Songwriting: Just The Facts, Ma’am

by Michael Anderson

One of the points about writing lyrics I have made in these articles and in my book is to give the listener enough detail to get the idea of what you are trying to say. Many times songs feel overly generalized in an attempt to be too universal. They leave the listener wondering what is going on or worse, not caring about what is going on.

But the other side of the coin is being too detailed in trying to tell your story.

The title of this article is a caricature of the popular 1950’s television show “Dragnet” and it’s star, Sgt. Joe Friday – used while questioning witnesses about exactly what happened. When the witness veered off topic or embellished the story Joe Friday would admonish: “Just the facts, ma’am”.

That famous line is the subtext to this articles main point – telling just the amount of story you need in your lyric to convey what you need to say to get your point across effectively.

As a way of illustrating that point, this past week I used two of the most popular songs of all time in my classes as examples.

Do you know what song this opening verse belongs too?

The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day in Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth,
And I am longing to be up North

In three songwriting classes over the holiday season I had only one student recognize the opening verse to arguably the most popular song ever written – and I think that one was a guess.

The verse is the rarely used first verse to Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”. And the reason it is rarely used is that it really doesn’t matter much to the main theme and point of the song – most artists since Bing Crosby haven’t felt it is necessary to telling the story and selling the song.

Now, Irving Berlin felt it was important. I am sure from the accounts I have read there is an autobiographical background to the sentiment of being in LA and missing his family back east and longing for the postcard images and memories of Christmas past.

But to the artists who recorded the song, and to the eventual mass public who have kept the song as a perennial favorite, the imagery of Beverly Hills and palm trees in the first verse meant little or nothing to the impact of the story and song imagery.

I can imagine trying to tell a student or beginning songwriter who was skilled enough to write a melody and chorus as strong as “White Christmas” that their first verse was probably wasting time. Most new songwriters feel their personal detail and experience in a song is what makes the song special – but it usually is not. What makes a song special is not how the writer relates to it – it is how the listener relates to it.

Most listeners are only interested in biographical information in a song in terms of how it relates to their life – what does this image, experience, emotion have to do with me?

Not many listeners since 1942 have a Beverly Hills perspective on Christmas – but millions of listeners feel the longing for home and nostalgia and memories over the holiday season the main body of the song imparts.

Another example is in “Yesterday” by Paul McCartney. I am not sure of the whole truth in the tale, but I have read that he broke up with his girlfriend after she caught him with another girl. (Good title there?)

Anyway, supposedly, he then went on to write “Yesterday” in terms of that experience.

Now, many new writers might tend to feel that the truthful details of that experience would lend credibility to the song lyric about the event to the extent that the lyric could resemble a tabloid account.

But McCartney brushes the catalyst of the story off with:

“Why she had to go,
I don’t know
She wouldn’t say”

My guess is, she had a lot to say – but as a listener I don’t necessarily have to know what she said – I only need to know that McCartney “longs for yesterday”. That is the point of the song. In other words – knowing all the detail wouldn’t necessarily make the song better and would very probably take it places it didn’t need to go.

Striking the balance between too much, too little, and just enough information in your lyric in the way “Yesterday” and “White Christmas” do is a difficult task – especially done as well as experienced writers like Berlin and McCartney. But recognizing the need to tell your story simply and succinctly will get you on the road to mastering your craft the way they did.

This article is by Michael Anderson, author of “Michael Anderson’s Little Black Book of Songwriting”, now also available as an audio book at michaelanderson.com

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