The other day I was looking at lyrics online and I came across the words to “Live Like We’re Dying” by Kris Allen. I’ve been very much into positive personal growth lately, so these lyrics struck me. Granted, they can be a bit cheesy at times, but overall the message of this song is a good one, and that message resonated with me.
So I went to YouTube to listen to the song, and realized I had definitely heard the song before. When I was just reading the lyrics on screen, I wasn’t sure if I knew the song or not. As I listened to the song online, I realized the lyrics never resonated with me before, until I saw them written out.
For a song, that’s a problem. Most of the time, we don’t have the benefit of having the lyrics in front of us as we listen. We need to hear the words properly.
So how come this song never made a connection with me before reading the words? It’s because the words (in the verse anyway) aren’t sung the way they would be read on paper, or spoken. Singing is an exaggerated form of speech, and needs be handled the way speaking would.
So let’s look at what triggered the disconnect from paper to finished studio recording.
Phrasing Your Lyrics
Here are the lyrics for the first verse:
Sometimes we fall down, can’t get back up
We’re hiding behind skin that’s too tough
How come we don’t say I love you enough
Till it’s to late, it’s not too late
The message is clear, in four lines of lyric. Be bolder in life. Live like you’re dying. Cool.
Now let’s HEAR the words. Check out the first verse in the beginning of the video:
Is this what you heard?
Sometimes we fall down
We’re hiding behind
How come we don’t say
I love you
Till it’s to late
it’s not too late
So what reads as four lines on paper, got chopped up into about eleven small lines in the song. Normally, this would be fine, if each of those eleven lines were a phrase on their own. But the problem here is that they’re not. They’re four lines cut up to be eleven, so the words would fit into the melodic idea. And now we’re left with a lyric that’s not singing to us. We hardly notice the words, because we don’t recognize the phrases the way we would if they were spoken to us.
Let’s look at how these lyrics are sung again, and imagine what it would sound like if someone said this to us…
Sometimes we fall down [pause]
can’t get [pause]
back up [pause]
We’re hiding behind [pause]
skin that’s [pause]
too tough [pause]
How come we don’t say [pause]
I love you [pause]
Till it’s to late [pause]
it’s not too late [pause]
I’d say five of those pauses actually belong. That’s less than half. This pattern continues throughout all the verses in the song. The problem is no one speaks like that (except maybe William Shatner). The only time you may speak sentences like that would be if you were, in fact, dying. So live like you’re dying, but don’t phrase like you’re dying. Unless of course, you don’t care whether or not you’re lyrics are connecting to your audience.
It would be like if I walked up to you and said “Hey, how are [pause]… You doing [pause]. Today?”
Now you may be saying… “What are you talking about?! This song is a hit!… there’s a reason for that, right?” Yes there is. The reason is that in hit songs, melody is king. This song has a really good, singable, memorable melody. No question about it. But the lyrics are loosing steam because of their placement in that melody.
Had those eleven lines been eleven short phrases that each work on their own (kind of like the last two lines), we’d be okay. But they’re not. It’s four lines of written lyric stretched out to eleven lines of vocals.
A lot of times hit songs can get away with having less than stellar phrasing or lyrics, because the melody makes them a hit. But if you’re an unknown artist, you want to increase your odds and make ALL aspects of your writing shine.
And if you want to make your killer lyrics shine, make sure their phrased properly, so people will hear them the way they’re meant to be heard.
How Long is a Day?
There’s another lesson to be learned from this song. Another lyrical disconnect that’s causing the song’s message to lose steam when we hear it. This one happens quicker than the pausing in the verses that we just talked about, but it’s in the chorus, so it gets repeated and we noticed it every time.
If I asked you how long a day was, how would you respond? You’d probably tell me it was twenty-four hours. You might even say it’s how long it takes for the earth to revolve around its own axis. Both would be fine answers.
What you probably wouldn’t say (even though it’s technically true) is that a day is 1,440 minutes long. And you certainly wouldn’t tell me it’s 86,400 seconds long. People just don’t think in those terms for long lengths of time.
Having said that, let’s take a look at the Chorus of “Live Like We’re Dying.”
Yeah, we gotta start
Looking at the hands of the time we’ve been given
If this is all we got and we gotta start thinking
If every second counts on a clock that’s ticking
Gotta live like we’re dying
We only got 86,400 seconds in a day to
Turn it all around or to throw it all away
We gotta tell them that we love them
While we got the chance to say
Gotta live like we’re dying
We’ve only got 86,400 seconds in a day. Who knew? I do… NOW. This line feels weird, because we don’t think in terms of a day being that many seconds long. I get what’s happening… we’re being reminded that “every second counts” a few lines before, and then we’re told how many seconds there are.
But that sounds long, doesn’t it? He’s trying to remind you that a day is short (by saying “We’ve ONLY got…”) but then he says there are 86,400 seconds in a day. 86,400 is a big number. A lot bigger than 24. If you were trying to convince me a day is short, tell me the shorter number. My mind will subconsciously think of it as shorter, regardless of whether we’re talking about hours or seconds. That’s not what happens here, because that wouldn’t have fit into the melody (which was probably written first).
So if using the number of seconds in a day isn’t enough of a disconnect, check out how it’s actually pronounced in the song. Go back to the video and listen to that line at about 1:13 in the video.
If we HAD to use the number of seconds, we’d say eighty-six thousand, four hundred. Just like we learned in grade school. But here, the “thousand” is dropped, because it fit with the melody. So what happens when you hear this line, is you find yourself asking “did he just say eighty-six, four-hundred?” You ask yourself that, because it doesn’t sound natural and by the time you finish asking yourself that, a few more lines have passed by and you’re missing even more of the song.
Keep it Conversational
While the melody and lyric both work in this song, they’re not hitting on all cylinders because the song doesn’t sound conversational. The message is getting lost. Sing your lyrics when you write a song. Do the phrases sound like they would if you said them to a friend? If not, you may need to rework them. Let your message ring clear.