As a music listener, something you may have noticed when you’re listening to lyrics, is that insanely specific lyrics tend to capture your attention far more than vague lyrics. Sometimes as songwriters, we tend to shy away from getting too specific, because we feel it’ll start to become unrelatable. We start to think that we need to keep things vague, so that anyone can understand what we’re saying. It’s counterintuitive to realize that writing very specific lyrics is more relatable than writing generic lyrics.
With that in mind, I want to take a peek at the first couple of lines in the song “Big Girls Don’t Cry” by Fergie. The first line in the song is “The smell of your skin lingers on me now.”
Engage the Senses
It’s not a bad first line. Anytime we engage the five senses for our listeners to relate to, we’re probably doing a decent job with our lyrics. Our minds tend to remember sense-bound memories very well. So the first line’s not bad, but I wish she would have given us an actual smell we could relate to. Maybe the smell of his cologne? Or the saltiness of his skin?
Something like: “The herbal smell of your cologne lingers on me now.” I know, that may not fit the music, but I’m just throwing out an idea for you to see what I’m talking about. I think something describing the smell may have been a little stronger in engaging our senses and pulling us into the song. But again, what’s there is not a bad opener. It talks about his smell, so a lot of women listening to the song can insert their own man’s smell there to make it relatable.
However, I just want to make the point that had the line been “The herbal smell of your cologne lingers on me now,” it would be something we could ALL relate to. We wouldn’t have to know a man’s smell to be able to make this line compute. We would just insert what we understand to be an “herbal scented cologne” and bam!… we’d be there.
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Be that as it may, the second line is the one that bothers me due to its lack of specificity. The very next line is “You’re probably on your flight back to your hometown.”
Okay, hold on a sec. What can be more generic than “your hometown.” It feels like a fill-in-the-blank. Like: “You’re probably on your flight back to [insert your city here].” And because of that, it loses me. Immediately.
I was in the scene. We had the smell of his lingering skin, and then she’s picturing him on a plane. But then I find out it’s going to his hometown? Well, where is that? Should I just picture him going to MY hometown (Staten Island, btw)? Should I guess what his hometown is? I’ll say Cleveland… but I don’t know.
The line is so vague is scoops us out of the story. Now our mind is wondering about other things. Like whether this guy is flying into Staten Island or Cleveland.
It seems like the line was left vague so it could be relatable. But counterintuitively, it’s not relatable BECAUSE it’s vague. I would have much rather seen a phrase like “You’re probably flying past the grayed out clouds of New York right now.”
Okay, maybe that’s not a Grammy winning line either, but at least it puts us somewhere AND engages our senses (in this case, sight). Even though all of us aren’t from New York (sucks for you, heh heh), we can certainly all picture what “grayed out clouds over New York” would look like. Plus we’ve all seen pictures of New York, so at the very least we have an image to insert into our minds.
A Place For Being Vague
With all that in mind, I should mention that there is a place for lines that are more vague. That place is the chorus. Generally speaking, verses are more specific and sense based to pull us into the story. In turn, the choruses can be vaguer so they can relate back to each specific verse. Think of the chorus as a bumper sticker, or big idea, for what your song is all about.
Keep that in mind when you’re writing your next song. Really engage the listener with sense-based specifics in your verses and then wave the flag of what your song is all about in the chorus. You saw what a difference being specific in your verses can make. If you agree with it, then I’d advise you to try it out next time you write a song.