Songwriting: Lyrics Expiration Date?
mom says don’t forget / a good education
is one thing you’d have forever / besides that tattoo
hand me my cigarettes / she says / you’ve got to be patient
or you’ll end up with someone like daddy
and a kid that’s just like you
In “So Dark Out There Sometimes,” which I first recorded with The Buskers in 1999, the mother in the lyric–call her white trash if you will–berates her daughter for getting a tramp stamp. But when I recorded the song again with the Craig Jaster Trio in 2017, my wife mentioned in passing that these days it would be no big deal. In other words, it's a generation later, and the girl with the ink could now be the mom, who might even want to go get matching mother daughter tats. In other words, my lyrics might seem dated in today's landscape. So now when I sing it, I imagine it’s something about this particular tattoo that pisses mom off, like maybe it's the name of the girl's current boyfriend, who is nothing but trouble.
Other songs in my back catalog I just don't play any more, because I am dated, so to speak. For songs sung in the first person, one's age changes the perspective and the perception, in some cases pretty starkly. “My Girl’s Little Bed,” a pop song I wrote when I was 22, started off like this:
on a sunday night / the college is quiet
but there’s a little light that shines
from under the shade in her window
in the dormitory / she’s waiting up for me
and she’ll have new stories
to tell to me as we fall asleep tonight…
If I sang that now, it’s just… ewww. Creepy. Dirty old man sleeping with college girl. And peering under window shades. I am currently rewriting the song, without any college and dormitory context.
Much of the datedness of lyrics lies in our fast-changing society, especially its technology. Before email existed, let alone smartphones and texting, I wrote songs that referenced telephones as they once were. Here’s the opening verse to a song I wrote in 1984:
let the telephone ring / it can ring it can ring
it can ring ring ring ring ring / a thousand times
let the busy signal beep / it can beep it can beep
it can beep beep beep beep / beep beep, i don’t mind
get back my dime
Does anyone even know what I mean when I say, “get back my dime?” Yet in 1984 there was a pay phone every few blocks in Brooklyn where I lived. Another song on my new trio album and that The Buskers have also performed for years, used to end the opening verse with:
i’m getting used to living alone
come monday morning / the man will come and disconnect my phone
That just doesn’t speak to me any more, but I kept playing around with the lyric in performance, and eventually hit on this:
i’m getting used to living alone
nothing's quite the same / yes, there’s been some changes made
since you’ve been gone.
On the other hand, though pop songs by nature tend to be steeped in the cultural moment in which they are written (or why would they be popular?), some age well enough to become standards. I love old tunes. “Lulu’s Back In Town” was written in 1935, but I don’t sing it with a wink or irony:
Gotta get my old tuxedo pressed
Got to sew a button on my vest
‘Cause tonight I’ve got to look my best…
Damn! I just want to look good tonight! I’m not putting on a tuxedo, but I know exactly what lyricist Al Dubin is talking about. Singing a lyric is like acting in that regard; a good play can speak to us across time and place and cultural specifics. Shakespeare–the actors can be dressed in tights or tuxedos. I don’t care.
When a popular song arrives that, however briefly, captures the zeitgeist, it’s a powerful thing. I’m too old and off in my own world to even want to have aimed for that. But one day soon my lyrics will all be so archaic that maybe they can be enjoyed for their quaint, old-fashioned references to a time gone by.
One of my favorite pop songs is “Since First I Saw Your Face,” in Thomas Ford’s collection, Music of Sundrie Kindes. Some long-forgotten dude in 1607 knew something about love:
Since first I saw your face I resolved to honor and renown you
If now I be disdainéd I wish my heart had never known you
What, I that loved and you that liked, shall we begin to wrangle
No, no, no, my heart is fast and cannot disentangle
If I admire or praise you too much, that fault you may forgive me
Or if my hands had strayed but a touch, then justly you might leave me
I asked you leave, you bade me love, is now a time to chide me
No, no, no, I’ll love you still, what fortune ‘ere betide me
The sun whose beams most glorious are rejecteth no beholder
And your sweet beauty past compare made my poor heart the bolder
Where beauty moves and wit delights and signs of kindness bind me
There, oh there, where’er I go, I’ll leave my heart behind me.
No expiration date on that.