March 2020

Valerie Gillies of Brussels asks why songs often refer to males as “men” and other adult words, but woman are almost always child-like terms such as “babe” or “girl.” While this isn’t the kind of topic the Lyrics Doctor’s typically addresses, I’ll give it a go. The short answer is that the music industry is reflective of the patriarchal society we live in, though a more forgiving view might be that such terms of endearment have a place in love songs.

I also think it’s changing. I couldn’t find any empirical assessment of this in a quick web search, but some smart graduate student has surely looked into the matter. Anecdotally, I’d say that songs from before the 1980s or ‘90s frequently follow the pattern Valerie describes. But more recently, many more strong women have emerged in the business—Madonna, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Bonnie Raitt, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, and thousands of others. These women tend to write with authority and adult voices, and they’re just as likely to refer to men as “boy” or “babe” or “guy” as any male songwriter is to say “babe” or “girl.” The Lyrics Doctor would, of course, welcome any evidence readers have that either supports or refutes this impression.


Steve Papke from the U.S. state of Georgia asks how often songwriters must change the phrasing or rhythm of a verse when fitting it to music. Good lines, he laments, can become average when trying to get the cadence of the song right. My answer would be that it’s got to do with lots of editing and rewriting. I typically write one or two verses and most of the chorus, then start playing/singing it to the music (usually something that I’ve been fiddling with on the guitar without words for anywhere from a few minutes to a few months).

Once I get a nice match of music and lyrics, the real work starts. I often use one of the verses as a bridge, and sometimes I shift lines in and out of the chorus or between verses. When a line doesn’t quite add up rhythmically, I’ll try rearranging the words. In Alternative Facts, for instance, I initially wrote “You meant ‘don’t go’ but you said ‘goodbye’/Does verify mean falsify?” That couplet never sat right in the song, so at some point I changed it to “You said `goodbye’ but you meant `don’t go’/You made me high and laid me low.” Not a huge difference, but to my ear it’s stronger—a change that was made possible by flipping “goodbye” and “don’t go.” When I’m writing and rewriting a song, I’ll make dozens of similar changes to get the rhythm and rhymes where I want, with words that advance the story line.


Sandra Lee Bickerstaff from New South Wales in Australia and Eazteg Eririe from Lagos, Nigeria, both ask whether a song can have more than one bridge. First, let’s talk about what a bridge is. I think of it as a third section that takes the composition to a different place and provides some relief from the relative monotony of verse and chorus. Musically, this can be achieved by changing from major to minor (or the other way around), moving to the fourth or fifth chord in the scale, or shifting the rhythm to another feel (or all three, or an infinite variety of other options).

Lyrically, the bridge often takes another viewpoint, perhaps going from first person to second or third, changing to a narrator’s voice, or stepping away from the story line to give some background. For instance, in Born to Run, Springsteen slows down for a few bars to proclaim his undying love for Wendy before roaring back down “highways jammed with broken heroes.” In The Dock of the Bay, Otis Redding laments that, in the end, his journey to the West Coast was a bust. In America, Simon and Garfunkel bring us from the idea of the bus trip onto the bus itself, showing the interaction between the characters as they make their way up the New Jersey Turnpike.

To my mind, there’s a rule that says a song should have only one bridge, but there’s another rule that says all rules in songwriting should sometimes be broken. In other words, one bridge is almost always enough, but sometimes it’s not. If that’s the case, write another one. On occasion, I’ve used a second instance of the bridge for the solo section, just to shake things up a bit. Note that it’s also OK to have no bridge at all. And if you repeat a bridge too many times, it becomes something other than a bridge—more like another verse or chorus.

Happy SongwRxiting!
The Lyrics Doctor