As a singer, I’ve been exposed to a lot of lyrics. I’ve also composed a few parody lyrics in my time, so I know how hard they are to write. I’m a fan of Taylor Swift. She has her share of haters, whom I suspect are jealous of her enormous success at such a young age. They rip her on many things that I will ignore in this post, but they also rip on her songwriting, on both subject-matter and technical grounds. When I got past simply reacting to her as a performer and started thinking critically about her songs and especially their lyrics, I did too, not without reason. But I’ve decided to cut her a break.
What are technical grounds for criticizing lyrics? Well, consider the start of “Love Story,” for which Swift is the sole credited songwriter:
[Verse] We were both young when I first saw you
I close my eyes and the flashback starts
I’m standing there on a balcony in summer air.
See the lights, see the party, the ball gowns
See you make your way through the crowd and say hello
Little did I know
That you were Romeo, you were throwing pebbles
And my daddy said, “Stay away from Juliet”
And I was crying on the staircase, begging you please don’t go
And I said
[Refrain] “Romeo, take me somewhere we can be alone
I’ll be waiting, all that’s left to do is run
You’ll be the prince and I’ll be the princess
It’s a love story, baby just say yes.”
What’s the idea of the song? There were obstacles to their love, but together they overcame them. She invokes Romeo and Juliet and The Scarlet Letter, but it seems she was doodling lyrics instead of paying attention in the English class when the teacher went over the meaning of those works. As a writer, she had already used the image of throwing pebbles at a window in several songs; here she didn’t even complete the thought.
If you speak the words (or listen to her sing them), their rhythm is pretty good; you won’t trip over them. No problem there. But we expect conventional pop songs to rhyme. Where are the rhymes? I’ve boldfaced the few I can find in this excerpt. The lyric is blank verse until the end of a section. I don’t think that was a design choice; looking through her other songs for a suitable example, I kept finding lazy rhymes or no rhymes at all. That bothered me.
What’s the big deal? I already said songwriting is hard. What can you do? If you want to talk about the craft of writing lyrics, you must start with Stephen Sondheim, as both its leading practitioner and leading theorist. He composed music and lyrics for “Company,” “Follies,” “Sweeney Todd,” and many more. He has also written extensively on the subject of composition in Finishing the Hat (2010) and Look, I Made a Hat (2011). To Sondheim, the best lyrics make sense for the character singing them; they advance the plot or tell a story; they scan (that is, they follow a steady, measured rhythm); and, as exactly as possible, they rhyme. (An exact rhyme, such as “moon”/”June,” is called a perfect rhyme.) Particularly with scansion and rhyme, anything less is a weakness, a laziness, that can trip up both the singer and the audience.
No living composer is more precise and correct than Sondheim. Consider the first verse of “Now,” the opening song from “A Little Night Music” (1973). It is sung by a lawyer contemplating making love to his very young, inexperienced bride. He considers making his move with lawyerly logic and a torrent of words:
Now, as the sweet imbecilities tumble so lavishly onto her lap,
Now, there are two possibilities: A, I could ravish her, B, I could nap.
Say it’s the ravishment, then we see the option that follows, of course:
A, the deployment of charm, or B, the adoption of physical force.
Now, B might arouse her, but if I assume
I trip on my trouser leg crossing the room…
Her hair getting tangled, her stays getting snapped,
My nerves would be jangled, my energy sapped…
Removing her clothing would take me all day,
And her subsequent loathing would turn me away,
Which eliminates B and which leaves us with A.
(The song goes on and on like that. Eventually the lawyer talks himself out of trying to have sex with her and decides he might as well take the nap.)
Say (or listen to) these lines aloud and you’ll hear how well they scan (in three-quarter time—every song in “A Little Night Music” is a waltz). Every rhyme but one (“lavishly”/”ravish her”) is a perfect rhyme. The lines are easy to punctuate as complete thoughts. Further, in the verse Sondheim adheres not just to a single rhyme scheme, at the end of lines, but a triple rhyme scheme, with three rhymes in each pair of lines! Sondheim says the listener may not consciously notice interior rhymes, but they speed the song along and help the listener to remember it. (Believe me, it helps the performer remember as well!) You can’t miss these rhymes. Finally, when I try my hand at lyrics, I often have to put in throwaway lines to set up a rhyme or a joke; this lyric has very little fat (save perhaps including “of course” to fill out the line and set up the rhyme “force”). Any singer—or writer—will recognize the marvelous craftsmanship.
Sondheim is widely considered at the pinnacle of composition skill. (Dare I say it? He’s the top, he’s the Mona Lisa.) But he’s not everybody’s cup of tea; some find him, like a naked lawyer, a bit chilly and overly verbal. I offer an example by another good Broadway practitioner, Stephen Schwartz. The composer of “Pippin” and “Wicked” writes simpler, warmer melodies and favors more amusing rhyme schemes, often involving multiple words. Consider the recitative and first verse of “Dancing Through Life” from “Wicked” (2003):
[Recitative] The trouble with schools is, they always try to teach the wrong lesson.
Believe me, I’ve been kicked out of enough of them to know.
They want you to become less callow, less shallow, but I say why invite stress in?
Stop studying strife and learn to live the unexamined life.
[Verse] Dancing through life, skimming the surface, gliding where turf is smooth
Life’s more painless for the brainless, why think too hard when it’s so soothing?
Dancing through life, no need to tough it when you can slough it off as I do
Nothing matters but knowing nothing matters; it’s just life, so keep dancing through.
(As an aside, I love this song because it works on three levels at once. It introduces and captures the raffish charm of the character Fiyero, who wins the heart of the leading lady; it foreshadows his transformation into the “brainless” Scarecrow; and its “dancing” theme is an homage to Ray Bolger, the headlining Broadway dancer who brought the Scarecrow to life in the 1939 movie.)
This song employs a different structure, but it still scans and rhymes correctly if less perfectly. (A recitative, or sung dialogue, doesn’t have to scan, but this recit rhymes.) It also has some internal rhymes. It isn’t as brilliant as “Now,” but then neither is the character. Instead of single-word rhymes, it amusingly rhymes groups of words, such as “lesson”/”stress in” (an approximate rhyme, but correct in American English) and “fraught less”/”thoughtless.”
(While I’m discussing amusing multi-word rhymes, here’s a random shout-out to Steve Martin, whose “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” nearly rhymes “born-agains sing ‘He is risen'” with “godless existentialism.” Hah!)
Having considered the giant of American musical theater, one of its leading current lights, and a really clever comic writer, what about poor Taylor? OK, she’s not as good. Drum me out of the fan club! But one must give her credit for writing many of her own songs when so many performers don’t every try. One must also consider that she wrote a #1 album of songs at age 19, whereas Sondheim wrote “A Little Night Music” at 43 and Schwartz wrote “Wicked” at 55. It’s unfair to compare her work at this point in her development with their work at full maturity. You never know: at 23, Lennon and McCartney were writing “she loves you, yeah yeah yeah,” and they went on to write some decent stuff. (But she should keep working at her craft: at 27 Sondheim wrote lyrics for “West Side Story”, and at 23 Schwartz wrote “Godspell.”) And remember, too, that Taylor is writing not Broadway scores but country music, where the conventions of song construction and performance are … looser.
Country singers deemphasize, or altogether drop, the final consonant of a sung line. Consider the first verse and the chorus of the Sugarland song “Settlin’” (credited to Jennifer Nettles, Kristian Bush, and Tim Owens):
[Verse] Fifteen minutes left to throw me together
For Mister Right Now, not Mister Forever;
Don’t know why I even try when I know how it ends,
Looking like another “maybe we could be friends.”
I’ve been leaving it up to fate
It’s my life, so it’s mine to make
[Refrain] I ain’t settlin’ for just getting by,
I’ve had enough so-so for the rest of my life;
Tired of shootin’ too low, so raise the bar high,
Just enough ain’t enough this time,
I ain’t settlin’ for anything less than everything.
These lyrics rolled right past me at first. But come to think of it, there are lots of extra words and syllables jammed in there (“mister” never fits the rhythm; sing along and you’ll mess up). And only “ends”/”friends” is a perfect rhyme; as for the rest, the best that three collaborators could come up with is “together”/”forever” and “fate”/”make.” And what about the refrain: “by”/”life”/”high”/”time” (I can’t credit “everything” as a rhyme at all)? Those are only rhymes if you don’t sing the final consonant (which, in country style, Jennifer Nettles pretty much doesn’t). I would have said Sondheim would call this rhyme scheme “not rhyming at all,” but I’m wrong: the technical term for rhyming just to the the last vowel is assonance.
If I take off my writer hat and consider the whole Taylor Swift package, I have to admit I’m picking nits (or throwing pebbles). Taken as a whole, is her music, to borrow a phrase from lyricist Margaret Roche, slick and affecting? It sure is! I like “Love Story;” I love the video; it tells a coherent story. Bottom line: I paid for that album, and others of hers besides. So there.
As a lyricist, Taylor Swift is no Sondheim, but then neither is anyone else. She is already very successful commercially. While her craft has a ways to go, her work product is in the mainstream of country music. And she’s getting better. Two years after “Love Story” she wrote “Mine,” which I like even more. It tells a very strong story, makes for a marveous and affecting video, and uses many approximate and some perfect rhymes. Progress!
To quote Rolling Stone, it’s enjoyable “watching Swift find her pony-footing on Great Songwriter Mountain. She often succeeds in joining the Joni/Carole King tradition of stark-relief emotional mapping … Her self-discovery project is one of the best stories in pop.” But I hope she invests in a rhyming dictionary soon!