In this monthly column, SongLyricist.com features illuminating song lyric evaluations and in-depth critiques of famous song lyricists.
This Lyricist of the Month lyric critique features the often humorous and always entertaining songwriting style of durable recording artist Jimmy Buffett.
At first glance, Buffett's lyric might appear to require little advanced method or formal structure. Yet, as writer Carla Starrett finds in this insightful lyric evaluation, Buffett is not only a disciplined songwriter — he's also a highly skilled song lyricist.
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Lyric of the Month
Experienced singers, songwriters, music publishers, contest judges and lyric-writing teachers all seek specific qualities in a song lyric.
These are some of lyrical aspects they look for: A compelling and effective Title/Hook, a clearly stated Story or Theme; Progression of Idea that’s logical and easy to understand; Rhyming that’s inventive and engaging; an effective lyric Structure that can be adapted to music; vivid and colorful Imagery; and a sense of Originality.
To illustrate some of these lyrical qualities, SongLyrict.com this month examines songwriter Jimmy Buffet's memorable lyric “Margaritaville.”
"Margaritaville" by Jimmy Buffett
Talk about setting a scene! The first three lines evoke taste, sight and smell. In three short lines, the lyricist lets us know the singer is living a marginal existence in a tropical “paradise.”
Note the inventive and clever rhymes (‘spongecake,’ ‘sunbake.’)
Now listeners learn he’s living lazily, playing music – and the sense of smell is vividly evoked. Note the metric consistency – these three lines mirror the first three exactly in syllable count and rhyme scheme.
In this lyric, the first line of the chorus is the “hook,” the important part of the song that that most listeners will remember and hum. A good hook is instantly memorable, and clearly serves as the title too.
Buffet’s hook line here is much more original and interesting than saying, “I’m sitting here drinking too much.” There is also lightheartedness, an endearing refusal to take oneself too seriously, in the term “Margaritaville,” which offsets the downbeat but definitely self-aware “wasting away.”
Searching for my lost shaker of salt
Again, a specific and memorable image that illustrates the emotional state he's in. The audience can see him clearly in their minds, stumbling about, seeking this common household object to mix his drink.
claim that there's a woman to blame
Notice that the chorus has a very different rhyme scheme and metric scheme. This structural strategy provides a refreshing contrast between the two sections, and the chorus stands out distinctively from the verses.
Publishers strongly favor a chorus that's repeated without change – it not only ties the song together, but sticks in the listener’s mind, and can even be sung along by audiences. In this particular song, the very last line is changed slightly, to great effect and for good reason, as we’ll see by the end of the lyric.
This is “conversational” lyric writing, which feels natural and is highly effective. These phrases sound like the singer is chatting to you while you sit together on his front porch. With the last line you can almost imagine him showing his arm or shoulder or belly as he speaks. The listeners immediately focus on the image of the brand-new tattoo, very specific and attention-grabbing.
a real beauty
What an arresting surprise at end of this verse! This is “showing” rather than simply “telling” what state he’s been in. How much more effective than writing something like “I have been so drunk all season that I can’t remember half of what happens!”
Note the progression in the last line of the chorus. As the singer talks to us (again in a very conversational tone) he begins to see things in a slightly different way. (Anyone who’s listened to a drunk talking will be familiar with this sort of progression in the monologue.)
Something happens, then something else happens – this is progression -- movement in the story line, an important element in songwriting. Again, specific, vivid images – flip-flops reinforce the tropical, laid-back lifestyle. Even a broken shoe and cut heel don’t hurry this guy up – he “cruises” back home in his alcoholic haze.
booze in the blender
The lyric snaps right back to the theme as the drunk’s attention snaps back to the booze that’s his anesthetic. “That frozen concoction” is a more interesting way to say “Margaritas that help me hang on.”
again in Margaritaville
Yes and some
people claim that there's a woman to blame
The last line, of course, is the real kicker – the moment of self-realization that the whole song has been leading to. In spite of the lazy tone, there is nothing static about this song. While describing his situation in vivid, specific and memorable images, the protagonist has been moving, step by step, toward the realization that “It’s my own damn fault.”
This is masterful lyric writing!
"Margaritaville" © Jimmy Buffet
Note: For song lyricists and songwriters seeking to develop their writing skills, SongLyricist.com recommends these Great Books For Song Lyricists & Songwriters.
Grammy-nominated songwriter Pamela Phillips-Oland’s "The Art of Writing Great Lyrics” explores lyric writing in one of the best books on the subject. So does Pat Pattison's outstanding "Writing Better Lyrics.” Both offer aspiring song lyricists an insider's overview of lyric writing and songwriting, plus excellent tips on song structure, creativity and song publishing.
Here's Another Great Tip for Song Lyricists! Click the banner below to check out the Lyrics Only category of the Great American Song Contest!
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