Understanding And Writing Lyrics, Part 5: Simile & Metaphor

Tips & Tricks

Published in SOS April 2001
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Technique : Miscellaneous

Sam Inglis demonstrates how you might further enrich your lyric writing with the use of comparisons.

Last month, I introduced the idea that there are two ways in which words can have meaning: through their literal meaning or dictionary definition (their denotation), and through the associations they bring to mind (their connotations). Connotations, unlike denotations, are subjective, in that one word or phrase may connote different sets of ideas to different people. Used carefully, however, they allow you to imply or suggest a greatdeal through far fewer words than would otherwise be needed, a feature that makes connotation crucial in both poetry and pop songwriting, where verses are necessarily short.

As I explained last month, connotation makes it possible to employ words and phrases in ways where their literal meaning is secondary, because they are used primarily for their associations. Expressions used in this way are known as figures of speech. The figure of speech I considered in the last instalment was metonymy, the use of a detail or example to refer to the whole of a thing, as in 'the big smoke' for 'London' or 'a nice motor' for 'car'.

When a detail is used to imply a wider meaning metonymically, the literal meaning of that detail is of secondary importance, but it is still adhered to in a sense (cities are smoky, and cars do have motors). In other figures of speech, however, words are used in such a way that, taken literally, they are meaningless or obviously untrue. The two most important such figures are simile and metaphor.

Simile and metaphor have much in common. In both cases, something is described using terms that do not literally refer to that thing. In simile, the description takes the form of a comparison between two things that are not literally alike; in a metaphor, something is simply described as if it were another, different thing.

Simile And Metaphor In Pop Lyrics

Dolly Parton's 'Love Is Like A Butterfly' and Bob Dylan's 'Like A Rolling Stone' are both examples of simile. Love does not, in any literal sense, resemble a large flying insect. What the comparison does, however, is suggest that the two things share some of the same attributes — the connotations most of us associate with butterflies. Similarly, The Sweet's 'Love Is Like Oxygen' does not intend to suggest that love is actually an invisible gas, but plays on the connotations most of us associate with oxygen: giving or supporting life, making fires burn, and so on. The country classic 'Love Hurts' compares love to a cloud and a stove(!); the Small Faces' 'Réne' compares love to a hole in the wall. 'The Windmills Of Your Mind' consists of a whole list of different similes for 'the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind': these circles are like 'a circle in a spiral', 'a wheel within a wheel', 'a clock whose hands are turning', and so on.

'The Windmills Of Your Mind' also illustrates the difference between simile and metaphor, for the title phrase is itself a metaphor rather than a simile. Nothing is being explicitly compared to a windmill: rather, the mind is being described as if it actually had windmills in it. In literal terms this is obviously nonsensical and wrong, for there are no windmills in anyone's mind. In the same way as a simile, however, the metaphor connotes a set of images or concepts that no literal description could do. The phrase, with its connotation of relentless, unceasing turning motion, is intended to suggest a mind in turmoil, while the similes mentioned earlier illustrate what this endless motion is like.

Other obvious examples of song titles that are metaphorical might include Neil Young's 'Heart Of Gold', Blondie's 'Heart Of Glass' and 'The Tide Is High', Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway To Heaven', The Jam's 'Going Underground', Roxy Music's 'Love Is The Drug', Bruce Springsteen's 'I'm On Fire', The Police's 'Walking On The Moon' and Kate Bush's 'Running Up That Hill'. A particular kind of metaphor that's worth noting is personification, whereby something inanimate is described as if it were a person or creature. The Stranglers' 'Golden Brown' and The Only Ones' 'The Beast', for instance, both describe heroin as if it were a conscious being, while The Beatles' 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' personifies George Harrison's favoured instrument.

  Nonsense Verse  
  Last month and this, I've been writing about what you can do to express your meaning in the best way possible. There is, however, a strong tradition of verse in which conventional meaning is deliberately eliminated or confused, as exemplified by nursery rhymes and the work of poets such as Edward Lear. Nonsense verse has the distinguishing factor that it is absurd. This usually means that although it uses well-formed English sentences to present a story or speech, the events and objects described are non-existent, impossible, or randomly juxtaposed out of their usual contexts, and figures of speech are made deliberately obscure. It can also, however, play tricks with grammar and sentence structure, such as inventing words (called neologisms) and putting together strings of words or even syllables chosen not for their meaning but for their sound or look on the page.

Nonsense verse is particularly popular in psychedelic music, because of the hallucinatory sense of disorientation and other-worldliness it can induce. Other lyricists, like Jon Anderson of Yes, wrote nonsense simply because it was a way to get lyrics to fit a particular pattern of syllables imposed by a complex melody. Examples of nonsense songs include The Beatles's 'I Am The Walrus', almost the entirety of Beck's Odelay and Midnite Vultures albums, and much of the work of Shaun Ryder, Captain Beefheart and Syd Barrett.

'I Am The Walrus' is a good example of thoroughgoing nonsense. Most of the lines, such as 'Sitting on a cornflake waiting for the van to come', are more or less complete English sentences, though the situations or events they describe are obviously absurd. Occasionally, however, John Lennon just strings random words together with a complete disregard for grammar, for instance in the line 'Crablocker fishwife pornographic priestess'. The effect, particularly when allied to Lennon's impassioned delivery and the recording's unusual production effects, is quite disturbing; it's like meeting someone who desperately wants to tell you something, but can't communicate with you. Likewise, Beck's lyrics, because they sound superficially like ordinary lines in the lyric or narrative mode, and are not delivered in a knowingly 'comic' way, create the impression that he is actually describing things that are perfectly real and comprehensible to him. The fact that they sound as though they must be meaningful to him makes it seem as though he is actually expressing some sort of insight into the world which is somehow too subtle for us to grasp: because his lyrics are incomprehensible, perversely, they seem deep.

In order for nonsense lyrics to work, then, they have to sound as if you mean them. This is a difficult trick to pull off. In the first place, it's surprisingly hard to write nonsense: most people's minds are so conditioned to coming up with meaningful sentences that it can be difficult to force yourself to produce strings of words with no meaning. You can get round this by generating random sentences or strings of words (for instance, by sticking a pin in a newspaper, or picking words out of a hat). However, if you know that what you're singing is just random nonsense, it can be hard to put the necessary feeling into your vocal performance.

Nonsense also tends to work better over a large scale: having only a few nonsensical lines on an otherwise lyrically straightforward album is more likely to be confusing than effective. A part of the strength of nonsense lyricists such as Beck, Shaun Ryder and Syd Barrett is that the sense of surreality conveyed by their lyrics is hardly ever broken by a lapse into more conventional, realistic forms. When this does happen, as on 'Here We Go' from Barrett's The Madcap Laughs, it can completely deflate the strange magic that well-crafted nonsense produces.

 

Using Metaphor And Simile

So why use a figure of speech such as 'The windmills of your mind' rather than just saying 'Your mind is in turmoil'? We've already considered the fact that the two phrases differ in terms of their connotations — the ideas and images that are called to mind by association. When we think of windmills, we think of endless motion that goes nowhere, driven by outside forces we can't control (the wind), and perhaps of grinding something down into dust (as windmills do corn). These are all images that have considerable force when they are linked to the mind, and which aren't connoted by the simple phrase 'Your mind is in turmoil'. The image of the mind having windmills in it is, while absurd, also a striking one in its own right. In fact, it's perhaps this absurdity that allows it to convey the idea of a mind in turmoil far better than any literal description could: a warped or hallucinatory description is the best way of evoking a warped and hallucinating mind.

Similarly, describing an addictive and potentially lethal drug as a seductive female ('Golden Brown') or a vampire ('The Beast') helps to illustrate the power that the drug has. To compare the destructive effects of heroin, and its hold over the mind of its users, with the deliberate machinations of a manipulative person is to portray it in an extreme way that straightforward, literal description doesn't allow. Metaphor and simile help to explain just how serious a real situation is, by comparing it to a suitably extreme hypothetical or imaginary scenario. Being attacked by a prowling vampire is extremely bad: therefore, it is implied, heroin addiction is extremely bad, because it is like being attacked by a prowling vampire. 'Love Is Like Oxygen' uses an equally hyperbolic figure of speech to illustrate the importance of love. Without oxygen, human beings cannot live; love is like oxygen; therefore, by implication, human beings cannot live without love.

Simile and metaphor thus allow us to 'up the ante' when constructing a description or making a point. However, you don't want to create too much of a gulf between the reality and the figure of speech, for there is a real danger of falling into bathos (see the 'Other Techniques' box). It's one thing to describe heroin as being like a prowling vampire, but quite another to describe cheese and onion crisps in the same way.

As we saw last month, figures of speech also allow you to emphasise a particular aspect of something, or make a point about whatever you're describing in the course of describing it. The metaphors of the seductive woman and the monstrous vampire are both appropriate in describing the same thing — heroin — but they present it in completely different ways. The former emphasises the pleasurable abandon of drug-taking, while the latter illustrates the drug's power to weaken and harm.

In general, the art of using simile and metaphor is to steer a course between heavy-handed, obvious or contrived constructions on the one hand, and using figures of speech which are so bizarre that no-one will understand them on the other. Avoid metaphors that are so over-used as to have become hackneyed, but remember that the ones you use do actually have to work — the comparison or allusion you use has to shed light on the subject of your song. Whatever you choose to compare love to must actually share some qualities with it!

It's also important to avoid mixing your metaphors or confusing your similes. Bob Dylan's reputation as a lyricist would not be so high had he written 'Like a rolling stone he didn't let the grass grow under his wheels...'

  Some Examples  
  Lyrics in pop music can often seem like a bit of an afterthought — something to be tacked on to a finished backing track, or made up just to give the singer something to sing. However, there are many artists out there who do use ambitious, sophisticated, or unusual lyrical ideas within pop music. Whether or not you think they succeed, they're worth listening to simply to get an idea of the scope of what can be attempted and achieved within the genre, and I've picked out a few albums which seem to me to illustrate particularly well the techniques I've discussed in this series:



• Ian Dury & The Blockheads, New Boots And Panties

Ian Dury was one of the most talented and versatile lyricists in pop, and his most famous album showcases his huge lyrical range, from comic gems like 'Billericay Dickie' to tender love songs, angry put-downs and the moving lament for his late father, 'My Old Man'.

• Tom Verlaine, Flash Light

One of few pop albums where the lyrics seem to have been written as poetry before being set to music — and the only one I've ever heard where this actually produces good songs!

• The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin

Many of the songs on this album have a sort of 'magic realism' to them; Wayne Coyne's innovative lyrics explore both the poetic imagery of science ('Race For The Prize', 'A Spoonful Weighs A Ton') and the ways in which mundane events can take on a greater meaning ('Suddenly Everything Has Changed').

• Beck, Odelay

It's nonsense, but brilliant nonsense. Phrases like 'Wishing I was living with a hit man' have a way of suddenly surfacing in your consciousness, even if you've no idea why he's saying them.

• Elvis Costello, This Year's Model (or any other album)

Costello is renowned for his complex, thoughtful lyrics, which are full of puns, allusions to novels and historical events, and a lot of the poetic techniques described in this series. Some may find the self-conscious cleverness of it all a bit too much, but there's no denying that it is clever.

• ABC, The Lexicon Of Love

Martin Fry's finely crafted, drily witty lyrics are often overlooked in favour of Trevor Horn's landmark production, but they are equally responsible for the album's coherent and sophisticated feel.

• Pulp, Different Class

One of the few albums that combine great observation and reportage with passionate feeling.

• The Kinks, Arthur (and any greatest hits collection)

When it comes to writing about real-life characters and situations, Ray Davies has few equals.

 

From Little Acorns...

We saw last month how a metonym can be used either to provide a neat way of making a small point within a single line, or as the central idea of a song. In the same way, simile and metaphor can also be used on a very small scale, where two or three different metaphors or similes appear in one line of a song, and on a much larger scale, where an entire song is constructed through developing a single figure of speech. I've already mentioned examples of the latter in the shape of 'Love Is Like A Butterfly' and 'Golden Brown'.

In both of these songs, the title is a figure of speech which forms the central idea of the lyric, and individual lines within the song flesh out this idea. In 'Love Is Like A Butterfly', we're given a list of various specific similarities between butterflies and the feeling of being in love. Love, we're told, flutters like soft wings in flight, has a soft and gentle touch and a warm and tender kiss, and these specific links reinforce the general idea that love is like a butterfly (although one wonders just how many butterflies Dolly Parton has actually kissed). The central idea of 'Golden Brown' is that heroin behaves like a person, and the individual verses describe both the historical spread of heroin ('Through the ages she's heading West / From far away / Stays for a day') and its effects on the user ('On her ship, tied to the mast / To distant lands / Takes both my hands') in terms of the actions of this person.

Songs based around an extended metaphor in which not only the whole theme, but every individual metaphorical event or figure, corresponds with some aspect or event in the metaphor's target are often referred to as 'allegories', particularly if they attempt to make some sort of moral or political point. One famous example of allegory in literature is George Orwell's Animal Farm. The farm of the title is a metaphor for Russia; and all the events that the animals play out on the farm also describe in metaphor real historical events of the Soviet Union. The actions of Stalin, Lenin, Beria and so forth are played out in miniature by Orwell's livestock.

Examples of allegorical songs include lots of Bob Dylan's output (see below), the aforementioned Only Ones song 'The Beast', and the Eagles' 'Hotel California'. The latter is similar to Animal Farm in that a small place (a hotel) acts as an extended metaphor for a larger one (the state of California), while the people in the hotel and their actions are individual metaphors for specific types of people and attributes of West Coast life. It differs, however, in the sense that the target of the allegory is a way of life, rather than a historical story.

  Other Techniques  
 

• An effective device to grab the listener's attention and create a sense of mystery can be to use an apparently self-contradictory phrase — technically called an oxymoron. Tom Verlaine of Television uses this trick in several songs. For example, in the song 'Venus' ('I fell right into the arms of Venus de Milo') and 'Marquee Moon' ('Look here, junior, don't you be so happy / And for hell's sake, don't you be so sad!').

• A common trick is to exploit the multiple or ambiguous meanings that some words (homonyms) and phrases have. For instance, Lloyd Cole's 'Patience' (from Rattlesnakes) is not only about a girl of the same name, but also about being made to wait.

• Quoting — or misquoting — lines from other songs can add interest and instant familiarity to your own lyrics (but be careful about the copyright issues). The best example I've heard recently is Eminem's 'Marshall Mathers', with its send-up of LFO's 'Summer Girls': 'New Kids On The Block sucked a lot of dick / Boy-girl groups make me sick'.

• Repeat yourself. Most pop songs employ repetition in the broad sense in which a chorus or other section is repeated wholesale at intervals. Repetition on a smaller scale, however, can also be a powerful lyrical tool. This is especially the case when the repeated phrase is given a different meaning on each repetition, either by changing it slightly or putting it in a new context. This technique is called 'incremetal repetition'. The chorus of Blur's 'Girls And Boys' is an excellent example: the words 'girls' and 'boys' are repeated over and over, but with different connecting phrases between them ('Girls who like boys to be girls like their boys...').

• A neat effect, though not one to use too often, is chiasmus — turning a statement round on itself, as in 'I eat to live and I live to eat'.

• Some of the most memorable pop lyrics are those that spell out a particularly important word, like Tammy Wynette's 'D-I-V-O-R-C-E', Aretha Franklin's 'Respect', Television's 'Friction', and Them's 'Gloria'. My favourite is Jonathan Richman's 'Girlfriend', which subverts this old trick by deliberately mis-spelling its title 'G-I-R-L-F-R-E-N'.

 

Opaque Figures Of Speech

Bob Dylan is famous for exploiting metaphor to its full extent on both a small and a large scale in songs such as 'Maggie's Farm' and 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue'. Most of the lines in the latter song, for instance, are constructed from individual metaphors such as 'The sky too is folding under you', and the whole song is an allegory. Like many Dylan songs, 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue' is notable for the fact that although it uses an extended metaphor, it's never made clear exactly what the real subject of that metaphor is. Who is Dylan describing as 'Baby Blue'? It could be intended as a song about the American army in Vietnam; but it could equally well be about something else entirely. It is, to employ a simile, like being given a message in code, but having no key to decipher it.

When the listener is given no clue as to the target of a metaphorical phrase, they will tend either to impose their own subject or to interpret the metaphor literally. One might, for instance, take the Beatles' 'Yellow Submarine' as a metaphor for something: perhaps the effect of the pressures of fame on the band themselves, or possibly as a reference to drugs. Alternatively, one might take it literally, as did the makers of the film of the same name. Only Paul McCartney can say whether it was actually intended as a metaphor, and if so what for.

There is, of course, no reason why you should have to explain all your metaphors, and this very oblique use of metaphor can be an effective way of bringing a sense of depth and mystery to your lyrics. There have, for instance, been endless discussions as to what the lyrics to 'American Pie' mean, which have kept the song in the public eye ever since its release. In extremes, the use of very opaque metaphor can create apparently nonsensical lyrics — a technique which some writers have used very effectively (see the 'Nonsense Verse' box). However, you need to tread carefully, because it can be very irritating to be given the impression that a singer has something important to say, but forced to guess at what his or her message actually is. It's even worse if you end up suspecting that the writer has used expressions which sound metaphorical without having in mind any clear idea of what they reference!

It seems particularly common in pop music to write deeply personal songs, usually directed at one particular person, in allegorical form. This is all very well, but it's crucial to bear in mind that the particular events you're describing in such a song will only be known to a very few people, and so your allegory is in danger of going miles over the head of anyone else. Unless you're describing a situation with which most people will be familiar, or you can make your allegorical verses interesting even to those who don't know what they're 'really' about, this can seem like a bit of a snub to your audience.

Using Extended Metaphors And Similes

If you're just using a figure of speech in passing, you can often get away with using a pretty dubious likeness, as long as it has poetic value, because the listener won't have time to dwell on it before the next line comes along. If you're going to base an entire song around a metaphor or a simile, however, it has to be an accurate one. When you use an extended simile, you need to be able to point to a number of different respects in which the two things you're comparing really are alike. Likewise, when you employ an overarching metaphor, it should mirror the actual situation you're describing sufficiently closely that a number of specific aspects of the actual situation are recognisable in the metaphor, and vice versa. It's crucial to avoid straining a metaphor or simile too far: many figures of speech which work within a single line sound laughable when stretched to a whole song. For a hilarious example of a badly chosen, contrived and ludicrously over-extended metaphor, listen to 'Sex Farm' from the soundtrack to This Is Spinal Tap.

  ...And A Few Things To Avoid  
 
• A piece of writing is known as 'bathetic' if it uses overly superlative or adjectival language to describe something that is eventually revealed, in the scheme of things, to be quite mundane. While it's appropriate to describe the first world war as 'a tragedy', for instance, you shouldn't really use the same term to describe the death of your pet hamster. If your song is about something fairly ordinary — and there's nothing wrong with writing about ordinary things — don't try to dress it up by writing about it in language you wouldn't ordinarily use.

• Don't borrow expressions from American English unless you're going to make your singing sound American. (Better still, don't sing in an American accent unless you actually are American...)

• This may sound obvious, but don't use words unless you're confident that you know what they mean — it's far better to spend five minutes looking something up than to commit some embarrassing clanger to a CD that millions may hear. If only Alanis Morissette had thumbed through her dictionary before she wrote 'Ironic'...

 
Extended similes and, especially, allegory are difficult techniques to use effectively. An over-subtle allegory will mean that no-one gets the point of your song, while a heavy-handed one will sound far more clumsy than simply stating the point you wanted to make in literal language. It's important, too, to keep in mind why you want to tackle your subject in this way. Why cloak the message of your song in figurative speech, rather than saying it directly? As I've already mentioned, you might do this simply because you have come up with a novel and interesting metaphor which sheds new light on an old subject. You might even be in a situation where it would be politically dangerous to state baldly the true message of your song — allegory is often used by writers living under repressive regimes. However, as I've already mentioned, try to avoid using allegory merely to disguise uncomfortable personal elements in your lyrics. If you must wash your dirty linen in public, at least do it openly!

The key to writing allegorically is to make sure that as well as making a point about the real situation that your metaphor stands for, your allegorical story or verse is internally consistent and interesting. Animal Farm works because it is, on one level, a good story about some animals. The characters are psychologically believable, the narrative is strong and well constructed, and the prose itself is elegantly written. The fact that the animals' story cleverly encapsulates that of the Soviet Union's slide from idealistic socialist republic to vicious dictatorship adds several new layers of interest to the novel, but none of it would work if the 'basics' weren't present. The lyrics to 'American Pie', similarly, have many of the qualities that good song lyrics need whether they are allegorical or not. The words put across a powerful (if rather surreal) narrative, strong hooks, and some unusual and memorable rhymes ('Drove my Chevy to the levee...'); they also fit very well with the song's melody. As with most areas of songwriting, the crucial goal is to get the simple things right.

Final Thoughts

It would be easy to assume that there's no such thing as a 'technical side' to lyric writing. After all, there are no wires to plumb, patches to program, processors to set up or microphones to move. Nor do you have to persuade your fingers to form difficult shapes on a keyboard or fretboard. Studying poetry theory may not seem to be a very 'rock-and-roll' thing to do, but I hope that this series has given the lie to the idea that lyric writing can't be improved like any other studio skill. Obviously, no amount of theory is of any use without inspiration and imagination — but then the same goes for playing an instrument or producing an album.

Ultimately, too, the theory can go out of the window as long as the results work: if it sounds right, it is right. There are no hard and fast rules that absolutely have to be adhered to. Nevertheless, I hope this series has demonstrated that a theoretical understanding of how song lyrics work can be valuable. When songwriting is going well, good lyrical ideas can seem to flow naturally without the need to apply any theoretical techniques. However, as we all know, songwriting does not always go well — and even when it does, you'll never regret spending a bit more time and effort to understand and refine the results.

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