A few months ago, I discovered the Minneapolis-based hip-hop artist Dessa, and I’ve been obsessed ever since. If you haven’t heard her music, look her up right now and prepare to be blown away – she’s an amazing songwriter and lyricist. I wish I had discovered her when I still lived in Minnesota. I missed so many opportunities to see her live!
What I love most about Dessa is her smart, poetic approach to songwriting. She chooses her words carefully, considering not just their meanings, but also their sound, connotations, and rhythm. She’s also not afraid to sing about challenging topics or to use big words and literary references.
And that’s why the following line from the song “Bullpen” off of Dessa’s 2010 album A Badly Broken Code really stood out to me:
It’s been assumed I’m soft or irrelevant
‘Cause I refuse to downplay my intelligence
While I love the intelligence and artistry in Dessa’s lyrics, clearly some people are put off by it. Most people want to be entertained or to experience certain emotions when listening to music, but not everyone wants to think. Some listeners think less of artists who write thoughtful, intellectual lyrics.
As an indie folk artist, I’ve worried that some of my songs are too cerebral and obscure for my genre. Folk music is supposed to be straightforward and down-to-earth, but I keep writing lyrics that require physics research or reference Sylvia Plath poems. (Fun fact: Dessa also mentions Plath in her song “Dutch” on A Badly Broken Code – I’m glad I’m not the only lit nerd writing songs!)
But ultimately, I’ve decided that writing smart lyrics is a good thing. If you ever worry that your lyrics are too advanced or artsy, here are three reasons why you shouldn’t:
1. The right listeners want to learn and think.
Sure, there are people who hear one advanced vocabulary word or unfamiliar historical reference and never want to listen to your songs again. But are those people really the fans you want? Most likely, if you’re writing smart lyrics, you want to play for smart listeners, too.
Believe it or not, as a child I was much more interested in sports and outdoor activities than reading. I’ll admit that I learned several pretty simple vocabulary words from Green Day songs (“apathy” was among them), and that I didn’t know who Howard Hughes was until I heard the song about him by Rasputina.
That’s the thing about smart people: no matter what our background, we’re curious and interested in learning. Though I wasn’t an intellectual at all (yet), I wanted to understand what my favorite artists were singing about, even if it confused me at first, and I was always happy when I learned something new. The right listeners will feel the same way about your songs.
2. We have enough fluff.
If you’re looking for music with a catchy melody or a great beat, you’ll have no trouble. Turn on any top 40 radio station, and you’ll find a wide selection of fun, danceable songs.
And usually, these songs are lacking in the lyrics department. It can be a struggle to find artists who craft their lyrics carefully and intelligently. Of course, there are some well-known examples of smart songwriters (some of my personal favorites are Regina Spektor, Ani Difranco, and Fiona Apple), but still, it’s much easier to find something upbeat and lyrically empty than it is to find well-written and thought provoking songs.
We have enough fluff. There’s a whole market of listeners who want to hear music with more intelligence and depth, but they’re having trouble finding it. Your well-written lyrics will make these listeners very, very happy!
3. People don’t listen to your lyrics anyway!
It’s sad, but true: most people don’t pay attention to lyrics. Most people fall in love with songs because of the music and can forgive a lot in the lyrics. If they love the music enough, they’ll listen to lyrics they don’t understand or relate to, that offend them, or that sound sloppy and awkward.
Even I, who usually value quality lyrics above all else, have fallen in love with songs with sub par lyrics. I’ve loved early Beatles songs pretty much since birth, but there’s no denying that songs like “I Saw Her Standing There“ and “All My Loving” are not exactly lyrical genius.
Before you despair about how little people appreciate lyrics, think about the freedom it gives you. You can reference books known only to an elite circle of scholars or use metaphors that require a PhD in biology to understand, and most people won’t notice or care. As long as your song is solid musically, people will love it.
Of course, if you’re like me, the fans you most want to attract are the reflective, intellectual types who enjoy well-crafted lyrics that make them think. But I think it’s OK if some listeners value different aspects of our music than we do. If some people like my music purely for the melodies or the cello lines, I’m still happy – I’m just glad it speaks to them and they want to hear more!
Do you ever worry that your lyrics are too intellectual and inaccessible? Tell me about it in the comments!
Or, if any of your favorite artists are a brilliant lyricists, leave their name and your favorite song by them in the comments! I love discovering new music!by