For centuries, musicians and song writers have been using melody and lyrics to convey the human experience into sharable and relatable collections that invoke a wide variety of emotions.
Songwriting is a craft, no doubt, but oft overlooked in this equation are the efforts of the lyricists. The skill and cleverness required to pen the words to marry with a piece of music is not for just anyone. Lyrics can be complex and emotional, clever and witty, or funny and brash. Regardless the topic or the emotions it is trying to extract, wordplay becomes a useful and critical tool in creating memorable and timeless lyrics.
As we appreciate the great lyricists before us, let’s take a moment to examine, study, understand, and appreciate some of the fine examples of lyrical wordplay that has come before us and see what we as songwriters and lyricists can learn from them by genre:
That’s right, we’re covering both types of music here: Country Western. (Any Blues Brothers fans in here? Anyone?) Country music has long been associated with their punny wordplay. Some of the most classic examples being:
- “She got the gold mine, I got the shaft.” Jerry Reed
- "Slow gin fizz works mighty fast when you drink it by the pitcher, and not by the glass" Loretta Lynn
- "I'm the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised." Johnny Paycheck
2. Jazz and Big Band
In a time where pride and appropriate behavior was ever on the line, and polite society required prim and proper conduct at all times, topics such as sex, drugs, or drinking had to be carefully disguised within lyrics. Cole Porter was, perhaps, the greatest master of this type of musical word play (think of his monster hit “Let’s Do It”), but he certainly was not alone.
- "How strange the change from major to minor, every time we say goodbye." Cole Porter
- “Good authors too who once knew better words, now only use four letter words writing prose. Anything goes.” Cole Porter
- “If you want to buy my wares, follow me and climb the stairs.” Cole Porter
3. Rock and Roll
Again, the desire to disguise and manipulate otherwise taboo subjects was the primary force behind the wordplay in Rock, however, the variety of subjects expanded greatly. Whether it was Elvis comparing a former confidant or lover to a hound dog, or more modern examples such as Dave Matthews telling a female object of his affection that she “wears nothing but you wear it so well”.
- “Fret for your figure and fret for your latte and fret for your lawsuit and fret for your hairpiece and fret for your Prozac” Tool
- “Could be soon we’ll cease to sound. Slowly upstairs. Faster down.” Jethro Tull
- “I’m worst at what I do best and for this gift I feel blessed.” Nirvana
4. Hip Hop and Pop
Without a doubt, hip-hop, rap and pop have some of the most innovative wordplay laden lyrics out there. The subject matter plays on life as the lyricist has experienced it and can often invoke feelings as well as imagery that takes even the uninitiated or unfamiliar into the world that the author is coming. Hip Hop wordplay often also is a means with which the lyricist expresses dominance or leadership.
- "Words of wisdom wail from my windpipe / Imaginations in flight, I send light like Ben's kite / I've been bright." Common
- “It gets tiring, the sight of a gun firing / They must desire for the sound of a siren." Kool G Rapp
- “It drops deep as it does in my breath. I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death” Nas
Wordplay makes us think, makes us chuckle, or gives us permission to acknowledge something deep within us that we otherwise might not feel comfortable doing out loud. Lyricists have been using their cleverness for years to keep us on our toes and it makes us wonder, “What will they make us think of next?”