If you talk to a songwriter long enough, you’ll probably find them coming down decisively on one side of a certain divide— the idea of broad, inclusive lyric writing vs. personal writing. Most folks probably already know what I’m talking about, but here are a couple contemporary examples toward each end of the spectrum.
Not really sure how to feel about it.
Something in the way you move
Makes me feel like I can’t live without you.
It takes me all the way.
-“Stay”, Rihanna ft. Mikky Ekko)
This is an effective, emotive lyric with a very broad approach— almost anyone could hear this and apply it to something they’ve experienced.
My lover she’s waiting for me
Just across the bar
My seat’s been taken by some sunglasses
Asking about a scar.
-“We Are Young”, Fun
This is a more personal lyric in that this exact scenario probably hasn’t happened to many other people besides the writer. However, it sets a scene effectively.
I spend a lot of time thinking about broad writing vs. personal writing, and my attitude toward the subject has evolved. There was a time when I thought that if a lyric wasn’t personally specific to the writer, then it wasn’t meaningful or effective. But I was missing part of the equation.
Have you ever had someone describe a dream to you? No matter how much the dream may have effected them, or how vivid and insane it may have been, this almost always happens:
Your Friend: And then Blue Ivy Carter had squid arms and she was teaching geometry. I think it has to do with my childhood fear of bees.
Your Brain: Wow I really don’t care about this at all.
Why? Because while the dream may have tremendous meaning to the dreamer, its emotional impact doesn’t resonate beyond their personal experience. I believe this principle extends to songwriting. So for me, I recently have been trying not to fetishize details in my lyric writing; to use them for painting a scene, establishing empathy for the song’s narrator or character(s), but not for the sake of details themselves. So while it might have stuck in my memory that my wallet was in my back pocket when some girl first smiled at me, that detail won’t necessarily increase the emotional impact of the song for the listener.
To put it more simply— just because it really happened doesn’t automatically make it interesting.
Not that extremely personal songs don’t have a reason for existing, lest we forget the main reason for any art— emotional and intellectual release. If a song matters to you, then it matters. But if you’re going to make a job of it, you may as well try and make it matter to someone else, too. That doesn’t mean we have to write lyrics like “When you do what you do, I like what you do because you are who you are and I’m me also.” (Copyright Taylor Berrett) But let’s make sure our details either allow the listener to sink into the song like a soft leathery armchair, or point toward a universal, or at least inclusive, truth.