lenten journal: rhymes and reasons


    A friend of mine is taking a song writing class. I talked to her today, interrupting her homework, and she told me her assignment was to write a song full of clichés. The dictionary says a cliché is “a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse,” which means the problem is not with the word or phrase in and of itself, but with the fact that it once was so original and true that we used it to death.

    The problem for songwriters is there are only so many words and so many rhymes. Once a good one is found, it is almost destined to become a cliché – other than my favorite lines from Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl”:

    I feel so dirty when they start talking cute
    Wanna tell her that I love but the point is probably moot.

    The great songwriters of the Forties and Fifties could rhyme like nobody’s business (yep, that’s one): inside rhymes, circular rhymes, exact rhymes. Still, thanks to them, no self-respecting songwriter is going to rhyme moon and June with a straight face. It’s a beautiful rhyme, once full of possibilities, and it has lost its originality by overuse. Even though I like Vanessa Williams, her song, “Save the Best for Last,” is a good example of songwriters going to the same well once too often.

    sometimes the snow comes down in June
    sometimes the sun goes ’round the moon
    I see the passion in your eyes
    sometimes it’s all a big surprise

    cause there was a time when all I did was wish
    you’d tell me this was love
    it’s not the way I hoped or how I planned
    but somehow it’s enough

    and now we’re standing face to face
    isn’t this world a crazy place
    just when I thought our chance had passed
    you go and save the best for last

    The melody is romantic, her voice is beautiful, and the song has nothing new to say other than David Foster, who produced the record, knew a hit when he heard one. Of course, there are some songwriters – OK, one: John Prine – who can turn a who handful of clichés into a song by using them on purpose. I give you “Big Old Goofy World.”

    Up in the morning
    Work like a dog
    Is better than sitting
    Like a bump on a log
    Mind all your manners
    Be quiet as a mouse
    Some day you’ll own a home
    That’s as big as a house

    I know a fella
    he eats like a horse
    knocks his old balls
    round the old golf course
    you oughta see his wife
    she’s a cute little dish
    she smokes like a chimney
    and drinks like a fish

    there’s a big old goofy man
    dancing with a big old goofy girl
    ooh baby
    it’s a big old goofy world

    now Elvis had a woman
    with a head like a rock
    I wished I had a woman
    that made my knees knock
    she’d sing like an angel
    and eat like a bird
    and if I wrote a song
    she’d know ever single word

    kiss a little baby
    give the world a smile
    if you take an inch
    give ’em back a mile
    cause if you lie like a rug
    and you don’t give a damn
    you’re never gonna be
    as happy as a clam

    so I’m sitting in a hotel
    trying to write a song
    my head is just as empty
    as the day is long
    why it’s clear as a bell
    I should have gone to school
    I’d be wise as an owl
    stead of stubborn as a mule

    there’s a big old goofy man
    dancing with a big old goofy girl
    ooh baby
    it’s a big old goofy world

    Prine’s sense of humor and irony fills the clichés with some new life. There’s more going on than just the words. Long overuse doesn’t automatically turn a word or phrase (or a song) into a cliché. Sing along if you like:

    amazing grace how sweet the sound
    that saved a wretch like me
    I once was lost but now am found
    was blind but now I see

    The rhymes are old, perhaps even obvious, the song used at most every occasion from family reunions to film soundtracks to funerals, and still their familiarity calls up something other than tired; it connects to memory. For most. I’m sure there are those who hear this hymn as clichéd as Vanessa’s song, which leads to my question.

    How do we keep the words and phrases that matter to us from becoming clichés?

    I should define “we.” I don’t mean it in a giant, cultural, what’s-going-to-go-in-the-dictionary kind of sense. I mean we, as in family, or partners, or spouses, or friends, or congregations. It seems to me that there is a fine line between ritual (meaningful and intentional repetition) and cliché (meaningless from repetition). When we sing, for instance,

    praise God from whom all blessings flow
    praise God all creatures here below
    praise God above ye heavenly host
    Creator Christ and Holy Ghost

    are we engaging in ritual, or are we repeating a well-worn cliché?

    One of the ways the words don’t get tired, I suppose, is to keep asking the question because the answer may not always be the same, even for the same group of people. What do we have to do to infuse the familiarity of our well-worn words and phrases with the tenacity of the truth they hold and the courage and comfort of the faith to which they call us?

    I love to tell the story for those who know it best
    seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest
    and when in scenes of glory I sing a new new song
    will be the old old story that I have loved so long

    When it comes to songwriting lessons, perhaps rhymes do get tired and worn. But then again:

    prone to wander Lord I feel it
    prone to leave the God I love
    here’s my heart O take and seal it
    Seal it for thy courts above

    Perhaps it’s not so much the words as the hearts and minds that grow weary.



    1. Very interesting question, Milton. I think it has something to do with the melodies with which the words are paired. Earworms create cliches.

      It’s a fine line, though–most hymn tunes started as things that people just sang while they were walking around, and they’ve worn much better than most pop music.

      It’s also about, as you said, “saying something new.” Picking a different word than moon or June…or using them in a different way than what’s expected. Gotta turn the prism just a little bit and let different light refract the thought.

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