by John Braheny
How often have you heard: feel the pain--by my side--set
me free--lost without you --broken heart--all we've been through--hold
me close--my foolish pride--all night long--give you my heart--want
you, need you, love you--all my love--more than friends--never
let you go--more than words can say--when you walked into
the room--when you came into my life--when I first saw you--dream
come true--call on me--our love is forever, and the ever popular--oh
there are the cliché rhymes: hold (take my) your hand...
understand... be your man, dance... take a chance... romance,
kiss you... miss you and on and on. Of course, you've never
been guilty of using any of these worn-out phrases and rhymes.
But just in case you're thinking about it, I'll try to answer
the questions I know you'd want to ask.
All you have to do is turn on the radio to any format and
you'll hear clichés, often the same ones that are in
my songs. Those songs are hits, so how can you say that clichés
don't work out there in radioland?
Most of the songs you hear on radio are written by the artists
who perform them. In those cases, there are few, if any, gate-keepers
who are willing or able to criticize the artist's songs, particularly
once the artist is successful. Also remember that a lyric
is not a song is not a record and many artists are signed
because they've gotten a great sound, a great look and a vocal
identity and style that allows an audience to recognize them
instantly. If you're a lyricist, you may hear those cliché
lines and disregard the fact that other factors, including
a dynamic, engaging melody and groove ideal for the style
of the artist contributes to the success of the song, and
great arrangement and production contributes to the success
of the record. No matter what A&R reps say about the songs
being the most important factor, it ain't necessarily so,
though it's certainly most always true for pop ballads and
So it's more important to avoid clichés if I'm not
It's always important to avoid them, but if you're a writer
submitting songs to artists who don't write (or who write
but record "outside songs" in hopes of getting a hit whether
they write it or not), you go through the gate-keepers. Your
song passes the ears of publishers, producers and A&R reps
who, no matter how young, have already heard thousands of
songs. They've heard all the worn-out lines and predictable
rhymes mentioned above and more. They know that, in order
to compete with the songs submitted by the world's most successful
writers, (or the songs of the artist's spouses or of other
writers signed to their producer's publishing company, etc.,)
your song has to be better than theirs. It has to be so unique
and compelling that they would not have thought of it and
that they know it could become a hit for another artist if
they don't record it themselves. Lyrics full of clichés
are viewed as lyrics that anyone could write since they're
ones that have already been written, since they use phrases
heard over and over again.
How can I avoid using clichés?
The best way to avoid clichés is to write with as much
specific detail as possible about your own personal experiences
and trust that you tap universal emotions. Also, if you've
heard the line before, push yourself to find a new way to
What about the fact that a 13 year-old kid hasn't hear
those clichés nearly as often and for nearly as many
years as the gatekeepers, so they're not clichés to
them at all?
True enough, but then it gets down to whether you want to
look back years later and be embarrassed by even your successful
songs, realizing that you missed an opportunity to have made
Can't you use clichés in a creative way?
Absolutely. How often have you heard, "break my heart"? Now
tell me how often you'd heard "Unbreak My Heart," before the
Diane Warren song became a major hit for Toni Braxton? She
took a cliché and did something so simple and obvious
that writers all over the world are kicking themselves for
not thinking of it first. Your job is to think of it first.
JOHN BRAHENY was Co-founder/Director of
the Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase, a national songwriters
organization, from 1971 until they joined forces with National
Academy of Songwriters in 1996. He wrote the best-selling
Writer's Digest book, The Craft and Business of Songwriting
(now in its third printing) and is a consultant for songwriters,
performers and the music industry. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Braheny is also a member of the TAXI A&R staff.