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Lyric Writing: Giving Human Qualities to Inanimate Objects (and vice versa)
By Dan Palladino


The songwriter's greatest enemy is the cliché or predictable line. What is your reaction when you hear a song and the first line is "I woke up this morning"? Right. Starting a song this way doesn't make you want to hear what happens next, does it? One of the most effective ways to get yourself out of this rut is to give inanimate objects a human quality.

Let's take a look at some lines from the Tom Waits song "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)":

    The piano has been drinking
    My necktie's asleep
    The combo went back to New York, and left me all alone
    The jukebox has to take a leak
    The carpet needs a haircut
    And the spotlight looks just like a prison break
    And the telephone's out of cigarettes
    The balcony is on the make

    © 1976 Fifth Floor Music, Inc. (ASCAP)
The above lines push the listener further into the tune. It's kind of like a good film: you really want to see what happens next. Tom Waits could have written lines like "I've been drinking tonight", or "I can barely see because I'm drunk", but it wouldn't have nearly the same impact.

The band Alice in Chains had a song called "Angry Chair" on the album Dirt. Let's look at a couple of lines:

    Sitting on an angry chair
    Angry walls that steal the air
    Stomach hurts and I don't care

    © 1992 Jack Lord Music (ASCAP)
Can you see how making the chair angry brings the lyric to life? Would the song be as effective if the lyric was "I'm sitting here and I'm angry"? Not even close. Between the angry chair and the angry walls that steal the air, you really get a sense of anger filling the room.

A variation on this concept is to give inanimate objects the qualities of a different object. A good example of this is the Lennon/McCartney tune "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds":

    Cellophane flowers of yellow and green
    Towering over your head

Or:

    Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain
    Where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies
Or:
    Newspaper taxis appear on the shore
    Waiting to take you away

    © 1967 Northern Songs
If Lennon/McCartney had written "Beautiful flowers of yellow and green", the line wouldn't stand out very much. Simply adding the word "cellophane" brings the idea to life. People aren't eating marshmallow pies, rocking horse people are eating marshmallow pies. These adjectives are out of the ordinary, so you can't help but pay attention.

In one of my own songs, "Hold Me 'til I'm Free", I use this device in the lines:
    Shadows rage and dance
    Over your shoulder on the flickering wall

    © 1998 Dan Palladino/Rich Gantner
There isn't a candle flickering–that's a very ordinary image. The entire wall is flickering–much more interesting and it gives the listener a vivid mental image.

The writer William Burroughs described an exercise he used to acheive these unusual pairings of words: He would make a list of two columns–the first column would be adjectives and the second would be nouns. So one possible list could be as follows:
    smoldering        volcano
    pretty                girl
    schizophrenic    patient
    humming           locomotive

Then, using scissors, Burroughs would cut the paper in half vertically and re-align the pairs of words to come up with unusual combinations. So, the list above might become:
    smoldering        girl
    pretty                locomotive
    schizophrenic    volcano
    humming           patient

Pretty cool, huh? The meanings of all four phrases were changed by shuffling the adjectives. Now, you may need to write 50 pairs of words before you come up with enough interesting combinations, but you can see that the exercise can produce results with relatively little effort. Throw in the fact that you can re-shuffle your list several times and you could come up with a dictionary's worth of interesting phrases in a half-hour or so.

Compelling lyrics don't happen on their own–it takes a lot of work and editing. The best songwriters are never satisfied with clichés and throw-away lines. They re-write until each line is a little masterpiece on its own. I hope that by using the ideas presented here, you will take another step toward creating your own masterpieces.

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© 2007 Dan Palladino
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