Avoid clichés … like the plague

Avoid clichés … like the plague

I was suffering through an exceptionally bad open mic many years ago, enduring a string of unpolished songwriters croaking out their tunes.

My table companion leaned in and said, “Something is really bugging me about this song,” she trailed off. The musicianship was fine. The melody was enticing. “I don’t know what it is.”

It was a nearly never-ending string of clichés. Every verse ended with a phrase we have all heard, and perhaps even uttered, several bazillion times. You would be momentarily lost in listening to the song, then suddenly left feeling cold, alone and abandoned, ready to tune out.

Take my pop-country challenge. Tune into any radio station cranking a heavy top-40 rotation of whatever bile Nashville produced last week. The same key phrase, words, themes are repeated ad nauseum. If I make it to my grave without ever hearing some boot wearing metrosexual with a twangy voice singing about pickups, tailgates, white t-shorts, cold beer and country roads, then the balance of my life will have been well lived.

One art within songwriting is to take a common idea, and phrase it in a way that is unexpected, and thus pleasing. Anyone can sing “I got drunk” in a heartbroken blues ballad. It took Tom Waits to record “I’m spilling whiskey”, which paints an entire scene in three words.

Desk check your verse and look for phrases that you know your audience has heard – in conversation, theater, their dreams – and revise or kill.

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