The other day, I was talking about this blog of mine with a songwriting friend who had happened to read a few entries. He commented that my writing was somehow more “big picture” than others he’d read, and that this is good, because there are already so many songwriting blogs that deal with standard topics like avoiding clichés and so forth. I took his kind words to mean that I should continue to steer away from writing about such things so, me being me, what did I do? I started writing this entry about clichés!
Look: the reason we should avoid clichés in our writing is because they lack power. Tell someone in a song about an old boyfriend who “broke your heart” and the reaction will be kind of, well, nothing. The broken heart as an image was probably once very powerful (a thousand years ago, maybe), but through overuse, it has become a musty, shopworn place-holder in a song. Write about “trials and tribulations”, for example, or suggest to your listener “open your eyes/and you’ll realize” (or any number of countless other clichéd phrases and rhymes) and the reaction you get will be pretty much nothing.
FACT: You undercut the power of your writing when you use clichés.
Generally. Mostly. Often. Maybe not always. (Wait. Did I just backtrack? Well, yes, I did.)
Here’s the reason why: while lacking in emotional power, clichés can still serve as shorthand, getting the listener the message faster and more efficiently. Using clichés in this way, I think, really only applies to songwriting. For a novel, an essay, a bio, even a screenplay, I think you’d want to avoid clichés altogether (unless, say, one of your characters speaks in clichés, as, I guess, an illustration that they’re not so smart). In songwriting, given the brevity of the medium—three minutes or so—you have to establish the setting or the premise of the song quickly. Sometimes, a well-placed cliché can help. And the very medium of pop music—of its time, meant to be of the moment—means, logically, that there is always a new audience coming along, unaware of clichéd words and phrases, willing to accept them at face value.
Still, you have to use clichés wisely. Placed just so, they can advance the story for example, helping to paint a picture of the who, what/where and why of your song. They can even sum up the strong central idea that your song is hopefully based upon. Sheryl Crow had a string of hits in the 90s that illustrate this: “Every Day Is A Winding Road”, “A Change Will Do You Good”, “If It Makes You Happy (It Can’t Be That Bad)” all sound like sayings taken from motivational posters you might see at the gym. Interestingly, the verses to these songs paint pictures that are relatively cliché-free, full of unusual imagery and thoughts, but none of the verses seem to connect with the choruses in any linear sort of way (or vice-versa). Crow’s approach means that the instantly-familiar phrases stand as commentary on, or as a summation of, the main idea.
It seems to me that it is probably better to use clichés as part of the strong central idea (the hook/chorus) your song is based on rather than as descriptive words meant to persuade your listener to feel or think something specific (the verses or the bridge). Regardless, clichés should be used consciously in your songwriting.