What can 15 great songwriters teach a web copywriter?

February 8, 2011 •
Songwriter copywriter

Pssst. Don’t tell any of my prospective clients, but I reckon some of the best copywriting lessons come from songwriters. It’s not surprising, really, when you think about it. After all, it’s their job to engage listeners, and to compel them to buy.

So I thought I’d list some of my favorite songwriters and discuss the lessons they could teach a web copywriter. (This list is ordered alphabetically by surname, not by preference.)

I’ve chosen some songwriters who are great at capturing and invoking emotion, with just lyrics (as opposed to music and lyrics). Sometimes it’s the story told by a whole song, sometimes the image conjured by a single metaphor or a clever turn of phrase.

Note that although this is quite a long post, I’ve omitted many deserving songwriters. It would have taken me far too long to discuss them all. In fact, this post has been about 2 years in the writing, because I hated the idea of omitting favorites, but found the idea of including and discussing everyone so daunting.

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts. Feel free to discuss my points or suggest other songwriters in comments.

1) James Blunt

Song: Goodbye My Lover
(Read full lyrics & watch video…)

Lyrics:

I’ve seen you cry, I’ve seen you smile.
I’ve watched you sleeping for a while.
I’d be the father of your child.
I’d spend a lifetime with you.
I know your fears and you know mine.
We’ve had our doubts but now we’re fine,
And I love you, I swear that’s true.
I cannot live without you.

Lesson for a web copywriter: Crying, smiling, sleeping, children, fears, doubts… Ordinary, everyday things bring us closer when shared. Blunt’s lament feels authentic because he uses little concepts we can all relate to, to capture the big concepts of love and heartbreak. Sure to strike a chord with anyone who’s ever been heartbroken.

2) Jeff Buckley

Song: Lover, You Should’ve Come Over
(Read full lyrics & watch video…)

Lyrics:

Too young to hold on, and too old to just break free and run.
Sometimes a man gets carried away, when he feels like he should be having his fun.
And much too blind to see the damage he’s done.
Sometimes a man must awake to find that really, he has no-one.

Lesson for a web copywriter: Maybe it’s just because I’ve been in this position, myself, but Jeff’s raw honesty here always strikes a chord with me. I like how he paints a picture of being a victim of his own immaturity, yet still accepts responsibility by admitting  to being blind and doing damage (he positions himself as the actor). Of course, it’s no mean feat to manage four rhyming lines without compromising the heartbreaking sentiment of the song, either.

3) Bernard Fanning (of Powderfinger)

Song: The Day You Come
(Read full lyrics & watch video…)

Lyrics:

Vision is rejected.
The people’s choice is tested.
So ignorance has won.

Over-population.
Media sensation.
The damage has been done.

Lessons for a web copywriter: Simple wording reflects Fanning’s (and many others’) belief that an unquestionable and unfathomable mistake had been made by Australian voters when they re-elected John Howard as Prime Minister in 1998. In other words, there’s no need for complicated political talk to understand the mistake.

4) Ben Folds (of Ben Folds Five)

Song: Fred Jones Pt. 2
(Read full lyrics & watch video…)

Lyrics:

Fred gets his paints out and goes to the basement.
Projecting some slides onto a plain white
canvas and traces it,
fills in the spaces.
He turns off the slides, and it doesn’t look right.
Yeah
And all of these bastards
have taken his place.
He’s forgotten
but not yet gone.
And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones.
And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones.
And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones.
It’s time.

Lessons for a web copywriter: Ben Folds uses visual imagery to capture Fred’s sense of dislocation and abandonment, after being retired from his job of 25 years. Again, as James Blunt does, he employs the everyday to invoke big emotions.

5) Tim Freedman (of The Whitlams)

Song: Charlie No.1
(Read full lyrics & watch video…)

Lyrics:

You might be unworthy,
but you remember what I remember,
and that’s enough to care,
you don’t fall off the rails.

Lessons for a web copywriter: The line, “you remember what I remember” is more than just interesting phrasing. Freedman could have said “we grew up together” or “we have history” or “we were once best friends”, but by focusing on memory, he explicitly calls on the act of reminiscence. This more effectively invokes sentimentality and melancholy. (For the record, this song is full of excellent writing. I highly recommend you read the lyrics.)

6) Ben Harper

Song: Another Lonely Day
(Read full lyrics & watch video…)

Lyrics:

And here comes emptiness crashing in.

Lessons for a web copywriter: I’d never have thought to describe emptiness as crashing in. But that’s exactly how true loneliness feels. The clever metaphor conveys the terrible, elemental, overwhelming power of loneliness.

7) Bill Joel

Song: Piano Man
(Read full lyrics & watch video…)

Lyrics:

He says, son, can you play me a memory?
I’m not really sure how it goes.
But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete,
when I wore a younger man’s clothes.

Lessons for a web copywriter: What better way to describe an old, meaningful song than as a memory? And what better way to convey the old man’s sadness at the loss of his youth than with the loss of a song that was once so meaningful? Finally, what better way to capture the elusive feeling of aging than as simply a change of clothes?

8) John Lennon

Song: Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)
(Read full lyrics & watch video…)

Lyrics:

Before you cross the street,
take my hand.
Life is just what happens to you
while you’re busy making other plans.

Lessons for a web copywriter: For me, these lines are two of John Lennon’s best. They’re proof that simple works best, even — or perhaps especially — for complex, powerful concepts. As a web copywriter, you’ll sometimes hear clients say things like, “But it seems so… simple. Are we dumbing it down too much? Shouldn’t we sell it more? Shouldn’t we say more?” If John Lennon teaches us anything, it’s that we should always strive to say less. As copywriter Amanda Gonzalez says, “Good copy is admired. Great copy isn’t even noticed.” And that’s just fine with me.

9) Marilyn Manson (and Twiggy Ramirez)

Song: The Beautiful People
(Read full lyrics & watch video…)

Lyrics:

And I don’t want you and I don’t need you.
Don’t bother to resist, or I’ll beat you.
It’s not your fault that you’re always wrong.
The weak ones are there to justify the strong.
The beautiful people, the beautiful people.
It’s all relative to the size of your steeple.
You can’t see the forest for the trees.
You can’t smell your own shit on your knees.

Lessons for a web copywriter: You might be surprised to see Marilyn Manson’s name in this list. But hear me out. I’m not saying he’s a modern-day John Lennon (nor am I saying he’s not); I don’t know enough of his work to offer comment in that respect. But what I do know is that with this song, he proves he really knows his audience: disenfranchised youth. He manages to combine anger and rebellion with political commentary. (This time anti-capitalism and anti-apathy.) Devices include first person (“I’ll beat you”), rhythm (there’s a chanting feel to it) and expletives. Message-wise, he invites his audience to view the target of his derision with condescension (“It’s not your fault”), frustration (“You can’t see the forest…”) and disgust (“You can’t smell…”).

10) Don McLean

Song: Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)
(Read full lyrics & watch video…)

Lyrics:

Now I understand what you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
how you tried to set them free.
They would not listen, they did not know how.
Perhaps they’ll listen now.

Lessons for a web copywriter: By writing retrospectively, McLean effectively captures the tragedy of understanding too late. He also personalizes the message, talking directly to van Gough, which bridges the time gap. Both of these strategies make the message more relevant. And he presents Vincent as selfless, misunderstood, long-suffering and, above all, correct, so we feel sympathy, regret and respect.

11) George Michael

Song: Mother’s Pride
(Read full lyrics & watch video…)

Lyrics:

And as he grows,
he hears the band,
and takes the step from boy to man.
At the shore she waves her son goodbye,
like the man she did before.
Mother’s pride,
just a boy,
His country’s eyes
he’s a soldier waving at the shore.
And in her heart the time has come
to lose a son.

Lessons for a web copywriter: Juxtaposition of perspectives (the young man seen through both his mother’s eyes and his country’s eyes) and the simple fatalism of the last two lines illustrate the tragedy of sending anyone to war, and the helplessness of those left behind.

12) Ian Moss (of Cold Chisel)

Song: Bow River
(Read full lyrics & watch video…)

Lyrics:

I been working hard, twelve hours a day,
and the money I saved won’t buy my youth again.
Goin’ for the heat babe, and a tropical rain,
in a place where no man’s puttin’ on the dog for me.
Waitin’ on the weekend, set o’ brand new tyres,
and back in Bow River’s just where I want to be.

Lessons for a web copywriter: Like Marilyn Manson, Ian Moss knows his audience. He’s able to strike a true chord with the Australian working class, by successfully combines youthful romanticism, escapism, contempt for authority, slang and metaphor.

13) Harry Nilsson

Song: Without You
(Read full lyrics and LISTEN to song…)

Lyrics:

No, I can’t forget this evening,
or your face as you were leaving,
but I guess that’s just the way the story goes.
You always smile but in your eyes your sorrow shows.
Yes, it shows.

Lessons for a web copywriter: I’m struggling to put my finger on the lesson here. I’ve always been a Harry Nilsson fan. My parents listened to him a lot when I was growing up. So I’m not sure if his lyrics grab me simply through my own sentimentality. But I think there’s more to it than that. Maybe it’s because it’s so direct? Or because he “can’t forget” (we all know what that feels like!). Maybe it’s the fatalism of the third line. Maybe it’s HER sorrow that grabs me. And the fact that she’s trying to be — or at least appear — happy. We’ve all been there, and it’s tough. Your thoughts?

14) Kasey Chambers

Song: Not Pretty Enough
(Read full lyrics & watch video…)

Lyrics:

Am I not pretty enough?
Is my heart too broken?
Do I cry too much?
Am I too outspoken?
Don’t I make you laugh?
Should I try it harder?
Why do you see right through me?

Lessons for a web copywriter: Rarely do people ask the real questions (or at least what they think are the real questions). In advertising, as in life, this can be a great way of engaging your audience. Especially when you make it clear you really want the answers (however much they’ll pain you to hear). But, to me, the power of this verse goes beyond the questions. Its power lies in Kasey’s total internalization of blame. She suggests six possible reasons for ‘his’ disinterest. And they’re all her.

15) Steve Gibb

Song: She Believes In Me (recorded by Kenny Rogers)
(Read full lyrics & watch video…)

Lyrics:

While she lays waiting, I stumble to the kitchen for a bite.
Then I see my old guitar in the night.
Just waiting for me like a secret friend, and there’s no end.
While she lays crying, I fumble with a melody or two.
And I’m torn between the things that I should do.
And she says to wake her up when I am through.
God her love is true.
And she believes in me.
I’ll never know just what she sees in me.
I told her someday if she was my girl,
I could change the world
with my little songs. I was wrong.

Lessons for a web copywriter: Kenny Rogers has a knack for telling everyday stories that resonate, and this Gibb story is perfect for him. I chose this particular one ‘coz it resonates with me*. (Indeed, this song reminds me so much of my wife that it’s made me cry more than once.) Stories resonate equally well in copy as in music. They are, in fact, the fundamental ingredient in some of the world’s most successful ads and sales letters. E.g. “They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano. But When I Began to Play!” The trick is to pick the story that will ring true with your audience. Beyond the story, though, there are some pretty clever writing tactics. Gibb knows full well the impact of his behavior. He makes this clear by using her behavior as the context for his own: “As she lays waiting…”, “While she lays crying…” Also, I find the rhyme within the third line (“friend” and “end”) highlights the poignancy and loneliness of that final clause “and there’s no end”. I could go on here: simple rhyme… conjunctions starting sentences… his “secret” guitar friend (personified)… honesty… But I won’t.

* I’m no musician, but I’m a business owner who’s spent way, way too much time in the office. I’m often drawn out to the computer in the dead of night (I work from home), much to my wife’s frustration. It can be lonely.

Special Mentions: David Gray & Neil Finn

I really wanted to include David Gray and Neil Finn in this list. They’re two of my favorite songwriters (definitely in the top 5). Their songs always grab me. But after listening and listening, I came to the conclusion that their lyrics are often just too ambiguous to offer any direct lessons to a web copywriter. Sure it’s great that we — the listeners — can easily ascribe our own meaning to them, but for web copy, I think you need to provide a little more direction than that.

And those lyrics that aren’t ambiguous are quite simple, and it’s the combination of lyrics, music and vocals that draw me in.

Of course, I’d be more than happy to be talked around on this issue, so please feel free to disagree!

Conclusion

When did you last use the everyday in your copy — the little things? Or metaphor, open honesty or simple, elemental wording? Reminiscence? Fatalism? Slang, profanity (yes, profanity!), contrast, or storytelling?

I know I can learn some lessons from these great writers.

Thoughts?

Feel free to comment...
comment avatar
shotz print wrote on February 8th, 2011

Very well written. I cant say I draw exactly the same conclusions. I think song hit different notes in all of us depending on our backgrounds. But the lessons you have drawn certainly do span any gaps in life experience that people may have. Ill be re-thinking my next piece. Thanks for a great article. Cheers Steve

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Amanda Gonzalez wrote on February 8th, 2011

What a fascinating post, G. No wonder it took you two years to craft. This is exactly what makes you such an extraordinary copywriter; lessons are everywhere, and it takes a true professional to see - and learn - from them. And thanks for the mention :-)

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Paul Leonard wrote on February 8th, 2011

A thought-provoking post. And it’s true, there’s so much to be learned from the best songwriters. I guess we all have our favourite songs and lyrics. Personally, I love The Jam – Paul Weller was a very angry young man in the 70s and that fuelled some incredibly visceral, emotive and evocative songs. ‘That’s Entertainment’ and ‘Down in the tube station at midnight’ spring to mind, both excellent examples of how to draw on the senses to tell a story and engage listeners (and advertising audiences). The Jam – 1978 Down in the tube station at midnight “I first felt a fist, and then a kick I could now smell their breath They smelt of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs And too many right wing meetings My life swam around me It took a look and drowned me in its own existence The smell of brown leather It blended in with the weather It filled my eyes, ears, nose and mouth It blocked all my senses Couldn't see, hear, speak any longer”

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Glenn Murray wrote on February 8th, 2011

Hey @shotz. Yeah, that's the fun thing about interpreting songs, eh? I remember I used to have a debate with a girl at work about the meaning of Live's 'Lightning Crashes': http://www.sing365.com/music/lyric.nsf/lightning-crashes-lyrics-live/033d7cbb03147fbf482568c60031c45a. @Amanda, thanks for that. You're too kind. To be honest, I don't make some effort to go looking for copywriting lessons. Like most readers of this blog, I'm sure, I naturally listen to the words of everything, and always deconstruct everything. That's why I can't have music on when I'm writing. @Paul, wow, that is an angry verse. I watched a live performance of the song, and read the lyrics. He captured the gritty reality of that violence very effectively, didn't he? I certainly had no trouble empathising with him!

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Shae wrote on February 8th, 2011

Wow what a great post. That is so true. I was enrolled in a weekend writing group last year and there were a wide variety of writers from songwriters to short story tellers. Anyway the songwriter used to come in with her guitar and sing her own songs. Incredible lyrics with great depth - she had us all mesmerised. Our tutor discussed a lot of songs and the songwriting process especially the likes of Bob Dylan. It made for a well-rounded writing group (I was the only blogger). I am enrolling again in April. As a female I sure have related and replayed Kasey Chambers song over and over...

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Glenn Murray wrote on February 8th, 2011

@Shae, that sounds like a fun group to be a part of. Love those sorts of experiences. It's like being at a party where someone pulls out a guitar and starts singing their own lyrics.

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Emma Lovelly wrote on February 9th, 2011

Well done sir! Such great insight and vision to be able to see past the melody, past the basic lyrics and get the message. I love your interpretation and deep analysis. KISS prinsicple applies- keep it simple. I'm constantly over contemplating- less is more. And honesty, in the end, is the best policy- but it doesn't have to be right up in your face and loud. re: Nilsson with out you- It is a sorrow filled song. It makes you understand what it's like to be the person who may have hurt someone. The word sorrow, and the sense of regret is portrayed well.

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Susan Lambe wrote on February 9th, 2011

Great post! The magic of music and lyrics is like no other. The simple elegance of capturing raw human emotion in just a few words is a special gift. Good Songwriting encapsulates much of what we strive for in all types of writing: delivering a clear, concise message; knowing and understanding the audience; and crafting the message accordingly to make a real connection. I wouldn't even know where to start on a similar post. Off the top of my head, check out Dave Matthews Band, Claire Bowditch, Sarah Blasko, Stephanie Doesn, the Finn Brothers (who you've already acknowledged), The Waifs, Brisbane songwriter Hailey Calvert ... Thanks for a thought provoking piece. It's really got me thinking ... May even have a crack at my own! Cheer Susan

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Glenn Murray wrote on February 9th, 2011

@Emma, why thank you! I have great respect for these (and many other) songwriters. I started this post a long, long time ago, and have been dying to finish it. @Susan, well said. I'll definitely check out the songwriters you mentioned. I have The Waifs' live album, and it's excellent. Most of its tracks are on my 'Ballads / Singer-Songwriter (Modern)' iTunes playlist. (Anyone know if you can share a playlist? The track names, not the source.) Re the Finn brothers, there was a great SBS doco a coupla years back, called 'Great Australian Albums', where Neil talked about his relationship with Tim and the politics of his entry into Split Enz and the Split Enz-Crowded House transition. A real insight. You can watch it on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/user/GreatAusAlbums#p/u. There are 2 Crowded House vids in the series, it appears. BTW, I figured out (belatedly) some of what Neil Finn and David Gray can teach us, too. How to combine simple, memorable phrasing, with emotive, sometimes ambiguous, phrasing. The former draws us in, and prompts us to think about the latter. I think there's only limited application for that in mainstream commercial copywriting, but it's worthy of consideration, nonetheless. There are so many songwriters I would like to have included. Like Sarah McLachlan, Beeb Birtles, Graeham Goble (the core songwriters from LRB -- check out their live performance http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2P1k5srObYs), Richard Ashcroft (of The Verve, 'Bittersweet Symphony' & 'Sonnet'), and... and... and... Grrr. Have to get some work done! Thanks for your comments so far!

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Ann wrote on February 10th, 2011

Thought-provoking post, Glenn. Messages received include knowing and relating to your audience and speaking a universal language. For me, the music is often more important than hearing the words. I mean that the voices and instruments meld together into a series of sounds that combine to communicate with me, rather than the instruments being there to help convey the words. But ideas to help writers develop their skills are great to have, thanks.

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Glenn Murray wrote on February 10th, 2011

Very true Ann. That's one of things that made this post so difficult to write. (The music component, I mean.)

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Keith wrote on February 10th, 2011

Good Songs, Great Post, I rarely read twitter posts... So you win again, GM You managed to hold my very short attention span... : )

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Glenn (Owner) wrote on February 10th, 2011

Thanks Keith. Glad to be of service!

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Rick Sloboda wrote on February 10th, 2011

Hey, Glenn — neat angle. Being a semi-retired musician (broken promises, broken dreams), I’ve spent some time in the studio, and have drawn some parallels between songwriting/recording and copywriting. For instance, when the band recorded a weak tune, we’d start layering it with countless tracks and effects to hide the weak foundation. People who write poor copy tend to add filler as well. The key message should be clear and concise, just like a great tune remains strong with only vocals and an acoustic guitar.

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Glenn (Owner) wrote on February 11th, 2011

@Rick, ain't that the truth!

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Shane Arthur wrote on February 21st, 2011

Outstanding. So glad I found this. Do 10 more of these and put it into a book.

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Glenn (Owner) wrote on February 21st, 2011

Thanks! You never know...

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Michael Field wrote on February 24th, 2011

Brilliant!

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Linda wrote on February 24th, 2011

I don't make it to the end of many posts; I click through to a lot though. I made it to the end here *and* wished for more. No doubt helped by the fact that many of the songwriters here are also my favourites, but also because your points are well made and relevant. I make it to the end of Amanda's posts every time too. I see a theme emerging. Could it be good copy...?!

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Glenn Murray wrote on February 25th, 2011

Thanks Michael & Linda. Linda, I make it to the end of Amanda's posts too. She sure can write!

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Johanna Baker-Dowdell wrote on February 25th, 2011

Glenn I've been thinking about and revisiting this post since you first wrote, wondering what I made of it all. I completely agree about the lessons derived from the songs and know the lyrics you listed very well (second generation compilation tape listener). Words are so powerful - whether written, sung or spoken - and you're right, the simplest are often the best. Thanks for the reminder. Johanna

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seo adviser wrote on May 25th, 2011

Remarkable. So glad That’s one of things that made this post so difficult to write

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What can 15 great songwriters teach a web copywriter? - Sandiya Solutions wrote on December 20th, 2012

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