One of the most common problems/mistakes I run into – in my own songwriting and in other writers I work with – is what I call ‘throat clearing’ – starting the lyric with hemming and hawing about marginal things (clearing your throat) before really getting down to saying what you need to say. This can often take up the whole first verse. It’s a natural tendency, I think.
Anybody who’s spent some time around writing, their own and others, has observed this strong desire to NOT get to the point (it’s easier to see it in others, a lot harder to see in yourself, let’s face it). But I think that in any kind of storytelling – and particularly a highly condensed form such as songs – it’s usually best to get right to it. Unless of course there’s a strategy to taking a roundabout course – but, frankly, that’s more the exception than the rule.
It’s really interesting to me how often the first verse can sometimes be cut altogether… and it only helps the song. Of course the ability to cut big portions of one’s own writing, which of course you’re attached to, is one of the more refined writing skills – a lot of us never get there; it’s hard. Because sometimes that section, line, or lines can be my favorite in the song. And, on its own, it might even be the best thing in the song. But if it doesn’t serve the larger goal – SNIP! – it’s got to go.
The first verse is a one-time opportunity to throw the listener directly into the issue/personality/situation/problem of the song, to grab the listener. Some great examples:
His palms are sweaty
Knees weak, arms are heavy
There’s vomit on his sweater already
He’s nervous but on the surface
He looks calm and ready
I hold you in my arms as the band plays
What are those words whispered baby just as you turn away
I saw you last night out on the edge of town
I wanna read your mind and know just what Ive got in this new thing I’ve found
Start my day up on the roof
There’s nothing like this type of view
Point the clicker at the tube
I prefer expensive news
New car, new girl
New ice, new glass
New watch, good times babe
It’s good times, yeah
She wash my back three times a day
This shower head feels so amazing
We’ll both be high, the help don’t stare
They just walk by, they must don’t care
A million one, a million two
A hundred more will never do
To summarize, there’s two sides to this. One is to be aware of the opportunity that the first verse (and particularly the opening line) gives us; not to be squandered. Second is to look out for ‘throat clearing’ – first lines or verses where we’re just marking time before we get down to the real business of the particular song.
Lose Yourself (lyrics – Eminem)
Brilliant Disguise (Bruce Springsteen)
Super Rich Kids (Frank Ocean)