Why Does Lyric Craft Matter?
The creative puzzle really only has two pieces, Inspiration and Craft, and the latter is the much larger piece
I remember, years ago, watching Diane Sawyer interviewing the brilliant composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim and seeing her shock when he mentioned that he used a rhyming dictionary. She seemed to find it somehow disappointing that the great man didn't just sit down and wait for wave after wave of pure creative genius to pour out of him, unbidden. Sondheim smiled broadly and went on to explain the many practical benefits.
Another god unveiled? No, but another songwriting myth shattered!
We all have flashes of inspiration. Most often they come to us in bits and pieces--an image here, a couplet there, or perhaps we see the overall concept of a song take its shape. But then the real work begins. It's time to weave our ideas into a coherent and effective whole.
The creative puzzle really only has two pieces, Inspiration and Craft. And in my experience, craft is the much larger piece.
We've all heard songs that don't work. In many cases they are 100% inspiration while being 100% craft-free. These are the songs that are stream-of-consciousness, soul-spilling messes, by singer-songwriters who believe that what they have to say is so incredibly important that to bother applying craft would befoul its brilliance. Only problem is, these songs do not engage us and seldom hold meaning for anyone other than their creators.
Other failures are the songs with seemingly no inspiration at all. Again, they do not engage us because they seem to have been created by committee and market research. These are cases of 100% craft--and not necessarily good craft. Think the evanescent pap that major labels hire corporate production teams to pump out for what remains of hit radio.
Our responsibility as competent songwriters is to find the proper balance of craft and inspiration for each song, in order to imbue the work with the qualities that make it engaging, satisfying, and ultimately successful.
In the end, it is often craft that pushes a good song into the realm of greatness. The classic lyricists of the Great American Songbook era, as well as modern-day luminaries such as Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, all have made exquisite use of craft to lift their own personal expression into the sphere of enduring universal appeal.
And so we approach the work of adding lyrical craft to our songs not as a job but as a pleasure, as a puzzle to be solved, a joy to be discovered. And we have at our disposal so many ways to do so! Structure, Rhyme, Prosody, Arc, Hooks, Imagery, Voice, Tense... all are part of the stockpile of beautiful tools we use to create songs that entertain, illuminate, and enchant.