June 2019

Jeff Hanke from Minnesota asks how to write a compelling and engaging first line, and Ann Kenney from London wants tips on writing a second verse. On some level, these are really the same question, and the short answer is, “Know what your song is about.” It seems like the most basic thing possible, but you’d be surprised how often people write things without really knowing what they want to say. In my day job as a magazine editor, I sometimes get 900-word stories from reporters, and when I ask them, “What is this about?” they don’t have much of a response. Once you figure out what your song or article is about, it will almost write itself. You simply have to ensure that every line–even every word–works to support your idea.

When writing songs, I typically start from a lyrical hook, which is sometimes the title, sometimes the first line, sometimes the refrain (and sometimes all three). These can be fairly obvious: “Heartbreak Diet“ (a song about how your stomach can suffer along with your heart) or “My Girlfriend’s Got a Chainsaw“ (about a poor sod who’s cheating on his lumberjack girlfriend… big mistake!).

Others are less evident. A few years ago, my sister-in-law was wearing a T-shirt with a simple map of a place called Block Island (off the coast of the U.S. state of Rhode Island), but to me it looked like a porkchop. I said, “Why are you wearing a T-shirt with a porkchop on it?” And she said, “Most people say it looks like a teardrop.” My response, of course, was: “Porkchops and Teardrops… I’m sure there’s a country song in there somewhere!”

So I had what I thought was a cool lyrical hook, but no idea what the song might be about. I soon realized it had to describe the nexus between food and heartache (do you see a pattern here?!). I wrote a line about a woman who “thought it was smart/to feed his heart/by stuffing his belly.” But I wanted to set the scene of a traditional family man, and create something of a humorous tone. Hence the first line: ”He was a man who brought home the bacon/And the ice cream too/A great provider of celery and cider/And plenty of beef for the stew.”

In the pre-chorus, he skips out on dinner: “Said he’d found someone new, a perfect soul mate/Who don’t smell like onions and make him put on weight.” That sets up the chorus, “All she was left with was porkchops and teardrops…”

For the second verse, I wanted to spin the narrative forward, portraying the woman as the heroine and giving the man the comeuppance he deserved. So I introduced his new paramour, who fed him nothing but natural foods, and “pretty soon he withered away/Could bring home the bacon no more.” The first woman, meanwhile, “She cried and she cried/Then she baked and then she fried/Then she found someone new, a perfect soul mate/Who loved smelling onions and putting on weight/She forgot about them porkchops and teardrops…”

Until I figured out what the song was about, it would have been impossible to construct the narrative. But once I had an image of my characters in mind, it was easy to craft a story around these two, with each line supporting the plot.

Think back on some of the best songs of the past half-century, and you’ll find that their first lines grab the listener and set the tone for story. Dylan starts Like a Rolling Stone with the line “Once upon a time you dressed so fine/You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?” That introduces the plot and the protagonist of the story, a woman who has misstepped in some way, with double internal rhymes. ”Please allow me to introduce myself/I’m a man of wealth and taste” takes you straight to the heart of Sympathy for the Devil, in which Lucifer portrays himself as a victim of God’s perfidious scheming. And Patti Smith eases into Gloria by singing “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” a song about the bravado and bluster of youth (at least that’s my interpretation).

If you deconstruct the rest of those songs (and countless others), you’ll find that the lyrics propel the narrative forward, sometimes with an unexpected wrinkle introduced in the second or third verse, and sometimes taking a relatively straight path to the end. But in most great songs, the writer knows what he or she is trying to say (even if it’s not always entirely clear to the listener), and each verse, chorus, and bridge underpins that idea.

Happy SongwRxiting!
The Lyrics Doctor