Songwriting: a Pachyderm’s Perspective

There’s an old fable in which seven blind guys argue about what en elephant looks like. They disagree because each of them is feeling a different part of the elephant – the tusks, the ears, the trunk, and so forth. The moral is that a single thing can come across many different ways depending on how it is presented. So, do you want your song smooth and pointy, or flat and leathery?

Elephant Parts
Just like an elephant, a lyric can be presented from many different points of view. Let's run them down:

First person is when a speaker refers to themselves as “I” (or “we”). First person is popular in song because it gives a singer the chance to convey the emotions of the lyric as if they were their own. They come across with immediacy, intimacy, and honesty. "I'm Yours" by Jason Mraz and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" by The Beatles are both in first person. First person is also useful for “emotional songs” that have no real plot, but instead express feelings or ideas. “Dust in the Wind”, recorded by Kansas, is such a song.

Second person is when a speaker addresses one or more people directly, using the word “you” (or perhaps “y’all” if it’s a country song). Few songs are written in second person, because speaking directly to the listener often comes across as pushy or preachy. Don't let that scare you off. Sometimes lyrics in second person are just what you need to involve a listener in the action. An example of a well known song in second person is “Santa Clause is Coming to Town”. There's also this mildly successful song called "Beat It", by Michael Jackson. Maybe you've heard of it.

Third person is when a speaker refers to another individual or individuals as “he”, “she”, or “they”, or by proper name. It is perfect for “story songs” that involve more than one main character. By writing in third person a single singer can tell each character's story. The Bon Jovi hit “Livin’ On A Prayer” is a great example. Actually, now that I think about it, that song switches between third person in the verses and first person in the choruses. Whatever. Let's go with "Copa Cabana" by Barry Manilow instead.

A Fourth Point of View
If you are pitching your songs, one point of view you should never overlook is the singer’s. Put yourself in front of the microphone and ask "why would I want to sing this song?". Singers want to look good to their audience, and usually aren't interested in songs that put them in the wrong demographic.

A young female artist probably isn't interested in songs about life from a grandma's perspective. If you’ve written such a lyric, however, you may be able to make it work for her by getting creative with the point of view. Instead of making the grandma the main character, tell your story through the words of a young woman who is relating her grandmother’s experience.

A dazzling example of this is “Waiting on a Woman”, written by Don Sampson and Wynn Varble, and recorded by Brad Paisley. The song is about an old man, told from the point of view of a young man that strikes up a conversation with him while their wives are trying on clothes at the mall. It is a poignant love story that probably wouldn’t have been recorded if not for the brilliant way in which the writers made it sing-able for a young artist.

Some songs can make the singer look like a schmuck. In some genres this may acceptable, but not all. If you've written a song with characters that have undesirable qualities, consider writing it in third person instead of first. This way the singer is not forced to assume their role, and instead simply tells their story as an outside observer. Once again a Brad Paisley song, “Whiskey Lullaby” (written by Bill Anderson and Jon Randall), serves as a perfect example. By telling the story in third person, the writers don’t force Brad into becoming a suicidal alcoholic. They also avoid making him a ghost, since both characters are dead by the end of the song.

The Right End
As a songwriter it is useful to get into the habit of imagining your stories told from alternate points of view. When doing so, think about how a listener might perceive your song when told in, say, third person instead of first. The results might surprise you. A story you initially imagined in third person might take on the perfect sense of urgency in first person. Your first-person song about a war protester might be better told in an accusing second-person.

Elephants are big. Each end looks very different from the other, and serves a very different purpose. Make sure you pick the right one.

*Photo by digitalART2.


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