed to a publishing deal; I was practically vibrating with excitement and nerves and ambition. I asked Niles what advice he had for a rookie and he said, "Never waste three and a half minutes of someone's time."

Niles told me that to reach out through a car radio ( he would have said "ipod," if it had been invented yet) and brazenly steal three or four minutes of a stranger's life is no small thing. He told me not to take it lightly, and I've been haunted by that sense of sacred responsibility ever since. (Gee, thanks Niles. Couldn't you have just said "Always end on the I chord?")

So now, I want to haunt you with the same question. Is this song worth your listener's time? It doesn't have to be War and Peace (in fact, it's probably better if it's not.) But it does have to be three important things:

1. The song's subject matter must matter to you.
You should have some sort of emotional connection with whatever it is you are writing about. It can be a subject you feel passionate about, or one that makes you laugh, but you cannot be indifferent to it. If you're indifferent, just imagine how your audience will feel.

When I signed my first publishing deal (which was primarily to write songs for other artists), I immediately started writing much more generic, non-personal songs, on the theory that if I put too much of myself into a song no other singer would be comfortable singing it. In actuality, what I was doing was writing Really Bad Songs. I wasn't invested enough in my subject matter, so the songs came out inauthentic and passionless. I learned over time that often the more personal something is, the more universal it is. Weird, but true.

2. The song's subject matter should matter to other people.
The whole world doesn't have to be into your subject, by any means, but some segment of the population should be able to find a point of connection. This is the caveat to the "Be-personal-to-be-universal" principle mentioned above: If what you're writing is SO unique to your own situation that no one else can relate, well, then, no one else will. They also won't listen very long.

3. There should be something about the song that makes it different from all other songs.
That sounds a bit daunting, doesn't it? But the truth is, however passionate you might feel about, say, breaking up with someone you love, and however much other people might be able to relate to your pain, there are already a LOT of songs about breaking up. Your song will only be compelling if you've found a hook or approach that is fresh or somehow unique. You don't have to reinvent the wheel, but you should spin it in an original way. We'll talk about this a lot more as we work through the other Lyric Questions.

You would think it would be obvious to a songwriter when the subject matter doesn't matter. But creativity, like love, is sometimes blind. You may need to get the feedback of a few trusted friends to determine if your song has a conceptual or foundational weakness. If it becomes apparent that such is indeed the case, do not despair! It may be possible to rework the song, or to take the strong portions and write something else. Regardless, you haven't wasted your time. Take what you've learned and apply it to subject matter that really matters to you.

Next post: Lyric Question No. 2

See you soon! Till then, write on.

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