Defaulting to the Nearest Cliché
by Harriet Schock
Computer language is replete with analogies. For instance, I think metaphors are like icons which can be dragged across the screen containing loads of information under them. And I think when we give in to using cliches, it’s like we’re using a default setting in our creative psyches.
Clichés can be musical or lyrical. They can be patterns created by our predecessors or patterns we have set, ourselves. I had a student recently who had written the phrase “tenderly kiss” and I asked him why he needed the “tenderly.” He said he’d heard it in about 30 songs and thought it should be in his. Eventually he saw that as the reason why it should not be in his. But like the old pair of shoes that’s ruining our feet, cliches are so comfortable. They slide on so easily. But they generally look worn-out.
Leaving the play, Julius Caesar, I overheard an audience member complain that Shakespeare was riddled with cliches. I had to laugh. I suppose it never occurred to this person that the lines became famous after he wrote them. We could all hope for that. But for the most part, the cliches in songwriting are just things we default to when we’re lazy or temporarily forgetful. It takes constant vigilance to avoid them.
What’s so bad about clichés? The world is full of them, right? In my opinion, the danger of cliches is that they allow the listener to escape. As long as you’re communicating with impact, the listener will be there, interested. But have you ever said a word over and over and over and suddenly it has no meaning? As a child, did you ever say “January, January, January, January…” until you started laughing because it sounded so odd? It no longer communicated “January.” I often marvel that 80-year-old Roman Catholic Priests can have said the same service every week for over half a century and still understand what the words mean. Overuse often robs individual words and word groups of their meaning. So what do we do to avoid them?
One way around clichés is to be as specific as possible. The pictures you pull out to tell your story with are the real tools of your lyric writing. And the more specific those pictures are, the more unique to your experience, the less likely they are to be cliches. No one else has had the exact experience you have, so if you describe it in detail, it will be uniquely yours. These details can be visual, aural, tactile and olfactory; I just use the word “picture” to cover all the senses.
So far we’ve been talking about lyrical clichés, and those which were created by our predecessors, but what about musical ones and ones we create, ourselves? Often we create our own musical clichés by defaulting to comfortable chord changes and melodic patterns. It’s good to have a recognizable style, but not to the point that all your songs sound alike. One way to get away from this type of cliché is to write away from the instrument you usually write on. Your ear may not go to those patterns your hands are slaves to. So if you write as long as you can, away from the instrument, you can sometimes break through those musical default cliches. Another way to avoid them is by playing in a key that’s unfamiliar. Sometimes you’ll hit a chord, not knowing what you’re playing and it’ll be great. It’s like the old joke: What does a jazzer do when he plays a wrong note? He plays it again. Carlos Olmeda wrote a song called “Dear Ana” which I love. There’s one particular chord I wait for with great anticipation. One night I asked him how he got that chord and he admitted it was a mistake that he loved when he heard it so he kept it. It’s so unsuspected. It’s thrilling when it happens that way.
Decades ago, in 1988, once Bobby Brown had used that unexpected diminished chord in “My Prerogative,” it seemed like everyone was using it. It’s delightful to find something original, musically, because the pull to default to the nearest cliché in chord progressions is as strong as gravity. Melody also falls victim to it as people color within the lines by avoiding those non-chordal tones which can create such nice tension and interest.
Stephen King talks about writing to one imaginary reader. The next time you write a song, maybe you could write it for an imaginary listener. And when you do, and you feel like defaulting to the nearest cliché, ask yourself if your imaginary listener would still be listening. If not, then try one of the solutions I’ve mentioned above. Or make up one of your own! And if it works, let me know what it is.
Harriet Schock wrote the words and music to the Grammy-nominated #1 hit, "Ain't No Way To Treat A Lady" plus many songs for other artists, TV shows and films. She co-wrote the theme for “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks,” currently showing in 30 countries. She and her band were featured in Henry Jaglom’s film “Irene In Time” performing 4 of Harriet’s songs. She also scored three other Jaglom films and starred in “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway.“ Jaglom’s most recent film, “The M Word,” features Harriet’s song “Bein’ a Girl,” performed on camera at the end of the film. Karen Black wrote the play, “Missouri Waltz,” around five of Harriet’s songs, which ran for 6 weeks at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood as well as in Macon, Georgia. In 2007, Los Angeles Women In Music honored Harriet with their Career Achievement and Industry Contribution award. Harriet teaches songwriting privately, in classes and a popular online course by private email. For her performance schedule, list of credits and samples of her work or information on her book (Becoming Remarkable, for Songwriters and Those Who Love Songs), and her new up coming book, her songwriting classes, online courses and consultation, go to: www.harrietschock.com
For more information on the USA Songwriting Competition, go: http://www.songwriting.net