Jimmy Buffett

In this Lyric of the Month review, SongLyricist.com features the distinctive lyrical artistry of Jimmy Buffett.

After 35 years of songwriting success, Buffet is still at the top of his game as a highly original songwriter and legendary performer.





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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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Song Lyric of the Month
By Carla Starrett

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

Verse 1:
Nibblin’ on spongecake
Watchin the sun bake
All of those tourists covered with oil.

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.’)

Strummin' my six-string
On my front porch swing
Smell those shrimp they're beginnin' to boil

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.

Wastin' away again in Margaritaville

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.

Some people claim that there's a woman to blame
But I know it's nobody's fault

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.

Verse 2:
I don't know the reason
I stayed here all season
Nothin' to show but this brand new tattoo

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.

But it's a real beauty
A Mexican cutie
How it got here I haven't a clue

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!”

Wastin' away again in Margaritaville
Searchin' for my lost shaker of salt
Some people claim that there's a woman to blame
Now I think
Hell, it could be my fault

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.)

Verse 3:
I blew out my flip-flop
Stepped on a pop-top
Cut my heel had to cruise on back home

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.

But there's booze in the blender
And soon it will render
That frozen concoction that helps me hang on

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.”

Wastin' away again in Margaritaville
Searching for my lost shaker of salt
Some people claim that there's a woman to blame
But I know it's my own damn fault

Yes and some people claim that there's a woman to blame
And I know it's my own damn fault

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.


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